The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (1992)

It is a failing of our species that we ignore and even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own. (p.294)

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 and pursued a long career in biology, specialising in myrmecology, the study of ants, about which he came to be considered the world’s leading expert, and about which he published a massive textbook as well as countless research papers.

As well as his specialist scientific writing, Wilson has also published a series of (sometimes controversial) books about human nature, on collaborative species of animal (which led him to conceive the controversial theory of sociobiology), and about ecology and the environment.

(They’re controversial because he considers humans as just another complex life form, whose behaviour is dictated almost entirely by genetics and environment, discounting our ability to learn or change: beliefs which are opposed by liberals and progressives who believe humans can be transformed by education and culture.)

The Diversity of Life was an attempt to give an encyclopedic overview of life on earth – the myriads of life forms which create the dazzlingly complicated webs of life at all levels and in all parts of our planet – and then to inform the reader about the doleful devastation mankind is wreaking everywhere – and ends with some positive suggestions about how to try & save the environment, and the staggering diversity of life forms, before it’s too late.

The book is almost 30 years old but still so packed with information that maybe giving a synopsis of each chapter would be useful.

Part one – Violent nature, resilient life

1. Storm over the Amazon An impressionistic memoir of Wilson camping in the rainforest amid a tropical storm, which leads to musings about the phenomenal diversity of life forms in such places, and beyond, in all parts of the earth, from the Antarctic Ocean to deep sea, thermal vents.

2. Krakatau A vivid description of the eruption of Krakatoa leads into an account of how the sterile smoking stump of island left after the explosion was swiftly repopulated with all kinds of life forms within weeks of the catastrophe and now, 130 years later, is a completely repopulated tropical rainforest. Life survives and endures.

3. The Great Extinctions If the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history can’t eliminate life, what can? Wilson explains the five big extinction events which the fossil record tells us about, when vast numbers of species were exterminated:

  • Ordovician 440 million years ago
  • Devonian 365 million years ago
  • Permian 245 million years ago
  • Triassic 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous 66 million years ago

The last of these being the one which – supposedly – wiped out the dinosaurs, although Wilson points out that current knowledge suggests that dinosaur numbers were actually dropping off for millions of years before the actual ‘event’, whatever that was (most scientists think a massive meteor hit earth, a theory originally proposed by Luis Alvarez in 1980).

Anyway, the key thing is that the fossil record suggests that it took between five and 20 million years after each of these catastrophic events for the diversity of life to return to something like its pre-disaster levels.

Part two – Biodiversity rising

4. The Fundamental Unit A journey into evolutionary theory which quickly shows that many of its core concepts are deeply problematic and debated. Wilson clings to the notion of the species as the fundamental unit, because it makes sense of all biology –

A species is a population whose members are able to interbreed freely under natural conditions (p.36)

but concedes that other biologists give precedence to other concepts or levels of evolution, for example the population, the deme, or focus on genetics.

Which one you pick depends on your focus and priorities. The ‘species’ is a tricky concept to define, with the result that many biologists reach for subspecies (pp.58-61).

And that’s before you examine the record chronologically i.e. consider lineages of animals which we know stretch back for millions of years: at what point did one species slip into another? It depends. It depends what aspects you choose to focus on – DNA, or mating rituals, or wing length or diet or location.

The message is that the concepts of biology are precise and well-defined, but the real world is far more messy and complicated than, maybe, any human concepts can really fully capture.

5. New Species Wilson details all the processes by which new species have come about, introducing the concept of ‘intrinsic isolating mechanisms’, but going on to explain that these are endless. Almost any element in an environment, an organisms’s design or DNA might be an ‘isolating mechanism’, in the right circumstances. In other words, life forms are proliferating, mutating and changing constantly, all around us.

The possibility for error has no limit, and so intrinsic isolating mechanisms are endless in their variety. (p.51)

6. The forces of evolution Introduces us to a range of processes, operating at levels from genetics to entire populations, which drive evolutionary change, including:

  • genetic mutation
  • haploidy and diploidy (with an explanation of the cause of sickle-cell anaemia)
  • dominant and recessive genes
  • genotype (an individual’s collection of genes) and phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment)
  • allometry (rates of growth of different parts of an organism)
  • microevolution (at the genetic level) and macroevolution (at the level of environment and population)
  • the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (that evolution happens in burst followed by long periods of no-change)
  • species selection

7. Adaptive radiation An explanation of the concepts of adaptive radiation and evolutionary convergence, taking in Hawaiian honeycreepers, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, the cichlid fish of Lake Victoria, the astonishing diversity of shark species, and the Great American Interchange which followed when the rise of the Panama Isthmus joined previously separated North and South America 2.5 million years ago.

Ecological release = population increase that occurs when a species is freed from limiting factors in its environment.

Ecological constraint = constriction in the presence of a competitor.

8. The unexplored biosphere Describes our astonishing ignorance of how many species there are in the world. Wilson gives the total number of named species as 1.4 million, 751,000 of them insects, but the chapter goes on to explain our complete ignorance of the life forms in the ocean depths, or in the rainforest canopies, and the vast black hole of our ignorance of bacteria.

There could be anything between 10 million and 100 million species on earth – nobody knows.

He explains the hierarchy of toxonomy of living things: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species.

Equitability = the distribution of diversity in a given location.

9. The creation of ecosystems Keystone species hold a system together e.g. sea otters on the California coast (which ate sea urchins thus preventing the sea urchins eating the kelp, so giving rise to forests of kelp which supported numerous life forms including whales who gave birth close to the forests of kelp) or elephants in the savannah (who, by pushing over trees, create diverse habitats).


The predator paradox – in many systems it’s been shown that removing the top predator decreases diversity).

Character displacement. Symbiosis. The opposite of extinction is species packing.

The latitudinal diversity gradient i.e. there is more diversity in tropical rainforests – 30% of bird species, probably over half of all species, live in the rainforests – various theories why this should be (heat from the sun = energy + prolonged rain).

10. Biodiversity reaches the peak The reasons why biodiversity has steadily increased since the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago, including the four main steps in life on earth:

  1. the origin of life from prebiotic organic molecules 3.9 billion years ago
  2. eukaryotic organisms 1.8 billion years ago
  3. the Cambrian explosion 540 to 500 million years ago
  4. the evolution of the human mind from 1 million to 100,000 years ago.

Why there is more diversity, the smaller the creatures/scale – because, at their scale, there are so many more niches to make a living in.

Part three – The human impact

It’s simple. We are destroying the world’s ecosystems, exterminating untold numbers of species before we can even identify them and any practical benefits they may have.

11. The life and death of species ‘Almost all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past (p.204)

How long do species survive? From 1 to 10 million years, depending on size and type. Then again, it’s likely that orchids which make up 8% of all known flowering plants, might speciate, thrive and die out far faster in the innumerable microsites which suit them in mountainous tropics.

The area effect = the rise of biodiversity according to island size (ten times the size, double the number of species). Large body size means smaller population and greater risk of extinction. The metapopulation concept of species existence.

12. Biodiversity threatened Extinctions by their very nature are rarely observed. Wilson devotes some pages to the thesis that wherever prehistoric man spread – in North America 8,000 years ago, in Australia 30,000 years ago, in the Pacific islands between 2,000 and 500 years ago – they exterminated all the large animals.

Obviously, since then Western settlers and colonists have been finishing off the job, and he gives depressing figures about numbers of bird, frog, tree and other species which have been exterminated in the past few hundred years by Western man, by colonists.

And now we are in a new era when exponentially growing populations of Third World countries are ravaging their own landscapes. He gives a list of 18 ‘hotspots’ (New Caledonia, Borneo, Ecuador) where half or more of the original rainforests has been heart-breakingly destroyed.

13. Unmined riches The idea that mankind should place a cash value on rainforests and other areas of diversity (coral reefs) in order to pay locals not to destroy them. Wilson gives the standard list of useful medicines and drugs we have discovered in remote and unexpected plants, wondering how many other useful, maybe life-saving substances are being trashed and destroyed before we ever have the chance to discover them.

But why  should this be? He explains that the millions of existing species have evolved through uncountable trillions of chemical interactions at all levels, in uncountably vast types of locations and settings – and so have been in effect a vast biochemical laboratory of life, infinitely huger, more complex, and going on for billions of years longer than our own feeble human laboratory efforts.

He gives practical examples of natural diversity and human narrowness:

  • the crops we grow are a handful – 20 or so – of the tens of thousands known, many of which are more productive, but just culturally alien
  • same with animals – we still farm the ten of so animals which Bronze Age man domesticated 10,000 years ago when there is a world of more productive animals e.g. the giant Amazon river turtle, the green iguana, which both produce far more meat per hectare and cost than beef cattle
  • why do we still fish wild in the seas, devastating entire ecosystems, when we could produce more fish more efficiently in controlled farms?
  • the absolutely vital importance of maintaining wild stocks and varieties of species we grow for food:
    • when in the 1970s the grassy-stunt virus devastated rice crops it was only the lucky chance that a remote Indian rice species contained genes which granted immunity to the virus and so could be cross-bred with commercial varieties which saved the world’s rice
    • it was only because wild varieties of coffee still grew in Ethiopia that genes could be isolated from them and cross-bred into commercial coffee crops in Latin America which saved them from devastation by ‘coffee rust’
  • wipe out the rainforests and other hotspots of diversity, and there go your fallback species

14. Resolution As ‘the human juggernaut’ staggers on, destroying all in its path, what is to be done? Wilson suggests a list:

  1. Survey the world’s flora and fauna – an epic task, particularly as there are maybe only 1,500 scientists in the whole world qualified to do it
  2. Create biological wealth – via ‘chemical prospecting’ i.e. looking for chemicals produced by organisms which might have practical applications (he gives a list of such discoveries)
  3. Promote sustainable development – for example strip logging to replace slash and burn, with numerous examples
  4. Wilson critiques the arguments for
    • cryogenically freezing species
    • seed banks
    • zoos
  5. They can only save a tiny fraction of species, and then only a handful of samples – but the key factor is that all organisms can only exist in fantastically complicated ecosystems, which no freezing or zoosor seed banks can preserve. There is no alternative to complete preservation of existing wilderness

15. The environmental ethic A final summing up. We are living through the sixth great extinction. Between a tenth and a quarter of all the world’s species will be wiped out in the next 50 years.

Having dispensed with the ad hoc and limited attempts at salvage outlined above, Wilson concludes that the only viable way to maintain even a fraction of the world’s biodiversity is to identify the world’s biodiversity ‘hot spots’ and preserve the entire ecosystems.

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value (p.148)

In the last few pages he makes the ‘deepest’ plea for conservation based on what he calls biophilia – this is that there is all kinds of evidence that humans need nature: we were produced over 2 million years of evolution and are descended from animals which themselves have encoded in the genes for their brains and nervous systems all kinds of interactions with the environment, with sun and moon, and rain and heat, and water and food, with rustling grasses and sheltering trees.

The most basic reason for making heroic efforts to preserve biodiversity is that at a really fundamental level, we need it to carry on feeling human.

On planet, one experiment (p.170)


Obviously, I know human beings are destroying the planet and exterminating other species at an unprecedented rate. Everyone who can read a newspaper or watch TV should know that by now, so the message of his book was over-familiar and sad.

But it was lovely to read again several passages whose imaginative brio had haunted me ever since I first read this book back in 1994:

  • the opening rich and impressionistic description of the rainforest
  • a gripping couple of pages at the start of chapter five where he describes what it would be like to set off at walking pace from the centre of the earth outwards, across the burning core, then into the cooler mantle and so on, suddenly emerging through topsoil into the air and walking through the extraordinary concentration of billions of life forms in a few minutes – we are that thin a layer on the surface of this spinning, hurtling planet
  • the couple of pages about sharks, whose weird diversity still astonishes
  • the brisk, no-nonsense account of how ‘native’ peoples or First Peoples were no tender-hearted environmentalists but hunted to death all the large megafauna wherever they spread
  • the dazzling description of all the organisms which are found in just one pinch of topsoil

As to the message, that we must try and preserve the diversity of life and respect the delicate ecosystems on which our existence ultimately depends – well, that seems to have been soundly ignored more or less everywhere, over the past thirty years since the book was published.


The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson was published by the Harvard University Press in 1992. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other science books





Human evolution


Origins of Life

Particle physics


Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)

His revulsion became, all at once, a weird nebulous panic. (p.88)

Ubik is set in the same year as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1992, although it is a different 1992 (itself making a point about ramifying realities and fissiparous futures). Instead of androids, this future is plagued by telepaths, telepaths who can read your mind and some which can predict the future.

The telepaths – known collectively as psis – have become such a menace that companies have grown up which offer the services of anti-telepaths, human mutants who also have psionic mind powers, but of a purely negative kind, to counteract them. The businesses are known as anti-psi prudence organisations; the anti-telepaths are known as ‘inertials’.

Types of telepaths include: teeps, kineticists, precogs, resurrectors and animists (p.22).

One of these prudence organisations is Runciter Associates, run by ageing Glen Runciter. His people irritate him by ringing him early one morning to tell him they’ve lost track of ‘the top telepath in the Sol system’, S. Dole Melipone. He is the only known telepath who can generate ‘68.2 blr units of telepathic aura’. Melipone is employed by Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation for psis and is by way of being the book’s baddy.

Runciter immediately flies to Zürich to consult his dead wife, Ella, who is kept in a state of suspended animation – in ‘cold-pac’ – at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium run by Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang. Family members who have passed away can be kept in cryogenic storage and you can ‘wake’ them and communicate with their brain patterns via special headphones, the ‘electronic communing equipment’ (p.223).

In the event, Ella’s thoughts are hijacked by a dead person being kept in a casket next to hers, Jory Miller. Because he’s younger, Jory’s cerebronic patterns are stronger than hers. Runciter is outraged and demands his wife be moved to a secure unit.

These half-deads are, the reader reflects, yet another kind of altered consciousness, Dick’s main theme – as are, of course, the florid range of telepaths and inertials we meet throughout the book. Other kinds of minds.

Runciter Associates had sent one of their own telepaths, G.G. Ashwood to the hotel where Melipone was last seen. Now Ashwood turns up at the flat of the chronically impoverished Runciter Associates employee, Joe Chip.

Ashwood has brought a new find, a girl of about 17 who has a spectacular new power. She seems to be able to rearrange the past in order to suit the needs of the present. I.e. if she sees something she or someone else wants to change she has the power, not to travel in person, but to send her mind back into the past to alter the course of events in order to change the present to suit. She proves this by showing Joe the initial evaluation of her which he carried out and which was very unfavourable. In the narrative we just read she had slowly stripped off to get ready for a shower, which swayed Joe towards giving her a more favourable valuation. This – the stripping version – is version two of events. She went back and changed everything that happened from the moment she came into his apartment.

Joe doesn’t believe it. To prove it Pat gets out of her blouse the valuation he wrote for her in the first course of events. It’s his writing, alright. It appears to be true that she can go back in time and alter the course of events. Wow.


All this has happens in the first 40 or so pages of this 230-page-long novel. As usual Dick has plunged us not only into a story, but into a densely imagined world of wonders where weird elements are not just everyday but so taken for granted that they’re given typically American nicknames.

The futureness of it all is created and reinforced by a raft of gadgets and gizmos in the brave new world of 1992.

  • Runciter obviously travels to Switzerland and back super-fast, maybe via rocket. The existence of rockets is confirmed when Runciter takes his team of inertials to Luna (the moon) by the company rocket, Pratfall II.
  • Runciter’s hovertaxi drops him on the roof of his company building, from where he takes a ‘descent chute’ down to the fifth floor.
  • People don’t have newspapers, they have ‘pape machines on whose screen they scan through today’s headlines and, if an article takes their fancy, ask the ‘pape machine to print it off so it can be read. (Reading this in 2019 you wonder why Dick didn’t make the logical connection and just have people read the whole article off the screen? Why bother with cumbersome printing? I guess the culture-wide tradition of reading from paper was too all-encompassing for even Dick to see beyond.)
  • People talk via vidphone (as they also do in Android).
  • Money has stopped being in dollars and is now counted in poscreds.
  • For weaponry people carry laser tubes (as they do in Android).

The plot

The main plot concerns a client, Stanton Mick, a billionaire who is developing a new hyperspace drive on the moon. He suspects his operation has been infiltrated by psis from Hollis’s organisation. The fear is that they will carry out industrial espionage, getting into his scientists’ minds, stealing all the secrets, possibly sabotaging the project.

So he sends a secretary, Miss Wirt, to ask Runciter Associates to send up a team of their best inertials to counter the psis.

It all has a broadly comic tone. The inertials Runciter assembles are a strikingly random ill-matched bunch of freaks wearing deliberately kooky outfits – the red triangular glasses, the fashionable elastic bands which push a woman’s breasts together – who even their employer, Runciter, finds it hard to take seriously.

They fly to the moon (in one hour) and are ushered by Stanton Mick’s people into the underground rooms of the lunar base. The bizarre figure of Micks, with waist-length white hair, appears, but they’ve barely begun discussing arrangements before Mick inexplicably floats up to the ceiling and explodes.

Many of the inertials are injured, Runciter fatally. Joe takes charge and carries Runciter’s body with another anti-psi, along with the rest of them they escape in a lift up to the surface, make it to the spaceship, and blast off, leaving Joe wondering: if the entire ‘job’ was a set-up by Hollis, why did he let them get away?


The novel is surprisingly funny. Or obviously funny at unexpected moments. One humorous element is Dick’s fondness for improbable-verging-on-grotesque businesses. I noted it in the Van Ness Animal repair shop in Androids and here it surfaces in the Beloved Brethren Moratorium and its unctuous Teutonic owner.

The rundown of the eleven inertials who go to the moon is a parade of grotesques in outlandish costumes, done for broadly comic effect.

There’s another thread of broad comedy running through the text in that, in the future, many basic household functions and implements – such as a door, a shower, a bath – require cash payments up front before functioning. You have to slip a nickel or a dime or twenty cents into the slot before they’ll work. This need dogs Joe Chip wherever he goes because Joe, a shambles of a man, is permanently hard-up, with the result that doors won’t open for him, coffee dispensers won’t serve him, showers don’t operate, and so on, so that he is continually begging everyone around him for spare nickels and dimes, which becomes a kind of catchphrase or repeated failing.


The plot so far led me to expect that there would be all kinds of cat and mouse, psi-chasing shenanigans between inertials and psis on the moon base. But this turns out tobe a complete red herring. From this point onwards the novel is about something completely different.

Immediately after the fake Stanton Mick bomb explodes, Runciter’s team all hurry back to the rocket and blast off back for earth.

And begin to notice what turns out to be The Big Theme of the second half of the book. Everything starts ageing and retrogressing. The cigarettes crumble in their hands. Coins seem out of date. The ship’s computer rejects information from the yellow pages when they try and phone the moratorium number.

They fly direct to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in order to get Runciter’s body into a cold-pac as soon as possible, to preserve whatever is left of his consciousness and there is fuss and comic business with the funereal Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang, who insists on playing heavy classical music (Beethoven, Verdi) till they yell at him to turn it off.

But things are retrogressing. Joe stays the night at the moratorium hotel and in the morning is horrified to discover one his fellow inertials, Wendy Wright, turned into a dried-out mummy. She had obviously come to see him in the night but maybe be stricken by some sort of physical degeneration and crawled to the closet where she curled up and atrophied.

Joe flies back to New York where he finds a meeting of the inertials being led by Al Hammond. They have all noticed that their cigarettes are always too old to smoke. They get their money out and lay it on the table only to discover that Runciter’s head has replaced Washington on all the coins and notes. One of the inertials has a box of matches they bought weeks ago which carries an advertisement featuring Runciter’s face and telling them he is selling a product from a corporate HQ in Des Moines.

Joe takes Al from the meeting to his office where the remains of Wendy are in a plastic bag. They confer feverishly about the situation then decide to pick a city at random. Baltimore. They fly to Baltimore and visit a store at random. The woman in front of them at the checkout complains that everything she’s bought from the store is either dying or dead. Al and Joe check out the packs of cigarettes; all of them crumble in their fingers. Something is ageing the world. Something that aged Wendy to death.

They pick a carton totally at random from a huge pile of cigarette cartons and, when they open it, there’s a message from Runciter inside, telling them the situation is critical, he must get in touch with them, apologising about Wendy. What the hell is going on? There seem to be two forces, one in which everything is ageing, another in which Runciter is taking over the world, or revealing aspects of it (money, vidphone, products).

Joe takes a punt and buys a brand new tape recorder from the store. They fly back to New York. By the time they hand the tape recorder over to Runciter Associates’ chief technician the recorder has morphed into an old tape-driven version, at least 40 years old. Al looks at the instruction booklet and it claims the machine was ‘Made by Runciter of Zürich’ which has a North American office in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s as if lots of bits of Runciterness are leaking into this world. How? Why?

They take a lift back to the meeting room where they left the others, but on the way Al has visions of the lift itself reverting to a 1910s metal frame elevator complete with elevator guy. He is phasing back and forth between the present and a degenerated past. As they walk the corridor towards the meeting room Al fades. He asks to go into the men’s room where they find a graffito:


The lights go out. Joe hears Al’s voice fading. He’s going the way of Wendy and begs Joe to leave. There is a terrifying page which takes us inside Al’s head to experience the sense of the entire present world turning to a barren desert of rocks and ice.

The conference room is empty. The other inertials have split. The big TV screen broadcasts a news announcement of the death of Runciter and a big funeral to be held at the Simple Shepherd Mortuary in his home town of des Moines. This cuts to a message for a product named Ubik, followed by a message from Runciter himself, saying that he knew he was going to be assassinated on the moon, thanks to some company preconfigs. He knew this deterioration would set in (though he doesn’t explain why) and says he posted an aerosol of Ubik which Joe can use to spray around him and stave off the decay.

Joe, the reader notices, is taking all this very calmly. Dick’s characters generally do. When they have nervous breakdowns it’s not because of the weird stuff that happens in the stories. Anyway, Joe ponders: the graffiti in the men’s room implied that Runciter is alive and that somehow all the other inertials are dead. Maybe the bomb on the moon killed all of them save Runciter and he somehow managed to get them all into cold-pacs. Maybe this is what being half-dead feels like, like the world carries on but rots and regresses until eventually it’s just the bleak desert which Al saw.

But that theory is contradicted by this TV newscast which, along with the text of the matchbox ads, appears to show that Runciter genuinely is dead. Only answer is to get to des Moines for this supposed funeral.

Joe takes a hovertaxi back to his apartment building. Here there is an extended passage where Joe discovers that every single element in his apartment has regressed – the fridge, phone, TV, everything have ceased to be their shiny plastic 1992 editions and gone back to the 50s, 40s and 30s.

When he exits the apartment (held up, as usual by the front door demanding its nickel) he is scared of taking the lift in case the same thing happens to him as happened to Al, so he walks down the stairs. By the time he gets to the front door it has an old fashioned electric buzzer. There’s a package in his post cubby hole but it doesn’t contain the Ubik spray Runciter promised, but Ubik Liver and Kidney Balm, some old-fashioned snake oil.

The substance designed to reverse the regressive change process has itself regressed. (p.145)

His car has reverted back into a petrol and combustion engine car. He’s never driven one before. A key ring is in his pocket with the ignition key in it so he starts it up and hesitantly drives towards the nearest airport.

By the time Joe gets to the airfield it is lined with old hangars and all the planes have propellers. In the time it takes to be directed towards some flyers who might be prepared to take him to Des Moines these have degenerated further to biplanes. the quaintly dressed pilots a) look at his outlandish (futuristic) clothes b) reject his unknown (to them) money and c) agree to fly him in exchange for his 1939 LaSalle motor. But when Joe takes them to see it it has regressed further to a black 1920 Model-A Ford (p.149).

The pilot isn’t interested in the car but notices the bottle of Ubik on the passenger seat. It has regressed since Joe left it to an apparently rare ointment – Elixir of Ubik – in a vintage bottle. Looking at it closely Joe sees the label has changed and there’s another message from Runciter:

Don’t do it Joe. There’s another way.
Keep trying. You’ll find it. Lots of luck.

The pilot says he’ll fly Joe to Des Moines in exchange. Weird though all this regressing has been, it has in a sense been easy enough to grasp – the world is moving backwards in time relative to one privileged character who remains the same and observes it rationally.

Next day he arrives at Des Moines airfield more or less in one piece, struggles (as always; it is his signature schtick) to find a nickel to use in the payphone, rings the Simple Shepherd Mortuary to be told that the service for Runciter has started, to be followed by a lying in state.

Joe finds all the other inertials who had been to the moon and were involved in the blast attending the funeral. They all crowd round him and it’s immediately obvious that they too have experienced the regression. They all see the same ‘reality’ as him, namely – from a newspaper he saw – that it is 13 September 1939 i.e. the Second World War has just broken out.

They confer and agree that they need to keep together. But one of them, Edie, had returned to her hotel in town feeling ‘tired’. they jump into the two available cars to get to the hotel and help her. On the way Joe is pulled over by a motorbike cop who writes out a citation. When he reads it, Joe sees it is in Runciter’s handwriting, warning him that Pat is… and then stops. At the bottom is an ad for a druggist, Archer’s Drug Store.

Joe enters the nearest shop and asks where the druggist is. The owner points across the road. Joe realises the building is pulsing in and out of time. For moments he can see it as an automated shop from 1992. Then it reverts to an era even before 1939. In one of its old moments he enters and asks the shop assistant for a jar of Ubik. On the label is yet another message from Runciter, warning that Pat is lying, Pat the time changer may be behind all of this.

Joe goes onto the hotel foyer and confronts Pat with the part of the message on the traffic violation at which moment his world explodes. It is dark, darkness which slowly resolves to grey streaks, and he can hear voices concerned for him. Basically he is dying and disintegrating just like Wendy and Al did. Pat accompanies him as he slowly, agonisingly makes his way up the stairs to the room he’s been allotted, taunting him all the way. Joe realises she is really evil. She was sent by Hollis to infiltrate Runciter Associates and kill them all, but this is a horrible way to do it.

The chapter describing this is really horrible, with an acute description of what feels like a heart attack only much worse – the sheer agony of trying to lift his feet and move one step further is nightmarish to read – and made ten times worse by Pat’s cold, heartless, taunting of him at, literally, every effortful gasping step of the way.

But when he finally, just about makes it into the room, and collapses to the floor, prepared to shrivel into a bag of dusty bones… Runciter is there and sprays him with wonder-working Ubik, at which he is almost immediately restored to normal life and function!

Runciter explains his view of the situation. Ashwood, Melipone, Mick and Hollis have been conspiring for months, maybe longer to lure them to Luna and blow them up. Now they are using Pat to transport them back in time. Why stop at 1939? Because that’s as far back as Pat’s powers extend.

Joe doesn’t believe him. In a complex dialogue Joe forces Runciter to admit that all the inertials were killed in the bomb explosion. They were quickly stored in cold-pacs. Pat herself was mortally wounded and is in a cold-pac. Runciter admits that he is sitting in the lobby of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium while Joe is in a cold-pac. Reluctantly, Runciter admits that the sense of atrophy and decline, things ageing and falling to pieces – they’re all common features of what all ‘half-lives’ experience, a mournful sense of decay.

And the regression in time? Initially Runciter tells him that is the work of Pat’s half-life mind taking them as far back as she can go. But, Joe asks, who is sometimes killing them, sometimes making it worse? Joe doesn’t believe it’s Hollis and his gang. It’s too arbitrary, too malicious for that. An almost childish delight in breaking and fixing, like a kids pulling wings off a fly. He nags Runciter into admitting that he, Runciter, doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s left all these useful messages and yet… he can’t actually save or improve the situation.

Runciter breaks off contact and the text cuts to him sitting in the lobby taking off the apparatus which lets you talk to the half-lives. And back to Joe in the fake 1939. There’s a knock at the door and one of the gang of inertias, Don Denny is there with an old-time doctor. Joe tells the doc he doesn’t need his help, but the doc inspects him anyway, while Joe tells Denny what he’s learned and what Runciter told him.

Denny tells him they’re all going to die. Even Pat. He just came from Pat expiring on the stairs. She seemed surprised. Yes, says Joe, she thinks she’s doing this, but she isn’t. She’s in the cold-pacs like all of them. Joe persuades Denny to use up what’s left of the Ubik spray, might do him some good. Denny sprays himself and when the nimbus of aerosol disappears, it isn’t Denny at all. there stands some gawky, misshapen teenage kids. He tells them his name is Jory, Jory Miller.

He is the gawky crude teenager who was in the cold-pac next to Runciter’s wife who invaded her thought patterns near the start of the book. Now he’s doing it to all of them.

There now follows an elaborate game as Jory gets rid of the doctor and explains that everything, everything he sees about him, was created by he, Jory. He eats the other half-lives, he consumes them, he has eaten all Joe’s colleagues. Joe attacks Jory but Jory sinks his teeth into his hand and tells him he is invulnerable. Joe turns and tries to escape out the hotel room, down the stairs, hails a cab in the street. Asks the cab to cruise around town and then out of town.

Joe knows that creating this world and keeping it stable costs Jory a lot of effort. He wants to make it hard. Cruising round they come across a pretty young woman. Joe kerb crawls her and says he’d like to take her to dinner. He is beginning to feel tired again, and cold, signs that the Ubik is wearing off. The young lady is kind and courteous and compassionate whenhe begins to fade and look rough. And then she announces that she is Ella Runciter, Ralph’s wife. She has been fighting a long war against Jory ever since he arrived in the moratorium.

She gives him a certificate for a lifetime supply of Ubik which he can get at any of two pharmacies in town. She says she is soon to be reborn (reborn? there’s a whole new angle) and wants him, Joe, to take over as Ralph’s sleeping partner, the person he comes to consult. They stop the cab. She gets out and bids adieu.

Hugely relieved, Joe gets the cab to drive to the first pharmacist. But almost as soon as he’s inside he realises the pharmacist is a version of Jory, who quietly gloats that he has ‘reverted’ all the Ubik in the store back to its 1930s version, pure snake oil, useless for healing. He hands him a jar of the useless stuff. Joe bends all his heart and soul and spirit on trying to force the thing to regenerate back to 1992, to be the proper Ubik, bending every nerve to make it so.

He fails. He gives up. He walks out the store. He is now feeling weak again. Oh no he’s going to have to go through the appalling weakness and cold he experienced back in the hotel when Pat was taunting him. He lies down on the bench at a bus shelter.

And a pretty woman bends over him and offers him a can of up to date, effective Ubik. She sprays it on him and she comes back to life. She is a representative of the manufacturer. She gives him a plausible sounding explanation of how it is a biochemical agent which retards the inevitable fading effects of being in a cold-pac on half life. ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner?’ he asks her. ‘Next time,’ she promises and fades away.


Throughout the book every chapter has started with a spoof little advert text selling Ubik as a wonder product, a brand of beer or coffee, a type of brassiere which pushes up and shapes those boobs, Ubik hair conditioner, Ubik sleeping pills.

On one level these read to me like the kind of satirical spoof ads you get in late 1960s comedy movies, Woody Allen films and suchlike, the knockabout spirit of the original M*A*S*H movie (1970), taking the mickey out of grotesque American consumer culture.

But quite obviously, on another level, Ubik is portrayed as some kind of magic force all the way through the novel. The entirely biochemical explanation the young lady gives at the end is not quite enough to explain the imaginative force it has had in the text. So it comes as no surprise when the epigraph to the short final chapter reads.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. (p.223)

So is Ubik just a chemical compound created by Ella Runciter within the world of the cold-pacs (and it’s pretty hard to see how that would be physically possible seeing as their bodies are completely static)? Or is it meant to be some shape-shifting force which stands – within the half-life world – for God?

To be honest, by this stage of the novel, on the penultimate page, I was too exhausted by the continually shifting realities of the previous 221 pages to care. That kind of point blank interpretation seems to me to be dead and stultifying.

What makes the novel live is the extraordinary and apparently endless succession of surprises it pulls on you. It is the narrative dynamic which appeals and works. Stopping to think about the logic of the plot or the symbolism for very long tends, in my experience, to make the whole house of cards collapse.

Futures and pasts

Both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik are set in 1992, a giddy 24 years from when they were written. Dick predicted that by then we’d have hovercars, colonies on the moon and Mars, lasertubes, androids and telepaths.

In the real world 1992 was notable for the UK General Election which was won by John Major who went on to govern Britain for five years and is most remembered for setting up a traffic cones hotline.

Thus the difference between the dazzling techno-worlds of science fiction – and between Philip K. Dick’s deliriously proliferating alternative worlds – and the big grey underpants of reality.

Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) (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
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’ but the novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.


It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.

Related links

Other posts about American history

Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poetry edited by Craig Raine (1992)

Fifty-one years after T.S. Eliot’s selection of Kipling’s verse, with an accompanying essay, was published in 1941, the poet Craig Raine was invited to make a new selection and write a new introduction. His selection is larger (183 poems compared to Eliot’s 123) and ranges further, including much more of the early verse (a generous selection of the ‘Departmental Ditties’) and more of the ‘incidental’ poems which Kipling attached to his many short stories.

The 16-page introduction is puzzlingly diffuse, making a handful of useful points but rather buried among lengthy digressions on a range of subjects. Half way through I began to wonder whether he had some kind of bet with a friend on how many other writers (and painters and musicians) he could name drop in such a short space.


Oscar Wilde’s catty criticism of Plain Tales From The Hills is quoted on page one (‘one feels as if one were under a palm tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity’) as is some Eliot; on page two he mentions Matthew Arnold’s famous criticism of Alexander Pope and John Dryden (he dismissed them as ‘classics of our prose’), which Eliot then reversioned in his criticism of Walt Whitman in his essay about Ezra Pound. This leads into a page extensively quoting and praising Pope’s style, before going on to a one-page analysis of a witty piece of light verse by contemporary American writer Garrison Keillor. Then there is an extended consideration of how the metres of Russian poetry (with name-checks for the poets Pushkin, Pasternak and Mayakovsky) demonstrate enormous subtlety but, alas, translate badly into English where convoluted metres and rhythms tend to be associated with comedy.

None of this really sheds much light on Kipling and feels a lot like name-dropping padding.

1. Kipling and the underdog

Wilde is mentioned early on not only to squeeze in his famous quote but to emphasise Kipling’s own early remark that he was well aware he wrote only verse – and this leads Raine to make one of the three or so substantial points which emerge from his essay:

What Wilde ruefully perceives as a limitation is precisely what Kipling knew to be his originality – the discovery for literature of the underdog… Kipling’s uncommon fascination with the common man and the common woman – his helpless underdoggedness.

Raine immediately moves on without exploring the idea any further, which is a missed opportunity. It is pretty well known that all through his career Kipling sang the praises of the forgotten and ignored soldiers, sailors, engineers and administrators who kept the vast machinery of the Empire going, who kept the peace and enforced the law and built the bridges and created the railroads and maintained the vast fleet of merchant ships which brought the luxuries of life to a pampered elite in London who made it their life’s work to mock and scorn the very people their lifestyle depended on. You can see why he was almost permanently cross, and why his criticisms of the pampered, ignorant English are sometimes so bitter.

In a way Raine’s selection speaks more clearly than this confusing introduction. Thus around page 80 of the book he includes three poems in succession which aren’t in the Eliot selection and which powerfully convey the underdog idea, the plight of the ‘few, forgotten and lonely’.

An interlude of scansion

The introduction jumps suddenly to a consideration of two lines in The Ballad of the Bolivar and rather abruptly introduces some highly technical terms from the study of scansion – telling us that one line contains a trochaic tetrameter catalectic followed by a trochaic trimeter catalectic, being:

Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray

In other words, the line consists of a tetrameter of four beats, with a pause (or caesura) at the comma, and the second half is a trimeter i.e. has three beats.

Leaking like a lobster pot, steering like a dray
… /  v       /   v  /     v     / ,    /     v     /    v   /

(where the oblique stroke indicates a stressed syllable and the v indicates an unstressed syllable). If this had been the start of an extensive consideration of Kipling’s metres or how he adapted metres of Tennyson or Swinburne, this might have been illuminating – but the subject appears with this one example and just as abruptly disappears.

2. Kipling and dialect

Buried among the blizzard of names and digressions, there are some reasonably forthright statements:

Dialect is Kipling’s greatest contribution to modern literature – prose and poetry – and he is the most accomplished practitioner since Burns.

But even this insight is restricted to one sentence which is swiftly buried in a fog of references to other writers and other texts: in this instance Raine moves swiftly on to a consideration of George Orwell’s essay on Kipling, published in 1942, and itself a long review of the Eliot selection & essay, before progressing to quote from a pamphlet by the critic D.J. Enright’s about Eliot – this is a lot of distracting digression instead of simply unpacking the importance of Kipling’s use of dialect with some examples and analysis.


Raine moves on to mention Kipling’s virtuosity, his astonishing fluency, which many critics and readers in his time and ours have found ‘suspect’, under the impression that poetry should somehow be ‘difficult’ and show signs of artistic ‘struggle’.

Raine gives as an example Kipling’s mastery of the difficult verse form of the sestina, in his poem ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal‘ – although, characteristically, even this requires a knowing reference to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, as a ‘perfect example’ of the form instead of an analysis of how a sestina is constructed, and how cunningly Kipling constructed this one.

3. Stravinsky and Picasso

The artificiality of this sestina’s form (the use of six lines which are reshuffled in each of the poem’s six verses) is partly concealed by Kipling’s use of dialect. It would have been useful to have a bit more about dialect, maybe a survey of the different dialects Kipling uses. Instead Raine goes on to suggest that, instead of being associated with music hall and popular forms as most people tend to, maybe ‘it would be more helpful and truer’ to classify Kipling’s poetry with the modernism of Stravinsky and Picasso, who used contemporary rags and tags of tunes and material to construct collages, cubist pictures, fractured music.

This seems, frankly, wrong.

Unsparing imagery

Having made this bold suggestion, the introduction jumps to a completely new topic, which is Kipling’s unsentimental eye for realism, for the often stomach-churning detail. Raine gives a good selection of Kipling’s vivid imagery, starting with the description of a leper in Gehazi.

The boils that shine and burrow,
The sores that slough and bleed.

Or the violent description of Matun, the beggar whose entire face was ripped off by a bear in The Truce of the Bear:

Flesh like slag in the furnace, knobbed and withered and grey –

Going on to quote other vivid descriptive phrases, like the:

  • beefy face an’ grubby ‘and [of London housemaids]
  • breech-blocks jammed with mud
  • the ten-times fingering weed
  • blanket-hidden bodies, flagless, followed by the flies
  • [on] ‘Is carcase past rebellion, but ‘is eyes inquirin’ why

He’s onto something here, several things:

  • One of the several reasons Kipling’s poetry rises above the level of ‘verse’ – beside the seriousness and intensity of the feeling – is for the sheer vividness of his imagery.
  • But the violence of these images are a continual reminder that there is a strongly aggressive strand in Kipling’s poetry which wants to sicken and disgust the reader, to appal and nauseate us with the reality of the India or war or the devastation he is describing.

Kipling’s seascapes

Raine points out Kipling’s many wonderful descriptions of the sea, painted in numerous poems with wonderful fluency, although – typically – he can’t do so without reference to another canonical writer, in this case superfluously comparing Kipling’s sea verse with James Joyce’s description of the sea at Sandymount Strand outside Dublin, in Ulysses. Well, they’re both good descriptions of the sea, but that basic level of similarity doesn’t make Kipling part of Joyce’s Modernism. There’s a wonderful poem The Bell Buoy in which a bell in a buoy at sea contrasts his lot with the other bells cast in the same foundry which have ended up in churches inland.

The beach-pools cake and skim,
The bursting spray-heads freeze,
I gather on crown and rim
The grey, grained ice of the seas,
Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
The plunging colliers lie.
Would I barter my place for the Church’s grace?
(Shoal ! ‘Ware shoal!) Not I!

Kipling and the contemporary world

Raine says that Kipling is concerned not with poeticisms or the high-toned poetic rhetoric of his day – the flowery ‘thees’, ‘thous’ and periphrases which make the poets of the 1880s and 1890s unreadable to us now. Kipling endures because he is interested in the actual world he lives in – with its trains and cars and electric lights and steam engines. It is this unembarrassed consideration of the present, Raine asserts, which places Kipling in the company of poets like Baudelaire and Eliot, laureates of the modern city. And leads up to a repeat of his earlier point about Stravinsky and Picasso:

Kipling, then, is a modernist rather than the dated Edwardian of conventional criticism.

Raine backs this up by claiming that T.S. Eliot himself, dean of Modernist poets, used Kipling’s metres in poems like his ‘Preludes’ and ‘The Hollow Men’, before giving half a page asserting Kipling’s influence on the closing pages of Ezra Pound’s ‘Pisan Cantos’. Well a) Kipling used so many rhyme schemes, formats and rhythms that it would be difficult for any poet not to overlap with him in some places b) the chaotic formlessness of Pound’s Cantos and the gasping pitifulness of the Pisan Cantos in particular, seems to me miles away from the permanent bumptious confidence of Kipling. In fact it’s the very lack of doubt or emotional vulnerability that many people so dislike in Kipling’s poetry and stories.

Now we see the reason for the thin unconvincing comparison with Stravinsky or Picasso, and the reason for yanking Joyce into the text – they’re all to bolster Raine’s counter-intuitive argument that, far from being a stylistic and political reactionary, Kipling was in fact a radical and modernist. The argument is padded out with another extraneous comparison, this time contrasting Kipling’s descriptions of war zones with those of W.H. Auden, concluding that Kipling’s are ‘less mannered and contrived’. Well, it’s true that Auden’s are done with a kind of cosmopolitan urbanity and Kipling’s are done with the bloody-minded grittiness of the man on the spot. The lines quoted are from The Return (1903):

Towns without people, ten times took,
An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
For owners when a column passed…
An’ the pore dead that look so old
An’ was so young an hour ago,
An’ legs tied down before they’re cold –
These are the things which make you know.


In conclusion, the three main points of Raine’s essay are that:

  1. Kipling was a master of dialect – which nobody would deny
  2. Kipling was in favour of the underdog, the unsung heroes of Empire, the suffering soldiers and sailors and engineers – again, fairly obvious
  3. Kipling was, despite all indications to the contrary, a Modernist poet – which I don’t think anybody could really accept. Was he like Stravinsky and Picasso in revolutionising the art form he worked in, leaving it irrevocably transformed for all his contemporaries and successors? No. Are his sea descriptions as good as James Joyce’s? Yes, but their aims and methods were very different, Joyce dissolving the English language while Kipling made the existing language more forceful.

The selection not the introduction

Where Raine’s introduction does succeed is in selecting snippets and excerpts which cumulatively give you a vivid feel for just how good a poet Kipling was, gifted not only with the journalist’s or political propagandist’s turn of phrase, but regularly – in poem after poem – surprising us with the acuity and precision of his word selection and phrasing. And this is made much clearer by the range and variety of Raine’s actual selection.

Contrast with Eliot’s selection

Raine points out that T.S. Eliot’s selection was made in 1941, at the darkest point of the Second World War, when all of Europe was occupied by the Nazis who had undertaken what looked likely to be a successful invasion of Russia, and therefore the establishment of a continent-wide totalitarian regime based on mass slave labour, concentration camps and genocidal extermination. Not surprising then, Raine claims that Eliot’s selection emphasises Kipling’s patriotic works, with a predominance of the ‘hymns’ and the high-flown calls to Duty.

By contrast (although he doesn’t explicitly state this anywhere) Raine’s own selection is much broader, including a larger number of more diverse poems. The bits of Kipling which Raine quotes in the introduction (when he stops referencing Arnold, Wilde, Poe, Dryden, Whitman, Pound, Auden, Bishop and so on) suggest that what particularly attracts him is Kipling’s vivid turns of phrase – not just Kipling’s brilliance at painting the contemporary world, his use of dialect or his mastery of complex forms – but his continual brilliance with the unexpected word and phrase which brings so many of the poems to life.

In ranging wider than Eliot, Raine’s collection includes more of the precocious juvenilia and Departmental Ditties (published when Kipling was just 21) which Eliot consciously excludes. Raine includes more of the broadly comic and satiric poems and ‘trivia’, like his pastiches of classic English poets writing about motor cars which, one feels, were beneath Eliot’s notice.

Right from the first pages, Raine’s selection is more fun than Eliot’s.

The early poems showcase how astonishingly fluent Kipling was even as a teenager, and how this fluency was directed, to begin with, into poems written to entertain and fill up the daily newspaper he worked on. For example, the witty and cynical The Post That Fitted written when he was just 20. Instead of comparisons with Pope or Auden, it would have been really useful to have this early work set in the context of contemporary Victorian light verse and/or the Gilbert and Sullivan light comic operas (which we know were popular in Kipling’s school from his Stalky and Co. stories). A very early poem like Way Down the Ravi River in its gruesome humour reminds me of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Forget the accusations of racism and sexism – what we want to know is who was he influenced by, who was he competing with, where did he pinch his ideas from – and then the amazing way his deeper, more assured gift slowly emerged from the jungle of ephemeral entertainments to become, at its peak, the prophetic voice of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. It’s an incredible story!

Notes and biography

Unlike Eliot’s selection, this edition has editorial footnotes at the end. Not many, but they are welcome. Eventually, as the era of Empire recedes over the horizon, Kipling’s poetry will need a full textual apparatus, beginning with a potted biography. Maybe both Eliot and Raine assume that the outlines of Kipling’s life – the toddler years in India, public school in England, working as a journalist back in India, arriving in 1890s London afire with ambition, the years in Vermont, America where he wrote the Jungle Books, the close involvement in the Boer War (travelling to South Africa to help set up a newspaper for the troops), and then the long second half of his life happily settled in rural Sussex, with the great disaster of the First World War which transformed his poetry and prose – are well enough known not to need describing, or linking to the changing interests of his poetry.

But I don’t think they are, and Kipling’s poetry awaits an edition which will clearly explain the life, his fundamental aesthetic and political beliefs, and then relate this to the full body of work. Both the Eliot and Raine essays are interesting and insightful, but neither is anything like definitive.

Two sample poems

The Return is written in the style of one of the Barrack-Room Ballads from the early 1890s but in fact describes the feelings of a soldier returning from South Africa after the end of the Boer War (May 1902) and how difficult he finds it settling back into cramped, dirty, foggy London after the wide open spaces of the African veldt.

The Return

PEACE is declared, and I return
To ‘Ackneystadt, but not the same;
Things ‘ave transpired which made me learn
The size and meanin’ of the game.
I did no more than others did,
I don’t know where the change began;
I started as a average kid,
I finished as a thinkin’ man.

If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!

Before my gappin’ mouth could speak
I ‘eard it in my comrade’s tone;
I saw it on my neighbour’s cheek
Before I felt it flush my own.
An’ last it come to me – not pride,
Nor yet conceit, but on the ‘ole
(If such a term may be applied),
The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.

Rivers at night that cluck an’ jeer,
Plains which the moonshine turns to sea,
Mountains that never let you near,
An’ stars to all eternity;
An’ the quick-breathin’ dark that fills
The ‘ollows of the wilderness,
When the wind worries through the ‘ills –
These may ‘ave taught me more or less.

Towns without people, ten times took,
An’ ten times left an’ burned at last;
An’ starvin’ dogs that come to look
For owners when a column passed;
An’ quiet, ‘omesick talks between
Men, met by night, you never knew
Until – ‘is face – by shellfire seen –
Once – an’ struck off. They taught me, too.

The day’s lay-out – the mornin’ sun
Beneath your ‘at-brim as you sight;
The dinner-‘ush from noon till one,
An’ the full roar that lasts till night;
An’ the pore dead that look so old
An’ was so young an hour ago,
An’ legs tied down before they’re cold –
These are the things which make you know.

Also Time runnin’ into years –
A thousand Places left be’ind –
An’ Men from both two ’emispheres
Discussin’ things of every kind;
So much more near than I ‘ad known,
So much more great than I ‘ad guessed –
An’ me, like all the rest, alone –
But reachin’ out to all the rest!

So ‘ath it come to me – not pride,
Nor yet conceit, but on the ‘ole
(If such a term may be applied),
The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul.
But now, discharged, I fall away
To do with little things again….
Gawd, ‘oo knows all I cannot say,
Look after me in Thamesfontein!

If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d chuck ‘er! But she ain’t!

Just as Kipling modified our reading of his stories by placing poems before and after them as oblique commentary, so even within poems he uses the possibilities of verse and chorus to create all kinds of dynamics. The refrain, in italics, comments quite harshly on the nature of England – the reference to putty, brass and paint is to the cheap fixtures of a music hall or theatre – and contrasts it with ‘the England of our dreams’ which – rather forlornly, I think – the speaker hopes England really is.

But all the imaginative force has gone into some of the wonderful moments of a soldier’s life in South Africa which the main verses capture so vividly.

The Harp Song of the Danish Women is in an unusual metre for Kipling, an obvious attempt to convey the simple power of Anglo-Saxon or of Norse poetry. Maybe it’s not a great poem but, as always, it’s well made and interesting. It was published in Puck of Pook’s Hill to accompany the story about medieval knights who are captured by Vikings and taken on a wild adventure south to Africa. As usual, it doesn’t comment on the events of the story directly, but conveys an atmosphere or backdrop which deepens its impact.

The Harp Song of the Danish Women

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker ?

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.


Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.


In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big ‘divergence points’ in this version of history – i.e. where this version turned away from actual history – were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

As a result of German victory:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.


Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

City of Gold by Len Deighton (1992)

Part one – Plot summary

Cairo during the war

Because of the chameleon on the book cover I thought this might be another novel set in South America, the setting of MAMista, but in fact this one is set in wartime Cairo – apparently known back then as the ‘city of gold’ – in January 1942, as Rommel and Montgomery push each other’s armies back and forth across North Africa.

The novel opens with Army Special Investigator, Major Albert Cutler accompanying a soldier, Jimmy Ross (accused of killing a superior officer under fire) back to Cairo by train to stand trial. Cutler has a heart attack giving Ross a golden opportunity to swap clothes, identity cards and so on, and arrive in Cairo masquerading as the special investigator. A confident actor, he hands over Cutler’s body to the officer meeting him at the station, Captain Marker, claiming it is Ross’s. From that point onwards Ross-as-Cutler is on tenterhooks, scared that at any moment his impersonation of the investigator will be discovered by the soldiers surrounding him. Captain Marker escorts him to the Army’s main barracks at Bab el-Hadid, where he is assigned rooms, introduced to his staff, and then shown around town by Marker, who is puzzled as to why he seems so nervous.

By this route we enter the lives of a circle of people living in the Cairo at this moment in history. Peggy West, a good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse, who lost her only child to illness and whose husband, Karl, has been away on active service in Iraq for eighteen long months. We see her supervising her sometimes difficult or emotional nurses at the Base Hospital, often overcome by the sight of so many dying and mutilated young men.

Peggy relies on money from the slippery Solomon Marx, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and who we see talking with his partner, Yigal, in a conversation which seems to reveal that they’re working for the Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine. Solomon asks Peggy to keep and eye on Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff, a large, imposing Russian émigré who rents the entire top floor at the Hotel Magnifico. Its Italian owner, Lucio wants him out so she can rent the individual rooms at much greater profit to the hordes of Allied officers swarming into the city and looking for stylish bolt-holes. Everybody gossips that the Prince is Rommel’s spy in the city – it is well known that Rommel is getting verbatim reports of British troop deployments from a well-placed spy. But the Prince rises above it all, continuing to host his stylish parties, one of which Ross is taken to by the only woman on his staff at the barracks, the phenomenally posh Alice Stanhope. Alice’s mother, also living in Cairo, knows absolutely everyone dahling.

Meanwhile, in the Lady Fitzherbert brothel in the notorious El Birkeh district of the city, we see two partners in crime, Sergeants Percy and Smith, not their real names, who have booked a room to share the money from their latest deals. But Smith is getting cold feet: the Army appointed a new auditor at his stores who is bound to find out that he’s been embezzling them on a grand scale. As he whines and wails, Deighton surprises us by having Percy move forward, place his hand over his mouth and stab him through the heart with an oriental dagger. A young Arab serving girl looks on while this happens, then goes to fetch towels and cloth to clear up the mess.

All this takes place in the first 60 or so pages of this 320-page novel to set the scene, the location, the atmosphere, to establish quite a large cast of characters, all with secrets or agendas or plans afoot, which the remaining 250 pages will bring to light and work through. I’ve been to Cairo; the city is fairly well evoked, but the dominant impression from these early pages is Deighton’s humourlessness and the flat, blank, factual, heartless way he describes violence and death.

Stereotypes and clichés

So the plus sides are: large cast of characters, intriguing setting, interesting plot arcs, Deighton’s in-depth knowledge of military history, strategy and hardware, and his taut clipped sentences.

Unfortunately, these strengths are related to a number of weaknesses. Many characters, yes, but too many of them are stereotypes, too many of them are famous for x, or a classic example of y, or a stock type of z.

She recognised it as one of Darymple’s stories. His skill as a storyteller was renowned throughout the clubs and bars of Cairo. (p.51)

Jeannie MacGregor’s grand-father had lived in a castle, and through him Jeannie claimed to be a direct descendant of Rob Roy, the famous Scots outlaw. (p.61)

Sayed was a handsome young man. His light-coloured skin and clear blue eyes were said in Cairo to be the legacy of Circassian concubines, women renowned for their beauty. (p.64)

‘I met an old chum in Shepheard’s bar last week. Toby Wallingford, RNVR, a very good pal. I thrashed him countless times at school; he says he still has the scars.’ (p.68)

‘Cleo’s club. Just about every crook and black-marketeer in Cairo visits this place at some time or other.’ (p.75)

‘They call him Zooly; he’s one of the richest men in this town. If you want a tank, or a virgin, or your enemy murdered, he’ll fix it for you – at a price.’ (p.75)

Short clipped sentences, yes, but this means the characters’ feelings or psychology are generally conveyed with crushing bluntness and obviousness. Deighton proved himself a brilliant popular historian with Blitzkrieg and Fighter. His thumbnail sketches of key figures in those histories, eg the tank commander Guderian or Wing Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris are more interesting and thorough than you might expect in a history. But they are nowhere near subtle or nuanced enough to appear in a novel, the form most concerned with psychological development and insight.

You could say that, as novelists go, Deighton is a very good military historian – a writer who is much more at home with the technical specifications of a Messerchmitt 109E or a brisk explanation of Rommel’s attack formation at El Alamein, than with the foibles of the human heart. Again and again you read sentences that might have come from a Mills & Boon novelette, especially when he’s dealing with his female characters. The issue of Peggy West having lost a young baby, thus making her forlorn, seems like something out of Catherine Cookson.

Had the baby lived, everything might have gone differently. (p.56)

It was a glorious smile, the sort of smile that a woman saves for the man she adores. Was it possible that she could fall in love with a man she’d only just met? The answer was yes. (p.97)

She wondered if this man would ever realise that she was desperately in love with him. Everyone who had seen her with him in the last few days seemed to guess. No matter how hard she tried, Alice could not keep it a secret from anyone except from him. (p.100)

She was beautiful, yet shy. She was eternally reticent, yet she knew so much. What a wicked twist of fate that he’d met her at a time like this. (p.98)

Yes, what a wicked, wicked twist of fate.

The plot(s)

Wallingford’s criminal gang

The 20 or so characters intertwine and interact. We have been introduced several times to a Lieutenant Commander Toby Wallingford, a posh boy who went to the same public school as some of the other officers, namely Captain Darymple. Wallingford gives out to his officer colleagues that he’s part of a hush-hush secret unit, often deployed to the front on high risk missions. Now we learn he is in fact a deserter who has set up a smuggling operation. Key to it is Percy, in fact a German deserter, the man we saw murder Smith in one of the opening scenes. Percy knows the position of various German and Italian arms dumps which were abandoned in the last retreat. Thus he is able to navigate Wallingford’s crew of criminals in lorries through the front line on what Wallingford tells everyone are hush-hush missions, to load up the guns and ammo, and drive them back to Cairo to flog on the black market.

One aspect of Wallingford’s operations is to kindly arrange a loan for his superior, Captain Darymple, who is always in debt. Wallingford drives him to a dingy Arab house, where Darymple signs a loan agreement with the cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman, Mahmoud. Inevitably, within days, Mahmoud is calling for the short term to be repaid with interest, Darymple is begging Wallingford to help him, and Wallingford is kindly offering to intercede if Darymple will just sign a few forms and arrange the transit of some, er, goods. In other words, he co-opts Darymple into becoming an accessory to his black market organisation.

Another and persisting element is the existence of a massive arms dump, packed with Italian Beretta machines guns, at a place in no man’s land between the armies called Al Jaghbub. Wallingford’s plan is simple: to go and collect them and transport them back to Cairo and sell to Solomon. However, various things go wrong. For a start, we are introduced to a gung-ho American journalist, Harry Wechsler, and his Irish fixer, Chips O’Riley, who somehow get wind of the secret, and undertake a perilous drive out into the desert. Turns out British Army investigators are also there, question Wechsler, then order him to push off. The authorities decide to leave the guns where they are but spike them. Aware they’ve been found, but not of the decision to sabotage them, Wallingford tells Percy he’ll go ahead and sell them to Solomon Marx’s Jewish organisation, but they’ll have to collect them themselves.

Sayed el-Shazli

In a separate strand, Peggy West and Alice take an Army lorry and follow Sayed el-Shazli, a young well-connected Egyptian who’s part of the Prince’s circle, out onto the perilous Western road and then off to an out-of-the-way native village. Ross-as-Cutler had ordered Alice to tail him, thinking it would be a safe assignment around Cairo bars. Alice parks the lorry, tells Peggy to guard it, and walks into the village unaccompanied, ignored by the sullen villagers. Suddenly she realises she’s being followed and the Arab man moves closer then speaks to her. The atmosphere becomes sinister, as she is accompanied to the big house of the village where she finds Sayed and a fat, rich old pasha who proceeds to read her fortune as she sips the tea, becomes woozy and then passes out. I thought something bad might happen to her, but it turns out to be simple heatstroke. Sayed’s people look after her, and then return her to Peggy’s care.

King Farouk

On a higher political and diplomatic level, we see through the eyes of nervous Jimmy Ross the political crisis which flares up when the British diplomats (foolishly, in the opinion of the Army) force young King Farouk to change his government. The crisis atmosphere comes about because it seems as if the King will refuse, in which case the British will force him to abdicate. This is all told from the point of view of Ross who appears in the square in front of the palace at night, the whole city in an atmosphere of great tension, the soldiers on duty who Ross talks to uncertain what is going on. Eventually, in the early hours, Farouk concedes, changes government and remains king. The senior officers, brigadiers and the like that Ross talks to, think it’s all the fault of the damn fool diplomats, that the Army has enough on its plate fighting Rommel out West without having to worry about riots and insurrection back in Cairo.

Sayed’s humiliation

Prince Piotr takes his friends (Sayed, Peggy, Alice, Wallingford, Darymple) to one of Cairo’s swankiest restaurants to celebrate his birthday, partly because he knows the tubby 22-year-old King Farouk will be there (nickname: ‘fatty Farouk’) and he’ll be able to show off his acquaintanceship with him. The king grandly enters with his entourage, emphatically countering the rumours surrounding his abdication and the knife-edge political situation of just a few days before. Alice, Peggy and the other bien-pensant liberals are favourably inclined to him. Half way through the evening he sends over an equerry who conveys very polite birthday felicitations to Prince Piotr, compliments to the ladies, and then addresses Zeinab, the beautiful sister of Sayed: the king requests the honour of a dance. A private dance. At his palace. Leaving in fifteen minutes.

Stricken, tense, muttered conversations ensue, in which the Prince explains that neither Sayed nor Zeinab can refuse this ‘honour’; if they do Sayed will wake up dead at the bottom of the Nile. The Western women are outraged, and suddenly not so fond of the good-looking young king who now makes his exit, returning to the palace to prepare himself for his ‘dance’ with Zeinab. And then she goes mournfully, to be accompanied away by an equerry, in reality a glorified pimp for the fornicating king.

This proves an important turning point in one of the numerous plot strands, because Sayed is so embittered by this public and personal humiliation that he reveals to Alice, then Ross, that he is a member of the illegal Free Officers revolutionary organisation, working to overthrow British rule and establish a free monarchy. Not any more. Now he agrees to spy on it for the British. Alice fixes up a meeting with her boss Ross (all the time masquerading as the dead Special Investigator, Bert Cutler, and increasingly feeling relaxed and comfortable in the role) who conducts a fraught conversation which ends with him producing a blank piece of paper. ‘Write their names’, he says, knowing that once Sayed has crossed that Rubicon, and betrayed his colleagues, there will be no going back.

The tense psychology of spying, interrogation, betrayal, the links between individual behaviour and the broader political scene, descriptions of a lorry driven by nervous criminals making its way through a minefield in the Western desert – all of this is powerfully and persuasively done. It’s the softer, social sides of life, cocktail party chatter, and especially anything to do with women, their thoughts as they try on outfits for the party, their feelings and emotions, and especially his descriptions of falling in love or being in love, where Deighton is at his weakest.

The Jewish plotline

Ross/Cutler’s relationship with his boss, an unpredictable brigadier, is reminiscent of the Ipcress novels and the narrator’s insubordinate opinion of his superiors. There is a hilarious scene two-thirds of the way through where Ross has to listen to his boss banging on about the Jews, about the origin of Christianity, and about Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine. But the Jewish thread is compounded a few pages later when Captain Marker reports to Ross that the American journalist, Wechsler, has posted a long detailed piece to US newspapers explaining how the British used Jewish spies in the Levant from as early as 1940, on a promise to help them secure independence / fight the Arabs. Now the British are reneging on that promise, various underground Jewish organisations are finding ways to secure Axis munitions left in dumps in no man’s land.

These revelations put into context the activities of Solomon Marx and his colleague, who we met early on; they are one of these teams securing arms for the Jewish homeland. It explains the activities of Peggy West, who in a low-level way collects a stipend from Marx for spying for him. It puts in context Wallingford’s plan to flog the Italian machine guns at Al Jaghbub to Solomon which, we now realise, will be passed on to the Haganah or other Jewish militias in Palestine. It explains why the brigadier wants to set up a new unit to monitor Religious Subversives, namely whatever Jewish organisations they can locate. It explains why Captain Marker is riveted to discover, after extensive investigation, that Peggy West’s missing husband, Karl, is in fact a Haganah operative, with a long record of criminal convictions and two escapes from captivity. And explains why Marker decides to help Peggy’s long-expressed wish to find her missing husband; if they trail her, and she finds him, they can arrest him.

The Italian guns

Marker informs Ross that there’s been an incident at the Italian arms dump. Some Arabs turned up and insisted they had authorisation to remove them. The brigadier’s men were a bit trigger happy and the incident degenerated into a shootout in which eight Arabs were killed. So we have this information as we watch Solomon and Yigal drive to an appointment with Mahmoud. Wallingford had sub-contracted collecting the arms to Mahmoud, whose men are the ones who’ve been killed. The interview is tense because Mahmoud is convinced Solomon is in league with the British and partly responsible for the deaths, whereas Solomon doesn’t even understand what’s happened. On leaving the house Solomon and Yigal are arrested by British Army cops who Mahmoud has tipped off in revenge.

The Desert War

The scene then shifts for the last forty pages or so to a forward base in the desert. Captain Darymple has managed to arrange a transfer here, back to his old armoured car brigade, and away from Cairo where he learns there is now a contract out on him for non-repayment of Mahmoud’s debt. Here, by coincidence arrives Wallingford, along with Percy and a gang of his criminals. They are planning to go forward to steal more munitions from the desert. At the same time, Ross-as-Cutler arrives to seek help from the commanding officer. And also here is the ubiquitous Harry Wechsler and his gofer, Chips, wanting to see some real action for a change.

All these strands come together when the Germans make their presence felt and threaten to attack. The entire unit is ordered to withdraw, lorries, armoured cars and all. Their commanding officer, nickname Thunder, is just admiring the size and power of Wechsler’s V-8-powered lorry when it runs over a mine, exploding, killing Chips outright, fatally crushing Wechsler behind the engine block, burning and crippling all the passengers. The medic helps out as best he can before the rest of the convoy continues on to their main base.

Here, there are dramatic scenes as the commander in chief, Anderson, lets Wallingford know in no uncertain terms that he knows that Walingford and most of his men are deserters and criminals: they’ll be given guns to fight against the advancing Germans, but no forgiveness or amnesty, and all he can offer them is a decent burial.

The entire Wallingford gang plotline is over in a stroke. As part of this round-up Ross-as-Cutler goes to arrest Percy who he suspects (correctly) of being German. But Percy makes a break for it and runs off, scrambling up the nearest sand dune. Ross chases him, up sand dunes then down into a dry, hard, creviced valley bottom, all the time coming under fire from the German positions which are less than a kilometre away. Finally he rugby tackles him and starts violently beating him. An armoured car arrives, German rifle bullets pinging off it, sent by the commanding officer, and Ross pushes Percy into it and it returns them to the base. Here Ross interrogates Percy and finally cracks the ‘Rommel’s spy’ case which has hung over the whole novel.

The spy isn’t Percy, who is simply the low-level crook and black marketeer we’ve been led to believe. But before he deserted, Percy worked on Rommel’s signals unit, and here he had access to the signals being sent by the spy. So he is able to tell Ross that the information is being sent by an Axis spy within the US embassy in Cairo, the Americans being given privileged access to all British troop movements and strategy. Aha.

In the last page of this section, Ross has himself handcuffed to Percy, as they prepare for the final German assault, and tells him one of the commander’s staff has orders to shoot them both if the compound is over-run (to prevent knowledge that they know about the master spy, from being revealed to the enemy).

Tying up the threads

The setting cuts away to Cairo.

1. Alice is informed that Ross is alive. Just. He and the survivors of the unit were found some days after the Germans attacked and wiped them out. Almost all of them were dead, in fact the patrol thought Ross was dead, with badly burnt legs and exposure. But he was alive, still handcuffed to the dead Percy. She rushes to be by his side, convinced now that she loves him.

2. Ross is recovering in bed when visited by his ever-efficient adjutant in Special Investigations, Ponsonby. Unfortunately, when he was brought in he was so delirious that he gave his true name (Ross) to his rescuers, was tagged as such all the way to the hospital, where questions started to be asked. Ooops. They know he is Corporal Jimmy Ross; they know he was only masquerading as Major Cutler.

But Ponsonby has carried on being loyal to him and, it is implied, the brigadier has turned a blind eye while Ponsonby worked bureaucratic wonders. Ross has been declared dead some months ago, his death certificate associated with Cutler’s corpse from the train. But now ‘Cutler’ has also been declared dead, thus neatly solving the problem from an administrative point of view: for if the truth ever came out, that Ross had managed to fool all those people, including his superior, for so many months, everyone involved would look a complete ass. Better that ‘Cutler’ dies, and dies a hero, in the desert, giving his life fighting the Hun. And to those in the know, making the breakthrough with the Rommel spy case.

Ross will be given a completely new identity and packed off out east somewhere, India, Burma. Ross is briefly miffed that he won’t get any recognition for unmasking Rommel’s spy, but then is grateful to be free. Well, still in the army… Alice arrives full of love. Presumably their romance will blossom…

3. Peggy West arrives at Solomon’s houseboat after dark. She finds him badly wounded, sitting in the dark. He and Yigal were ambushed by Mahmoud’s men. Yigal is dead. A felucca of his people, the Jewish underground, is coming to rescue them. While they wait Peggy tries to clean and bind his wound. Solomon tells her that her husband, Karl, is dead. Maybe he only ever wanted the British passport. In a last gesture Solomon tells Peggy he’s giving her the houseboat. Its name is City of Gold. 

Peggy helps Solomon into the felucca which starts up an outboard and putters away in the dark night. Moments later soldiers arrive led by Captain Marker. He was the officer who met Ross-Cutler all those months earlier on his arrival in Cairo station. During the ‘trouble with Jews’ conversations he had mentioned to Ross that he was himself Jewish. Now we, Peggy and his own soldiers strongly suspect he has timed his ‘arrest’ of Solomon just too late to actually capture him. And, after his men have searched the houseboat and found nothing, he sends them away, and settles down for a drink with Peggy. She is realising she has no husband, no ties, a new property (the houseboat) maybe she can stretch her wings and live a free life for the first time. Marker finds her especially attractive and they flirt. Maybe their story, too, will have a happy ending.


The last 100 pages or so really pick up pace and intensity, Deighton’s clipped style well-suited to situations of men deceiving, double crossing and manipulating each other, to the edginess of combat situations, to moments of violence and physical action – like the lorry blown up by a mine and its grisly aftermath, or Ross’s desperate pursuit of Percy across the sand dunes under enemy fire.

It is the intensity of these closing scenes which stays in the memory and persuades you this was a good thriller, helping you to forget the first two hundred pages of social chit-chat, party conversation and attempts to convey a feminine perspective on emotions and feelings, which are a lot less convincing.

El Alamein

Throughout the book, there has been a continuous chorus of characters speculating about whether and when Rommel will reach Cairo, and the more thoughtful of them predicting that, if he does, the entire Middle East will fall to the Germans, who will then be able to push north and reinforce their forces fighting in Russia and, ultimately, win the war. (Deighton is, of course, no stranger to counter-factual speculation as one of his most successful novels, SS-GB, describes what England would feel like after the Nazis had in fact invaded and conquered us.) The speculation is in part fuelled by rumours that Rommel knows everything the British Army is planning to do before it does it, and therefore to win victory after victory. Therefore, the discovery by Ross that the enemy is getting their information from sources inside the US Embassy is absolutely vital.

Deighton tops and tails the narrative with quotes from a history of codebreaking which confirm that Rommel’s victories were in part based on these intelligence tip-offs – and that they abruptly stopped in the summer of 1942, therefore leaving him, for the first time, blind about British intentions.

A few months after the narrative ends, in October 1942, there took place the decisive battle of the Desert War, and one of the great battles of the entire war – the battle of El Alamein. Deighton has seeded clues about it by having characters refer to stopovers there, for Alamein was just an insignificant train stop in the desert until this historic event made its name famous. It was here that the British decisively beat Rommel and pushed his Afrika Corps into retreat. The very last lines quote Churchill as saying that, before El Alamein we never had a victory; but after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.

This places Jimmy Ross’s behaviour in impersonating a Special Investigator so thoroughly that he begins to solve his cases, and in particular his heroic chasing of the German deserter Percy across desert dunes under enemy fire, and, back at the base, his beating out of Percy the truth about the sources of Rommel’s intelligence – in a completely new light. In case it wasn’t obvious, Deighton is implying that Ross played a decisive role in winning the war. It is an example of Deighton’s super-dry humour that this entire novel makes a stroppy criminal corporal from Glasgow turn out to be a figure of world historical importance.

Part Two – First and third person narrators

If my summary of City of Gold seems a bit chaotic, if it’s hard to grasp who the lead characters are, I think this is a strategy or effect which Deighton deliberately seeks. In all his third-person novels characters are killed off almost on a whim because most of those novels, especially the ones about war (Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse, SSGB) seek to depict the horrifying arbitrariness of accidents, pain and death.

In most of Deighton’s fiction – rather like in ‘real life’ – you are deliberately kept guessing which characters are ‘important’ and which ones are going to die horribly grisly deaths. As in ‘real life’, there’s a large cast and wildly unpredictable things happen ie the heart attack in the first chapter of City of Gold or Wechsler, who I was just getting to like, being killed in the blown-up lorry. In his 3rd-person narratives, it is as if Deighton is trying to teach his readers a lesson about how bloody awful life is.

This is one of the things which makes the first-person narratives so different from the third-person ones. In the third-person narratives, the narrator is rather formal and anything can happen, horrible unpredictable things can happen at any moment. It is a tense experience reading them, and often upsetting.

By contrast, the first-person narratives eg the Ipcress novels, the first-person Bernard Samson narratives or a novel like Violent Ward, feel warmer and funnier for several reasons, but a main one is because you are on the solid ground of knowing that at least the narrator himself is not going to be blown up in a lorry, cut down in a jungle ambush, vapourised by ack ack fire, or any of the numerous other fates awaiting characters in the 3rd-person texts.

Deighton is happier in the first-person narratives, and so is the reader.

City of Gold Dramatis personae


Major Albert Cutler – Army Special Investigator, recruited from Glasgow police force, accompanying Corporal Jimmy Ross in handcuffs back to Cairo for trial for assaulting an officer under fire, when he has a heart attack and dies.

Corporal Jimmy Ross, also from Scotland, is travelling in custody of Major Cutler until the latter has a heart attack, whereupon Jimmy gets the keys to the handcuffs, frees himself and swaps clothes and identity cards with Cutler. When the train arrives in Cairo Ross confidently adopts Cutler’s identity, handing over the body to Captain Marker and being escorted to his new offices in the huge Bab el-Hadid barracks. He was hoping he could do a runner and disappear into the Cairo crowds but now finds himself trapped in his new identity. But after a nervous few days he discovers that everyone accords an Army Special Investigator lots of respect, he discovers he likes ordering around other officers, having a slavish assistant (Sergeant Ponsonby) and very much likes the only woman on his staff, the stunning Alice Stanhope. He finds excuses to be near her, and gives in to her requests to actually do something instead of hanging round looking decorative. Thus he lets her follow Sayed, the personable, western-educated young Egyptian who is part of their social circle, a simple request which becomes complicated when she finds herself driving out to an isolated village and then surrounded by threatening armed men… In the event it is Sayed’s home village and she is perfectly safe. Through various encounters, at work and at the various cocktails parties described in the first half of the novel, we watch her and
Ross fall in love. As the months go by he begins to use his powers to seriously track down Rommel’s spy who everyone is talking about. This eventually leads him to the Western Desert where he tracks down Percy, the German deserter who is part of Major Wallingford’s criminal gang, and beats the truth out of him, before himself being badly wounded in a German attack on the Allied base. Badly burned and half dead, Ross is recovered after the battle is over, and brought back to hospital in Cairo.

Sergeant Ponsonby – ever efficient adjutant, always ready with his disgusting tea made with cloying evaporated milk, always ready with the correct file and always shifting responsibility for dodgy tasks, missions and reports onto other units so as to keep his boss squeaky clean. He carries on being super efficient even after, right at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ross has been impersonating Cutler all along. Ponsonby manages all the paperwork so that Ross can remain free (although in the Army), assume a new identity, and start a new career out East.

The brigadier – Ross-Cutler’s superior at the Bab el-Hadid barracks. He is eccentric and unpredictable – as demonstrated in a long and very funny scene in the last third of the novel, when he prattles on about Jewish conspiracies and links it somehow to the founding of Christianity by that rascal, St Paul.

Captain Lionel Marker – Ross’s number one, the upright, punctilious officer who meets Ross at Cairo station and is taken in by him from the start, who escorts him around Cairo, introducing him to its criminal and ethnic communities, as well as to the polite society of various bars and hotels and into the elite social circle gather round Prince Piotr. When the issue of Jewish spies securing arms for the Jewish forces in Occupied Palestine rears its head, Marker points out to his boss, Ross, that he, Marker, is Jewish. This doesn’t bother Ross one way or the other, but it may explain the slight undercurrent when Marker, early on in the novel, is tasked with searching Solomon Marx’s houseboat, along with all the other houseboats moored along the Nile, for guns or other smuggled goods. At the very end of the novel, he definitely arrives to carry out another search of The City of Gold just after Solomon has left. Moreover, we know that Peggy West was married to a Jew and considers herself part Jewish. This may or may not explain the mild flirtation that Marker feels relaxed enough to begin with Peggy right at the end of the novel.

Captain Robin Darymple (page 50) – dashing public school chap who knew Wallingford at school and finds himself blackmailed, via his gambling debts, into getting involved in Wallingford’s shady schemes.

Lieutenant Commander Wallingford RNVR (page 76) Public school chap who happens to have deserted his unit and uses his public school connections (with, among others, Darymple) to maintain the fiction that he is commander of a hush-hush secret unit tasked with carrying our daring raids out behind enemy lines. Giving himself a naval rank was a smart move, since naval records are stored in Alexandria and difficult for Cairo Army intelligence to access. Wallingford is actually running a black market racket with a bunch of other deserters and Sergeant Percy, masquerading as a South African, in fact a deserter from the German Army.

Mogg and Powell, two deserters who are part of Wallingford’s gang.

Sergeant Percy is a German deserter. His unit was completely decimated in an Allied advance and so he walked East into our arms but managed to escape capture, dressing in British Army gear, pretending to be a South African and finding his way into ‘Major’ Wallingford’s criminal gang of black marketeers. He becomes an invaluable source for the location of various ammo dumps which he leads Wallingford’s gang to in the desert, which they can load up, drive back to Cairo and sell. Nonetheless, he has an uneasy relationship with Wallingford, having announced that it will soon be time for him to leave the gang, and I spent some time wondering whether this would lead to a fight, shootout or brutal stabbing, as in the early brothel scene. Instead, the entire Wallingford storyline comes to an abrupt end when they are revealed for the crooks they are in a British forward base which is then attacked by the Germans. We hear nothing more of Wallingford and can assume, as Ponsonby says in the hospital much later, that he like everyone else in the base was killed. But not before Ross, who is also there, chases Percy, captures him and beats the truth out of him about Rommel’s spy being a senior official in the US Embassy in Cairo. When the rescuing troops reach the destroyed base they find the badly injured and unconscious Ross still handcuffed to Percy, who is dead.

Lieutenant Andy Anderson (page 54) A blunt-spoken Yorkshireman who’s risen from sergeant in 12 months of hard fighting, and now commands the unit out in the desert where the novel reaches its climax: where Harry Wechsler and his gofer Chips, Jimmy Ross, and Wallingford and his black market team, all find themselves as the Germans launch an attack.


Alice Stanhope (page 46) Phenomenally posh and very attractive daughter of the woman who knows everyone, who has got her a job in the British Army investigations department, where she comes under Ross-Cutler’s authority, on the condition she doesn’t actually do any dangerous work, preferably no work at all. She chafes at these restrictions and so Ross, who is badly smitten by her beauty and grace, first makes her his personal assistant, then gives in and gives her some elementary trailing to do. A lot later, at the end of the novel, she is in agonies waiting to find out what happened to the forward unit she knows Ross was off to visit and whether he’s still alive. As soon as she knows he is, she runs off to visit him, in what promises to blossom into a wartime romance.

Peggy West (page 30) A good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse. She married a Jewish man, Karl, in the 1930s and came to Egypt looking for adventure. Karl was despatched to Iraq on a five-year contract protecting oil wells, and she hasn’t seen for 18 months. We meet her as she collects a small stipend from Solomon al-Masri, which the latter claims comes from Karl. Deighton spends a lot of time describing her background, her parents’ hopes for her, the difficulties in her married life, but she doesn’t come alive for me as a character. She becomes a sort of chaperone figure to Alice Stanhope through the middle of the book. Near the end she visits the City of Gold houseboat to find Solomon Marx badly wounded in a shootout with Mahmoud’s men. She helps him leave, during which he hands over ownership of the houseboat to her, so that she greets Captain Marker, who arrives to search the houseboat, as its new owner, with a heady sense of freedom and the strong hint that they might be about to become an item.

Karl West – A Jew who marries Peggy and then disappears off to Iraq, allegedly on a five year oil contract. Solomon al-Masri claims to receive money from Karl which he forwards to Peggy but Peggy wonders if it’s just a way of getting her to spy for Solomon. Near the end of the novel, Captain Marker’s investigations show him that Karl is in fact a crook with a long criminal record, some of it connected to the Haganah and Stern Gangs in Palestine. He also discovers that Karl is dead.

Jeannie MacGregor (page 61) One of the nurses under Peggy West’s command.


Solomon al-Masri, real name Solomon Marx (page 30) Lives on a houseboat on the Nile, which he has named The City of Gold. He and his partner, Yigal, are working for Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine, sourcing information about the British, the Germans, the Arabs, where they can, and arranging the purchase and shipment of arms to the Jewish militias in Palestine. Wallingford, the black marketeer, over various scenes, tries to arrange the sale of Italian machine guns from an arms dump in the desert to Solomon. When Wallingford refuses to deliver them in person (knowing the British Army have seized them) Solomon in good faith commissions Mahmoud and his men to do it. But they are shot and eight killed by the Brits, making Mahmoud think it was a trap. Which explains why, when Solomon and Yizgal motor over to Mahmoud’s house, tucked away down Cairo’s narrow medieval streets, they are greeted very coldly and emerge from a puzzling meeting to be arrested by the British police who have been tipped off by Mahmoud. At the end of the novel Peggy West finds Mahmoud slumped in his unlit houseboat, late at night, having been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by Mahmoud’s men. A felucca of his people arrive and unload the badly wounded man who, in parting gesture, gifts Peggy the houseboat and reveals what she’s suspected – her husband is long dead. She is a free woman.

Yigal Arad (page 40) Palestinian born Jew and Solomon’s partner in their mission to get information and guns for their Jewish masters in Palestine.


Mahmoud is a cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman. We seem him in league with Major’ Wallingford, lending Datymple money solely to snare him in Wallingford’s schemes. We also learn that Solomon sub-contracted collecting the Italian Beretta machine guns from the oasis to Mahmoud for an appreciable sum. What Solomon didn’t realise is that the British Army had already found and claimed the cache. Therefore when Mahmoud’s men arrive to collect it they find themselves stopped, questioned and then fired upon by the Brits. Eight men die. Which explains why he greets Solomon and Yigal very coldly when they go to exchange payment, why he tips off the British police to arrest them both and then, at the end of the novel, is responsible for an assassination attempt on Solomon.

Sayed el-Shazli (page 64) Personable young westernised Egyptian who lives in the same hotel as Prince Piotr and so has become part of his social circle. He’s a student at the American University and an Egyptian Army reserve officer, but also active in a secret organisation of Egyptian Army officers who are planning to overthrow British rule and establish King Farouk on the throne of an independent Egypt. But after the King arrogantly commands his sister to attend him at his palace for a royal rogering, the bitterly humiliated Sayed agrees to become a spy on his independence organisation for the British.

Zeinab el-Shazli (page 64) Stunningly beautiful sister of Sayed. Her main function is to be propositioned by King Farouk’s staff in a stylish nightclub and, since she can’t refuse, going off with them, much to the anger of the white ladies present.

King Farouk Nicknamed ‘Fatty Farouk’, The 22-year-old king chafes at British rule over his country, nominally a free independent nation. But meanwhile he has time and money to live a sumptuous lifestyle and, as the Zeinab storyline shows, commandeer women for his pleasure.


Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff (page 65) Large, tall, imposing Russian émigré who rents a whole floor at the Hotel Magnifico. He was abroad when his father died and he inherited vast estates, and when the Revolution broke out and he lost them all. He claims a general’s rank on doubtful grounds, lives magnificently and is widely – and incorrectly – thought to be Rommel’s spy in the city.

Lucia Magnifico (page 50) Daughter of Signor Mario Magnifico who founded the hotel of the same name in Cairo, where Prince Piotr now occupies an entire floor.

Harry Wechsler – Gung-ho American journalist, not particularly friendly to the Brits, pointing out that the US is now funding their war effort while the Brits are managing to lose everywhere. He is shrewd enough to figure out there’s some kind of scam surrounding arms dumps in the desert, and writes a long op-ed piece which gets published in American newspapers, explaining how the Brits gratefully used Jewish intelligence resources in Palestine and the wider Middle East at the start of the war, and promised help with the creation of a Jewish homeland. Now the Brits are trying to wriggle out of their promises, with the result that the Jewish organisations are engaged in securing arms from any source possible, preparing for the upcoming war with the Arabs, and this includes using agents like Solomon to secure abandoned weaponry. He’s following up on this story at a forward unit in the desert which comes under German attack. Leading a convoy of armoured cars and lorries, at the wheel of his own V 8-powered lorry, Wechsler runs over a German mine. Chips is killed instantly and Wechsler loses his legs and is impaled by various bits of the engine. He survives long enough to experience unbearable pain, before being given an overdose of morphine by the unit’s unqualified medical officer.

Chips O’Riley – Irish soldier, journalist who’s found a niche as a fixer and gofer and attaches himself to Wechsler. Has some witty repartee before being killed instantly in the lorry blown up by a mine.


City of Gold published by Pluriform Publishing in 1992. All page references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis (1992)

Richard had reached a kind of steady state of indecision. Everything that had happened seemed to make it harder to know what to do about anything. (p.179)

Richard Vaisey’s circle

Another novel set among the professional middle classes in London, this time focusing on Dr Richard Vaisey, lecturer in Russian Literature at the (fictional) London Institute of Slavonic Studies. He is married to the stunningly beautiful if odd, the mannered but reassuringly rich, Cordelia. It’s Cordelia’s second marriage; previously she was married to theatrical set-designer Godfrey Radetsky. Richard has been surprised to find himself becoming quite friendly with Godfrey’s plummy brother, Crispin Radetsky, QC, i.e. top lawyer, less so with his bitchy wife, Freddie, who cordially dislikes Cordelia. Nonetheless, Richard goes by himself to a dinner party at their house, where there’s an unexpected third party, Sandy, a middle-aged woman friend of theirs who’s always fancied Richard.

Richard is flattered but also worried to realise that, during the dinner, Crispin is trying to steer the pair together. After dinner Richard finds himself giving in to Sandy’s invitation to accompany her to a party somewhere in north London. In the cab he is suddenly having a kiss and a grope with her but then, when the cab arrives, manages to find the resolve not to get out and accompany her into the house party and to further fleshly entanglements. Instead, he decides to go take up an alternative invitation and go to a dowdy, mouldy house lived in by various agéd Russian émigrés and exiles. Here he meets Anna Danilova, a young Russian woman poet on a fleeting visit to London – and this becomes the nub of the plot.

Anna Danilova

It is 1991, Russia is in turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna’s brother has been arrested and held illegally for a year. She wants Richard to help get her poetry published, so that she can get well known enough for her to be able to rally top British literary figures into her campaign to get her brother released from prison. Unfortunately, Richard finds her poetry unspeakably appalling. Problem.

Eventually Anna wears him down, they have sex, and Richard realises he is having an affair. It is blindingly obvious to his wife and all those around him, as he spends every day arranging things to forward Anna’s campaign, taking calls from her and so on. Cordelia is unnervingly urbane about it all: ‘Just tell me when you want the divorce, darling.’

Richard plucks up the courage to ask Crispin to help and the plot, I think, crosses over into implausibility when this urbane and very worldly man improbably agrees, and starts using his impressive contacts book to arrange for Anna to do readings, have her book published, and so on.

He takes them on a memorable set-piece visit to an eminent old architect, Sir Stephen something or other, a leader of London’s artistic circles, who he hopes to recruit for The Petition. Alas, they find the eccentric old buffer kept under tight guard by his sister and an unnamed other woman in an odd household in Hampstead; browbeaten by his women, Sir S refuses to sign up, causing Crispin to politely leave and then walk up and down the elegant streets outside, swearing profusely.


There’s another set piece when Richard motors Anna out to the country (‘full of fields and such’) to meet a well-known and successful Russian émigré, one Kotolynov. He turns out to live in a picture book thatched cottage and to have acquired a perfect American accent while in the States. He refuses to sign Anna’s petition and gives several pages of reasons why not, which might be a sort of Author’s Message, namely that Literature all over the world is being murdered by politics; Russian literature was more or less liquidated by the Bolsheviks and is everywhere else forced into the service of repressive regimes or strangled. Therefore, he refuses to put his name to yet another project entwining literature and politics i.e. bolstering Anna’s poetic reputation for the sole, worldly aim of discomfiting the Russian authorities.


Richard drinks a lot at Kotolynov’s house, then more at the pub lunch in the village, then drives squiffily back to London where he is doorstepped by a heavily-built Russian who’s been trying to reach him by phone him for days.

Realising that his doorstep is not a good place to chat about life, Richard drives this man, Ippolitov, to a nearby hotel bar. Here Ippolitov claims to be from Russian domestic police on a mission to the UK to collaborate with our police about war crimes, but also with the time to pick up small side issues. One of them is that he has been instructed to strongly request Richard to call off The Petition. He explains that Anna’s brother is a genuine criminal who defrauded small investors of money, and throws in obscure references to child abuse as well. Richard is left confused (as so often) – not helped by the fact that he is by now pretty drunk.

Richard gets back into his sports car and drives, by now very drunk, blacking out large sections of the journey, back to his house. Here he senses there is no-one in and, on impulse, drives over to Crispin’s very grand mansion. He’s let in by Sandy (from the taxi, in the opening scene) who, realising how drunk he is, takes him off to a side room and begins molesting him again. Unfortunately, at this moment Crispin’s wife, Freddie, herself drunk, barges in, followed by Crispin himself. He explains he’s in the middle of hosting a loud party in the main rooms of the house, having won a small fortune on a racehorse bet. However, Richard delays him long enough to describe the whole Ippolitov incident and they speculate whether he truly can be a Russian copper, or is some kind of stooge. But why approach Richard in that way, and why care that much about The Petition?

Still very drunk, Richard drives home, and enters an empty abandoned house, for Cordelia is gone. Next morning there is a very funny, if rather obvious, description of his appalling hangover, from the depths of which he can’t remember where he left his car keys and, after going out to the car and not finding them, realises he’s closed the front door and doesn’t have his house keys, so has locked himself out.

He is forced, half-dressed and with hardly any money, to take a bus to the Institute, something he hasn’t done for years. A humiliation which is compounded when he finds himself sitting next to one of the trendy, left-wing lecturers who we had met in one of the opening scenes of the novel (which was set in a typically campus novel faculty meeting). Humiliatingly, this man, Duncan, offers Richard a handkerchief for the razor cuts on his chin, then a fag, then some money.

Criss-crossing London

Around about this point the wanderings of Richard get quite confusing, as the ‘plot’ becomes more a tangle of his hungover peregrinations around London. He takes a taxi to Crispin’s but has barely got £20 out of Sandy, who opens the door, before he jumps back into the cab to go to Anna’s lodging house. Here he confronts her with what Ippolitov told him and she admits that, yes, her brother is a crook, but that doesn’t stop The Petition being valid. He asks to borrow the phone and arranges to meet a man from the garage at his house, to let him into the car. He and Anna take a taxi there and, sure enough, the man has spare keys for the car. Then, when Richard is reluctant to do it, Anna uses a stone to smash a window and break into his house, where he’s now sober enough to finally remember where he left his house and car keys.

The next scene opens with Richard having driven Anna out of London to stay the night in a country hotel. Next morning he answers a phone call to find it is Godfrey, Cordelia’s first husband, strongly asking that Richard return home, so he jumps in his car and motors back to the London house. Here he finds an odd atmosphere, one of Cordelia’s female friends downstairs, while Godfrey and a complete stranger are upstairs in Cordelia’s bedroom. Here Cordelia delivers a long rambling speech less about his infidelity than about her childhood speech defect and how much effort she took to overcome it and how she knows it still sounds odd but how she still knows what’s going on around her, oh yes.

Godfrey and Richard against Cordelia

Downstairs, shaken, Richard agrees to accompany Godfrey to Crispin’s. Here Godfrey, for the first time, candidly describes his own marriage to Cordelia, and the two men agree how awful and manipulative she is. They both express one of Amis’s recurring accusations against women – that they communicate in a different way, that they don’t say what they mean, that you have to work damn hard to excavate the real meaning of their conversation from the snowstorm of distractions and emotions.

Cordelia’s two husbands then go on, over sandwiches and a rather fine bottle of red wine etc, to discuss the progress of The Petition, which Crispin now has an assistant in his office working on full time. Crispin is urbanely interested to learn that a) Ippolitov has cautioned Richard against the Petition b) Kotolynov himself refused to sign it – but Crispin is not deterred. He now shows Richard The Petition itself, on formal paper and with an empty slot at the top for his signature!

Tristram Hallett and the Institute

Richard gets a taxi back to what used to be his home, and sneaks into his car without even going in the house. He drives to the flat of one of his colleagues from The Slavonic Institute, Tristram Hallett. The opening scene of the novel had been set in a faculty meeting at the Institute which had made the novel seem, for 10 or 15 pages, as if it might turn out to be a classic ‘campus novel‘ – for the Institute where Richard teaches is described, like all its fictional kindred, as being a hotbed of professional jealousy, scene of pointlessly bureaucratic meetings, stricken by perpetual financial crisis, and whose tutors have a cheerfully contemptuous attitude to the students.

Amis adds the comic, and ‘modern’, twist that the embattled older tutors feel they need to speak and dress rougher than they actually are in order to fit in with the younger, politically correct, faculty members. It’s sort of funny that, whenever one of these approaches in a corridor, Richard and Hallett instantly drop their aitches and lard their sentences with ‘sort of’ and ‘like’. Hallett is described as leaving all his new clothes on his wife’s washing line for three weeks before wearing them, so they look suitably rumpled and proletarian, ho ho.

But all this was before the book turned into an ‘adultery-among-London’s-professional-upper-middle-classes’ novel and, for the most part, left the campus behind.

Among all his other phone calls during this confusing period, Richard had had one from the faculty secretary saying his closest friend on the staff, Tristram Hallett, had been off work ill. Now Richard has come to visit Tristram in his rather shabby flat. He finds him looking pale and ill, having shaved off his beard, an act which suddenly reveals his age. Tristram has had a heart ‘incident’ and it looks like his working career is over. Richard commiserates for a while and then they go on to discuss Anna, since Tristram had helped organise her early readings and events and so has met her. They both sadly agree that Anna’s poetry is worthless ‘shit’ – the precise word they use. Richard leaves, wondering more than ever what he is doing with his life.

Richard’s dilemma

For Cordelia is not only his wife, she is very rich. By leaving her he will abandon his nice lifestyle, not least the sports car he loves cruising round in, drunk or otherwise. And how has he got mixed up in this Petition nonsense which, in Crispin’s capable hands, is escalating far beyond his original intentions? And just how much trouble might he get into if he ignores the warnings of Comrade Ippolitov? And all for a ‘poetess’ whose poetry, everyone agrees, is not just bad, but monstrously bad.

Richard phones Ippolitov’s number, hoping for some kind of second opinion, to discover he’s in London. So he phones the posh Piccadilly hotel number he’s been given, and pops round for a drink. Here Ippolitov is big, bearish and disconcertingly American in his manners and gets straight to the point: Richard’s professional self-esteem is all he has, right? Especially if he leaves his wife,in which eventuality he will be poor. So is he willing to destroy his professional self-esteem in his own eyes and that of all his colleagues’ by signing the petition on behalf of a worthless poet? No. He must keep his professional self-respect even if it means hurting the young woman he says he loves. There are plenty more fish in the sea. OK?

Dazed by this lecture, Richard drives home, only to find one of Cordelia’s friends, Pat, who’s been a peripheral presence throughout the book, in the kitchen, in tears. Tears of frustration at being bossed around and used, told to fetch this and go for that, and just took up a lovely breakfast in bed to Cordelia who did nothing but criticise.

However, her role in this scene is not to highlight what a bitch Cordelia is (though she is, she is) it is to sharpen Richard’s dilemma even more: for when Richard explains that he’s NOT going to sign the Petition in order to maintain his professional self-respect, Pat more or less laughs in his face, saying – ‘So you love this Anna enough to sleep with her, enough to abandon your wife for her, enough to drive your wife into a collapse for her, but… not enough to tell a little white lie for? You will, in fact, end up screwing up your whole life, losing rich wife and sexy lover… and for what?’

God. Who’s right? Ippolitov or Pat? What should he do?

The lie

In a repeat of earlier scenes Richard is alarmed by yet another phone call from Freddie, over at Crispin’s house, saying he’d better come over quickly, like NOW, because Anna is here in a complete state.

Richard drives over, kisses Anna and they go into Crispin’s garden. Here Anna explains that she’s got wind of Richard not liking her poetry: he’s never referred to it, never mentioned the edition of her latest work she gave him: she thinks he doesn’t like her poetry and, for her, being a poet is as important as being an academic, as his professional self-esteem, is for Richard. Therefore, last night she got drunk and burned all her poems, all her manuscripts and notebooks, and ceased to be a poet, carried on drinking vodka, rode round on the Tube, passed out and was brought home by the police.

With little or no description of his feelings or motivations, but aware of all the preceding conversations he has had, we see Richard rush to contradict her, to assert that her poems are the best he’s read in a long time, they stand out from the crowd, they are of the highest value, and he tells her they taped her readings so many of the new poems are preserved. Anna cries tears of joy and embraces him.

The ‘happy’ couple return to the house where Richard tells Crispin what he’s just told Anna. Crispin raises his eyebrows, but declares that champagne is called for, and hadn’t Richard better now sign The Petition?

Richard drives back to his house to see Cordelia. She is upstairs sitting before her dressing table. Richard begins a speech about how sorry he is, but… but Cordelia interrupts him. If he thinks she is going to sit through a sentimental scene in which he declares his heart is torn in two but, alas, he has fallen in love with the most beautiful etc etc, then he’s sorely mistaken. ‘You have been unfaithful. You want to leave me? There is nothing more to say. No. Nothing. Now please leave. I have things to do.’ (pp.264-65)

Cordelia’s revenge

The novel has many funny moments. Little things like descriptions of the roaring London traffic or the malign menace of one of Richard’s many taxi drivers, moments of exasperation or exaggeration, comic similes, the comic over-acting of many of the characters, Richard’s perpetual expectation of hearing a remote control rocket land on him – a lot of this is very funny.

But I found the final thirty pages or so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, because in them Cordelia, who has been so comprehensively trashed by the male characters, gets a sweeping and exhilirating revenge, confirming that she is either a) the monster the men make out or b) a strong independent woman taking justified revenge, according to your taste.

Cordelia’s revenge is thorough and systematic: Richard drives to a hotel to phone Anna and tell her he’s officially left Cordelia but when he goes outside he finds policemen standing around his sports car, who proceed to ask to see proof of his identity. They were rung and told the car was stolen 39 minutes ago. Aha. About the time Cordelia sent him packing…

The police insist on accompanying Richard to his house to confirm his identity but where, to his acute embarrassment, he finds the locks have been changed and his front door key no longer works (p.268). When he explains that he’s having a little difficulty with his wife, the police sympathise and simply ask him to attend the local police station with his driving license in the next three days.

A few hours later, fortified by lunch and with Anna he returns to the house (p.269). The key still doesn’t work and Anna is about to break in (as she did several scenes earlier) when merely touching the window she smashed last time prompts an enormous uproar (p.270). Richard thinks must be the sound of an airliner crashing into the garden, but turns out to be that every window and entrance is now booby-trapped to trigger loudspeakers playing the amplified howling of wild dogs. Probably also triggering an alarm at the local police station. Cordelia has been hard at work. Richard realises this is War.

Richard decides next to try the émigré house, owned by one Professor Léon. As they drive up to it they see it thronged by police and police cars. Richard parks a few streets away and walks back to find someone has given the police an anonymous tip-off that the house is used by drug dealers and contains stashes of illegal drugs. Also, it’s the same police sergeant as asked Richard about his sports car outside the hotel and watched him unable to get into his own house. Fortunately, the police have come to the conclusion it’s a false alarm and Richard is able to reassure the terrified old Russians there will be no further consequences. But wherever he turns, Cordelia is one step ahead.

Thoroughly rattled, Richard and Anna check into an obscure hotel in Bayswater and the next morning Richard makes a few phone calls to organise a subterfuge, namely to ask Pat, Cordelia’s hard-done-by ‘friend’, to open the door when another of his allies phones Cordelia to distract her attention. All goes exactly to plan, the phone rings, Pat opens the door and Richard slips inside his house and mounts the stairs to his study (p.274).

What he finds there amazes and horrifies him. His study has been stripped bare. All furniture, bookcases, desk, chair, all notes, folders and files, tax and VAT returns, driver’s license, his NHS records – all gone! At that moment Cordelia’s voice wakes him from his trance. She is standing in the doorway and confirms that all his clothes are on the way to charity shops which are thrilled with his generosity. All his notes and working papers have been shredded and burnt. Begone. (p.275)

Richard staggers back to the car and back to the hotel where he’d left Anna. Here he goes to pay the waitress for the coffees he and Anna have been drinking, but she returns a few moments later: his credit card is not accepted, does he have other means of payment? (p.276) Richard stalls and goes to visit a local branch of his bank. He isn’t surprised to find all money has been emptied from his account; he is officially penniless.

At that moment Harry, Pat’s husband calls, and in an upset phone conversation tells him that Pat has been arrested for shoplifting. Obviously she’s innocent, and he is angry and upset that Richard’s bloody wife is obviously behind it (p.277).

Richard phones Crispin to ask for a loan but when Crispin refers casually to the Institute, Richard’s eyes widen as he realises that this is another aspect of his life Cordelia might be sabotaging even as they speak. He drops the phone and runs for his car. Drives like a maniac to the central London location of the Institute of Slavonic Studies, parks, bounds up the stairs to his office to say hello to his secretary, Mrs Pearson. Yes, she confirms, he’s only just missed the nice gentleman who called to collect his stuff; they had a hand-written note from him and she rang his wife to check, just to be on the safe side, and she confirmed that Richard was leaving the Institute and could all his stuff be packed up and sent round, please?. Sure enough, when he walks into it, Richard finds his office has been gutted. A career’s worth of lecture notes, students’ work, as well as his ongoing notes for a study of Lermontov – all gone. Cordelia’s revenge is complete. (p.279)

He returns to collect Anna. As they drive off from the hotel and Richard updates her on all the bad news, she says, well, at least she can’t do any more damage. At that moment they both become aware of a horrible grinding noise, and as Richard brakes the car a little …. the front offside wheel goes trundling off ahead of them as the sports car, minus front wheel, comes grinding to a screeching halt. They both watch the wheel cross to the other side of the road and hit a motorbike, whose rider gets off lightly with only a broken collarbone, cuts and bruises. (p.280)


It may not sound it, but this is really a very funny sequence of disasters, beautifully paced with a mounting sense of hysteria. The final chapter cuts to days later, with Richard and Anna mercifully ensconced in a pleasant country cottage courtesy, of course, of Crispin’s contacts. Crispin, Freddie and Godfrey drop in to take them for lunch. Already Anna and Freddie are close friends. Godfrey and Richard swap notes about Cordelia and for the first time Richard learns that when Godfrey left her, she burnt down the theatre where his new stage production was opening. Wow. All this is presumably meant to bolster Richard’s side of the argument, that Cordelia is incontrovertibly mad. Kind of impressive, though.

A letter from Tristram has told Richard that the new head of the Institute is downgrading Russian studies; he’d better start looking for a new job. Luckily, Crispin has been asking around and a friend of a friend has a vacancy for a Russian translator at the EU in Brussels. Probably hard work, not the same kudos as being a literature prof, but the pay is significantly better, free flat, all the perks. Richard gratefully accepts. What it is to have wealthy and well-connected friends.

Anna writes Richard a love poem and it is rubbish. Richard tells her so and she accepts it but says it reflects her true feelings and hopes one day she will write something worthy of him, and they embrace. Once again, despite the strange plot and the unnerving style, I find myself moved at the end of an Amis novel.

Characters as puppets

Amis is (presumably) aiming to describe contemporary life and contemporary people, and I think he is admired by his fans for his precise recordings of the behaviour and thought processes of a certain type of professional middle-class, middle-aged Londoner – the emphasis generally being on the male protagonist although almost as much time is spent delineating female characters.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that a big part of his style, of the way he gets his effects, is to describe everyone as performing ‘routines’, schticks, delivering lines and generally acting, or over-acting. From his first novel onwards it has been his consistent fictional position that people are almost incomprehensible, women doubly so: both first person and third person narrators have, through successive novels, observed the characters like an anthropologist among a rare tribe, or even a zoologist recording the peculiar behaviour of primates in the jungle. Amis can never get over the bizarreness of how people look and behave.

A human shape had passed the window and a sound was heard at the front door, soon identifiable as that of a key being inserted into a lock. Cordelia sat upright and went into a fast pantomime of eyes first dilated then close-shut, shaken head, brandished forefinger, shoulders raised to ear level, though anything less than a bellow would have been quite secure and perhaps more informative. Pat watched, vainly striving for detachment, for close observation only, as always at one of these shows. There came a final wrap-up gesture from Cordelia and her husband entered the room with a kind of skirmisher’s gait, quite unlike his familiar rather resolute stride… (p.82)

Nothing ever just happens; people are always doing jobs and ‘bits’ and performing.

This latest in a famous series – jewels of Cordelian taste and intellect – might not have been so noteworthy without the accompaniment of dilated Apache-type eyes and the gruff staccato bass-baritone delivery… (p.84)

In the theatre actors and directors talk about the need to be doing this or that piece of business, required to fill a gap or pad out a speech or bring out a character. Amis’s characters are always engaged in these kinds of bits of business:

‘If I can just break in there,’ said Godfrey, giving a brisk nod and doing something emphatic with his glasses like taking them off or putting them on. (p.97)

Not quite swinging her shoulders to and fro and not putting her head on one side exactly, just sort of round the corner… (p.103)

She listened closely with a slightly fixed smile, watched him closely too, with her eyes shooting out to the sides every now and again, as if he had been telling her how he was going to be collected presently by a flying saucer. (p.117)

As this was being handed to him, Sir Stephen started to put on a pair of spectacles. He did this in a furtive, shoulder-hunching way, like a man putting in or taking out false teeth. Then, like a stage actor now, he read through the list reacting visibly in one way or another to every name on it. (p.130)

After a moment 2nd woman interlaced her fingers pointing downwards, in the manner of somebody about to give another a leg-up on to a tree or high wall. (p.131)

Cordelia did her standard precision job on refilling the teapot… While this was going on… she went into a bit of muttering about time getting on, examining her watch etc.

Sometimes the purpose is plain and obvious comic exaggeration, like the comparisons of someone’s behaviour to a character in a B-movie or war movie or similar. But other times it is obviously not comic, the external point of view seems more bewildered, alienated, estranged.

And all the way through people are described, especially in their dialogue, as doing bits of this or bits of that, an aggressive bit, there was bit more of that before… he could see a bit more coming… there was no answer to that… after some more of the same he…. ‘after a bit more Good-Godding…'(p.279) and so on, throughout. The narrative is made out of umpteen bits of people bitting.

This approach, this worldview, of seeing people as puppets, automata, unknowable, unpredictable, opaque, their dialogue never really communicating, made up of performances, women especially never expressing themselves through words but through eccentric physical signs and signals – this observing people from the outside like clockwork dolls, is striking and peculiar.

At moments it is so alienated that it makes Amis, a notoriously grumpy anti-intellectual and anti-Modernist, end up seeming as Modernist as Samuel Beckett, and his novels – generally marketed as easy-going comedy classics – sometimes really difficult to read.

Moral questions

If this was a GCSE English Literature set text, then teachers and examiners would be asking: ‘Was Richard right to leave Cordelia?’ ‘Should poetry and politics mix?’ ‘Is infidelity ever justified?’ or some such puzzlers.

More than most Amis novels, The Russian Girl contains A Decision – Richard’s decision to leave his wife Cordelia and throw in his lot with Anna – and the chapters leading up to his declaration in Crispin’s garden are packed with characters giving him conflicting advice, so that the reader has loads of ammunition to interpret the characters’ behaviour (and the author’s attitude towards them) from multiple viewpoints, and prepare long essays about it.

For what it’s worth I think Richard was a fool, a man old enough to realise that a comfortable lifestyle (and well-provided-for old age) are worth hugely more than a short-term fling with a younger model, especially a talentless one who, deep down, he doesn’t believe in…

But I’m not very interested in the supposed ‘morality’ of fiction or the ‘moral’ questions it throws up or dramatises – in the ‘moralising’ approach which characterised literary criticism from the mid-twentieth century for several generations. Nor in judging the behaviour of characters as if they’re people I know through work or my children’s school.

For me, a fiction either ‘works’ or it doesn’t, it engages or it doesn’t, and this traction is created at the level of language. My interest is in the use of language to create the illusion of plot, characters and the ‘world’ in which they ‘move’. The basically white, middle-class, generally London-based world of Amis’s characters I find boring and predictable, if admittedly done with a mannered hyper-precision which does take you right into their lives.

For me the interest is in the acuteness of his perceptions and the slightly bonkers phraseology in which he articulates them, in the oddness of his worldview and the bizarre mannerism of the style he has created to express it. Long, and not necessarily very believable, The Russian Girl is still one of the funnier Amis novels, where his obviously humorous intentions outweigh the oddity of his style. I’d put it in the top three or four.


The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1992. All quotes are from the 1993 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.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992)

Sometimes Arkady had the feeling that while he was away, God had lifted Moscow and turned it upside down. It was a nether-Moscow he had returned to, no longer under the grey hand of the Party. (p.41)

The third in the Arkady Renko series is the longest so far, at 472 pages. Like the first two, it is kicked off by a murder which sets the investigator off on a long and tortuous investigation, and there are other structural echoes of the first two books, too.

But the first and most remarkable thing about the story is the way Arkady has miraculously returned to Moscow and been restored to his old job and rank. In its predecessor, Polar Star, we had seen Arkady on the run from KGB agents and the forces he’d stirred up in his unbending investigation of the murders and the smuggling ring in Gorky Park, forced to flee eastwards from one crappy job to another across Siberia until he reached the end of Russia, Vladivistok, and signed up for a life of misery on the ‘slime line’ of a fishing factory ship.

Psychologically, this felt like the natural culmination of the cynical insubordination, of the outsider mentality, we saw in Gorky Park and when, in the penultimate scene, he goes for a walk on the Arctic ice in the fog, it seems like he really has reached the edge of the world, the uttermost rim of human experience.

To find him back in his Moscow job with all its perks and privileges as if nothing had happened is quite a surprise and pretty jarring. It’s explained away by the fact that he did good service for the State in the previous book, not only solving the murder at the heart of Polar Star, but revealing important American espionage secrets. Psychologically, however, at least to start with, it feels like a retread for him to be back in the capital; but then it slowly unfurls that Moscow is now the capital of an empire on the brink of dissolution, and the story does go on to take him into a series of new and exotic (German) locations. By which time the initial impression is long forgotten.

Red Square

Rudy Rosen The novel starts with Arkady in the Audi of an informant, an underworld fixer and money changer, Rudy Rosen, parked in a kind of underworld fair outside Moscow, surrounded by Chechens, gypsies, mafia, all selling and buying knocked-off goods. Arkady has persuaded Rudy to be a militia informant, and is fixing up the hidden recording equipment he has got Rudy to hide in his car to record his dodgy deals. Arkady gets casually out of the car but has only walked a few yards when it spectacularly blows up. Rudy is burnt to death, along with all his money and the computer disks he’d been proudly showing Arkady, which recorded all his transactions. Like the three faceless bodies in Gorky Park, like the corpse of Zina the fisherwoman in Polar Star, this car bomb is the spark which initiates the entire plot.

Part One – Moscow 6 August – 12 August 1991 (175 pages)

Makhmud and the Chechens Like its predecessor this novel is divided into distinct parts, in this case four. Part one follows Arkady and his team as they go over the crime and ask, Who wanted Rudy dead? Arkady is intrigued by the pretty young forensics woman Polina who, in a great scene, shows him her experiments with home made explosives on a series of cars in a junk yard. Ostensibly the main suspect is one Kim, a Russified Korean who was Rudy’s bodyguard. Arkady’s search for him takes him to lowlife settings and slums around Moscow, and to a meeting with the aged and venerable head of the Chechen mafia, Makhmud, and his scary sons and grandsons.

Boris Benz Arkady quickly comes across the existence of one Boris Benz, a German. In Rudy’s office he discovers a fax machine which keeps sending the same message, ‘Where is Red Square?’ In one of the VHS tapes in Rudy’s flat is a shot which has been spliced into a travelogue of Munich, in which a good-looking Russian woman blows a kiss and mouths ‘I love you’ at the camera. Who is she? Why has the shot been spliced in?

[Tapes play a part in all three novels: in Gorky Park Arkady receives packs of tapes from the KGB which help him piece together connections between the smugglers; in Polar Star the murdered Zina leaves behind a box of cassettes on which she has usefully recorded interviews with her various lovers; here these VHS tapes provide clues to the identities of some of the key players.]

Irina As in the previous novels there is a great deal of threat, atmosphere and tension – but little actual violence. Instead, there is a running thread concerning Irina, the imperious, beautiful young woman he fell in love with during the course of Gorky Park and who he came to a deal about with the authorities – namely, his return to Russia was the price for her freedom in the west. Arkady discovers she has a job reading the news on Radio Liberty, based in Munich, and so his new daily rhythm is to make sure he is by a radio at 8pm to hear her voice, if only for a few minutes. He was interrogated and tortured to reveal her whereabouts but refused to say, not least because he didn’t exactly know – somewhere in America – he carried a torch for her all across Siberia, he is still totally in love with her.

Jaak As previously Arkady has a loyal lieutenant, this time it’s an Estonian, Jaak who, as in Gorky Park, ends up dead. After 100 or more pages of routine investigations Arkady finds Jaak shot through the head in a car which has been driven into the deep pond of swill at a farm, the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. As in Gorky Park a senior figure in the police is implicated, this time Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin, but in a variation his corpse is also in the sunken car (p.155). Why?

Minin As before, Arkady’s steps are dogged by a less experienced detective who is a lickspittle of the higher ups, in this case Minin and, as before, he is surprised when the higher ups in the shape of City Prosecutor Rodionov announce that he is being taken off the case. As before, it seems he is getting too close to a secret which implicates his bosses.

Collapse BUT the big difference between this and the previous two novels is that it is 1991 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies – greater openness (glaznost) and economic reform (perestroika) – have led the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse. Democratic elections have resulted in victory for non communist parties, laws are being passed every day dismantling all aspects of the communist system. But instead of releasing a nation of poets and liberal democrats, as some fondly imagined, the slackening of power has led to the rise of virulent nationalist parties in all the satellite nations of the USSR – most of which have declared independence by August 1991 – and within Russia itself has led to the explosion of black markets run by super-violent and unscrupulous gangsters.

Exactly the kind of market Arkady was attending when he saw his informant’s car blown up in front of his eyes and Rudy burned to death. Hence the quote at the top of this blog post and the dominant air of the novel -which is Arkady’s bewilderment at returning to a Moscow transformed from the grey, buttoned-down, morgue-like city of the Cold War, of Gorky Park, to the criminal anarchy of the post-Soviet era.

Arkady was constantly amazed at people’s faith in lies. As if words had the remotest relationship to the truth. (p.139)

Borya Gubenko A typical player in this new capitalist world is Borya Gubenko who makes a living running prostitutes and slot machines in central Moscow hotels. Arkady meets him at the indoor golf range he’s set up to cater to Japanese tourists. It is the brave new world of capitalism and crime.

Max Albov Part of this new situation is ease of travel. In fact, when he meets his bosses, it is a sign of the times that the creepiest person present isn’t KGB or state security, but a figure dressed in an expensive suit and smoothly spoken, who turns out to be a journalist, Max Albov. Back in the day Max defected to the West and made a career there as a commentator on Soviet affairs, not least for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. Now he has returned and, instead of being immediately imprisoned and interrogated – as in the bad old days – is somehow ordering around Arkady’s own boss, the chief prosecutor Rodionov. Max is a symbol of the way money and shady international deals now trump everything.

Rodionov is warning Arkady off the case (just as his boss Iamskoy did in Gorky Park) but Arkady, typically, refuses to back down. It is Max who suggests a compromise: why not give Arkady some money and a passport to travel to Munich. The mysterious Boris Benz whose name keeps cropping up is German, the fax asking about red square which keeps being sent to Rudy’s flat comes from a Munich number. (And, Arkady thinks, Munich is the base of Radio Free Europe: maybe he can track down Irina. Maybe he can see the woman whose memory kept him going in the darkest days of his exile.) Arkady accepts the offer.

Part two – Munich 12 – 18 August 1991 (162 pages)

So he flies to Munich, is met by the Russian consul Federov who is extremely displeased to see him. Russia has only just opened a consulate here, in the heartland of German business, and is keen to create the right impression. Scruffy, cynical, rule-breaking Arkady is the opposite of that impression.

Here Arkady visits Radio Free Europe and finally meets Irina. To cut a long story short she is initially extremely stand-offish, full of anger that he never emigrated, defected or escaped as so many of the other writers and journalists at RFE had. During these days of misery and rejection, Arkady is helped a lot by a loveable emigre, Stas, who puts him up,  gives him money and support. But Arkady’s persistence and obvious devotion eventually wear Irina down until, in a moving scene, they finally make love in his empty apartment.

As to the investigation, Arkady tracks down the address of the mysterious Benz but never sees him. Instead he bluffs his way into meeting the head of a Munich bank whose letterhead he sees on a letter addressed to Benz. He tries to bluff the old banker into revealing secrets but only succeeds in getting the old man’s son called in, Peter Schiller who turns out to be a detective in the Bavarian police. Oh. After some initial unpleasantness, however, Schiller turns into a valuable ally. Not least after Tommy, one of the emigres at RFE, takes Arkady out to whorehouse on the edge of town where he’s heard tell of Benz. Benz isn’t there and Schiller detains Arkady and, when they head back into town they both discover Tommy’s old Trabant shunted off the motorway into a concrete stanchion and blazing alight. Tommy is dead and burning to a crisp like Rudy.

In Munich Arkady finds the woman depicted blowing a kiss on Rudy’s VHS tape. She is Rita Benz, a Russian prostitute who married a Jew but came to Munich instead of Israel. Here she has reinvented herself as the owner of an upmarket art gallery. Turns out Irina, who Arkady had set free in New York, drifted into the NY art world, working at various art galleries. It was in this cosmopolitan milieu that Max found her and brought her to Germany to work on the radio – but she also kept up her gallery work and helps Rita with her gallery. In fact, there is a big show about to be launched at her Berlin branch. ‘Why not come along?’ asks the ever-slippery Max Albov.

Part three – Berlin 18 – 20 August 1991 (83 pages)

The gritty, well-informed, well-researched male narrator describing the streets and history of Berlin unavoidably reminded me of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels. Here, in this novel, 1990s Berlin, less than a year after the fall of the wall, has an unreal air, especially as Renko recognises Russian, Chechen and Uzbek mafia, new, anarchic threats the local police don’t know how to manage.

At Rita Benz’s art gallery a number of things fall into place. As I had begun to suspect, the entire novel is about modern art, specifically about the red square painted by the Russian modernist painter Malevich. Since I happen to have been to two exhibitions about Malevich in the last six months, as soon as Modern Art began to be mentioned I put 2 and 2 together.

The red square is the centrepiece of Rita Benz’s exhibition. Now Arkady realises Rudy, the low level crook in Moscow, had stumbled on a conspiracy to smuggle modernist art treasures out of the USSR – this red square was the first to be smuggled out and was being exhibited before being sold in a set of galleries established purely to give the operation credibility and respectability. Arkady realises there is no Boris Benz: it is a fake name invented by Borya Gubenko, one of the smugglers.

In a scary sequence Arkady encounters Borya at the Brandenburg gate, thinking they’re going to talk about the smuggling, but Borya clobbers him and loads him into a car. Wondering why he isn’t being shot straight away, Arkady finds himself hussled into a stylish German sauna. Here he is ushered into the steam room being used by Chechen mafia leader Makhmud and, again, Arkady thinks he’s been brought as some kind of go-between between Borya’s mob and the Chechens, only to be brutally knocked unconscious.

When he awakes it is to find a knife in his hands and Makhmud’s slaughtered body leaking blood everywhere. Makhmud’s son enters the steamed-up steam room and there is a hair-raising scene as Arkady tries to make his way to the door in the dense fog silently. Doesn’t work and there is a vicious fight in which Arkady manages to kill the son, not without being badly cut himself (echoes of the steam room scene in Gorky Park and the desperate knife fight in the university pool.)

Arkady makes it back to the apartment Max fixed him up with. He has the sub-machinegun he took from the Chechens. He lies on the floor opposite the door waiting for an attack. Instead Irina enters. This is the reconciliation scene which leads to them making love. Later there’s more movement outside the door but it is Peter Schiller, the dependable Munich policeman. In a scene designed for the movies, he hears movement outside and empties four magazines of machine gun through the wall. When they go outside four Chechens are lying dead. Time to get out of town, says Peter. And flights will be easy.

Why? asks Irina. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ says Peter. ‘There’s been a coup in Moscow. People are leaving not going back.’ Arkady has one last piece of business which is to stake out Rita’s apartment. When she leaves she is carrying a big bag. It contains Malevich’s red square rolled up. Arkady points a gun at her and relieves her of the painting. Arkady knows she will tell Max and Borya he’s returning to Moscow with the painting. He wants them to be waiting.

Part 4 – Moscow 21 August 1991 (35 pages)

Irina, Arkady and the loyal Stas take a charter flight packed with journalists and emigre Russians to Moscow arriving on the decisive night of the three-day coup against Mikhael Gorbachev. He is picked up almost immediately by his subordinate Minin, now definitely working for the bad guys, for he is accompanied by Kim who – Arkady confirms – helped murder Rudy in the opening scene.

In a thrilling sequence Arkady, before they collar him, fixes up a primitive bomb in the exhaust of Kim’s motorbike. He is driving his car on the motorway at Minin’s gunpoint when they see Kim’s bike begin to erupt in flames. Arkady kicks open the passenger door and kicks Minin out, not without a few shots being wildly fired at him.

Arkady heads out to the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm. Here he finds the ever-smooth Max Albov supervising the fed-up Borya to load up a lorry with … well, with a huge horde of avant-garde art. Seems they collaborated with Chief of Criminal Investigation Penyagin to steal these long-hidden art treasures and stash them here in the improbable setting of nuclear fallout shelters hidden in the innocent-looking farm. Fittingly, since this is where they killed Jaak and Penyagin who objected to Jaak’s murder, it is here there is a big shootout. Arkady manages to shoot Borya dead, after the former has kicked and crippled him and just missed with his own gun. During this excitement Max makes it to his Merc and gets away.

Arkady follows him into the heart of Moscow on the historic evening when the Russian parliament – holding out against the plotters of the military coup – is surrounded by a people’s cordon of the Russian masses, for once awakened from their torpor and shame to act decisively for freedom. Among the vast crowds Arkady sees people he knows and loves – Polina, Stas and Irina high up in the barricades. Things take a turn for the worse when Max, ahead of him, tells a couple of balaclava-wearing militiamen with machine guns that Arkady is a murderer. Unfortunately for Max, they turn out to be the Chechen mafia boss Makhmud’s grandsons, well aware that their leader was murdered by Max’s associate, Borya. Screaming for help, smooth-talking Max is carried away by the two heavies to meet his doom which will not be pleasant. [It feels like sleight of hand that Arkady, who was so successfully framed by Borya, has somehow  now slipped free of their vendetta.] Who cares? On the last page Arkady is reunited with Irina on the barricades on this day of jubilation and celebration for all Russia.


No fictional detective is without his secret sorrows. Apart from the obvious one of his long-cherished, long frustrated love for Irina, the other one is Arkady’s relationship with his father, former General Kyril Ilyich Renko (p.136). The general was a much-decorated hero of ‘the Great Patriotic War’. His tank command was overrun and surrounded by the German Blitzkrieg invasion of the USSR in June 1941. But did he surrender? No, he organised his command into a guerrilla force marauding behind the German lines and fighting his way back to the front. He became Stalin’s favourite general, leading the fightback against the Germans, seeing action in the Ukraine and on the long haul to Berlin.

He survived the war to become an honoured guest at Stalin’s dacha, where scared men stayed up all night drinking and singing with the terrible dictator, sometimes assisting him to draw up the long lists of people scheduled for liquidation. Arkady (44 in 1981, born in 1937? 16 when Stalin died in 1953?) remembers the stories of the Great Leader, and remembers with searing bitterness growing up kicked, beaten and abused by a father for whom he was a miserable failure and disappointment. And – most scathing of all – he remembers as a boy seeing the body of his mother, who killed herself in a lake near their home – floating just under the surface of the water. For Arkady, his bullying abusive father killed her as surely as if he’d shot her.

In the Moscow section, his father dies and he is press-ganged into attending the funeral where one old general after another steps forward to praise the deceased who Arkady can only think of as a murderer. And yet, throughout the text, random characters are likely to hear his family name and associate him with the heroic general, and always draw the same conclusion – ‘Oh dear… and you’re his son. He must be disappointed.’ Arkady can’t escape the long shadow of the past just as the Soviet Union can’t escape the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and the bloodbath of the war.


The depth and thoroughness of Cruz Smith’s cultural and historical research is one element which gives the book a deeply satisfying intellectual depth. But over and above that, Smith is a poet in prose. Beautifully turned phrases escape his pen at will and scatter across the text making the book an almost physical joy to read.

From the back of the shop, his cigarette still in his left hand, Arkady walked across a yard seeded with broken glass to the main street. On it, apartment buildings rusted in seams along drainpipes and window casings. Cars had the creased and rusted look of wrecks. (p.33)

Jaak drove, skipping lanes in the manner of a virtuoso pianist going up and down a keyboard. (p.58)

A far longer queue, all male, stretched from a vodka shop at the corner. Drunks sagged and leaned like broken pickets on a fence. (p.60)

Arkady had seen pictures of mummified figures dug from the ashes of Pompeii. They looked like Makhmud, bent and gaunt, no lashes or eyebrows, skin a parchment grey. Even his voice sounded burned. (p.68)

‘They deserve everything that’s happening to them. They deserve us.’ Makhmud’s eyes became their most intense, dead coals come alive, and then dimmed. His fingers unclenched and released Arkady’s lapel. Fatigue folded into a smile across his face. (p.72)

Out on the river, the last hydrofoil slid by like a snake of lights. (p.106)

[The old men’s] voices had the hollow tremor of busted cellos. (p.140)

‘That’s all,’ he said to Federov, who could have been smoke he was gone so fast. (p.187)

Benz’s address was between two enormous houses done in coquettish Jugendstil, the German answer to Art Nouveau. They looked like a pair of matrons peeping over fans. (p.204)

He noticed a black and white photograph of rubble and burned walls. A roof had collapsed like a tent on a skirt of bricks. (p.254)

An electrically controlled window slid down, revealing the driver wearing dark sailing glasses with a red cord. His smile seemed to have more than two rows of teeth. (p.285)

Birds collected. The park was rich in them; velvet-headed mallards, wood ducks, wigeons and teal appeared out of the mist, breaking the surface of the water into spoons of light. Shearwaters flew as acrobatically as signatures; geese dropped like sacks. (p.338)

The most casual scenes or moments come alive in his imagination. This is why I read fiction but not much fiction is as uplifting as Cruz Smith’s.

A cycle path had been laid out; cyclists in helmets and skin-tight outfits rode in single file, flying like flags on a motorcade. (p.363)


All three novels bespeak an astonishing amount of research into all aspects of Russian life, culture and history. What is it that makes you so convinced Arkady is Russian and that your are in Moscow? Half way through Polar Star I realised part of the way Smith conveys the sense of the Soviet Union, of Russian-ness, is by the simple expedient of having a sentence or paragraph describing an aspect of Soviet life on almost every page. The repetition soon creates the impression that you know Russian-ness, that you inhabit this country and its troubled psyche.

Soviet garages were mysteries because steel siding was not legally for sale to private citizens, yet garages constructed of such siding continued to appear magically in courtyards and multiply in rows down backstreets. (p.25)

‘Russians? I feel sorry for Russian men. They’re lazy, useless, drunk.’
‘But in bed?’ Jaak asked.
‘That’s what I was talking about,’ Julya said. (p.28)

Other models [in the museum] continued the historical survey of Soviet crime. Not a tradition of subtlety, Arkady thought. (p.52)

‘You mean a war between Moscow businessmen and bloodthirsty Chechens? We’re always the mad dogs; Russians are always the victims.’ (p.71)

The militia had invested in German and Swedish gear, spectrographs and haemotypes, which lay unused for lack of parts or dearth of funds. There was no computer of matching of blood or numberplates, let alone of something so laughably out of reach as ‘genetic fingerprints’. What Soviet forensic labs possessed were archaic chemistry sets of blackened test tubes, gas burners and curlicues of glass piping that the West hadn’t seen in fifty years. (p.125)

The Russia of 1991 is a place of almost complete economic collapse, no food anywhere, long queues of miserable people waiting to be doled out globs of grey dough fried in old oil or diseased cabbages, the squalor and the daily struggle to survive everywhere are evinced in even the smallest details. Arkady meets a state official:

Bureaucrats survived on the butter, bread and sausage they took home from cafeterias. [His] jacket was loose and its pockets were jowls dappled with grease. (p.135)

There was an expression: a Russian is not drunk while there is a single blade of grass to hold on to. (p.168)

‘You know you’re such a typical Soviet cripple. You’re so unused to food that you can’t even buy it when it’s all around you.’ (p.207)

In Moscow, public booths were gutted or out of order. Phones, when they rang, were usually ignored. (p.209)

In Moscow, he could pass as one scarecrow among many; among the robust sausage-eaters of Munich, he was frighteningly unique. (p.212)

‘I don’t want to put Irina in the position of telling the Russian people that their country is a rotting corpse, a Lazarus beyond resurrection, and that they should lie down and not even try to get up.’ (p.222)

Arkady took small, reverent sips because it was so different from sour, muddy Soviet beer. (p.224)

At any decent Russian party there were arguments and a girl crying at the bottom of the stairs. (p.246)

On the walls were photographs of the famous poet Tsvetayeva, who had emigrated to Paris with her husband, an assassin. Even by Russian standards it had been a troubled marriage. (p.312)

In 1991 the fourteen other nations which made up the USSR had mostly declared their independence and this allowed more free travel than ever before with the result that Moscow is pullulating with not only the Chechen mafia who play a role in the novel, but with Uzbeks, Tartars, Georgians, Ukrainians, Jaak the Estonian and so on. Smith reminds you again and again of the sheer scale and scope of Russia, the size of the country, the complexity of its history, the misery of its plight. One short scene in particular, one pair of sentences, took my breath away. Arkady interviews an Uzbek prostitute working by the roadside in Munich, until she gets fed up:

She set her face and started walking again, wobbling on her heels. Uzbeks had once been the Golden Horde of Tamerlane that had swept from Mongolia to Moscow. This was the end, [a prostitute] stumbling along the autobahn. (p.324)

An example of the way Smith’s mind works all the angles, in even the most banal scene finding the historical, the poetic perspective, dazzling with the depth of his knowledge and the dexterous way he deploys it in scintillating sentences.

This is a really cracking, deeply informative, entertaining, exciting and beautifully written book.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

10 June 2012

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose published ‘Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest’ in 1992. It’s a remarkable story and finding one company which had such varied and yet emblematic experiences was a stroke of luck or inspiration.

The book is a little more confusing than the HBO mini-series based on it (transmitted in 2001). There are a lot more individuals in the book (and in reality, presumably) whereas the TV series did what all film and TV does, which is simplify and focus in on just a handful of individuals, allowing us to “get to know them” better.

In fact what came over most vividly to me is the hypertextuality of the book – Ambrose describes how the wartime closeness of the men of Easy Company led to various forms of postwar contact, from reunions to newsletters. It’s interesting to discover which of the characters were most proactive in these activities, and to realise that the characters we’ve read a lot about tended to be the ones who wrote and organised most. Maybe that’s inevitable but it makes you realise how skewed and partial the book potentially is. And, overlaying their stories, is the account of Ambrose’s increasing involvement with these men which leads him to commission them to write memoirs of their wartime deeds, or dig up letters and diaries. That’s what I mean by its hypertextuality – the way the book is made up of lots of other texts, sources, diaries, interviews, letters and memoirs.

It’s also a good example of the power of paratextuality. By this I mean that bits of the book normally thought of as peripheral or unimportant, in fact had as much impact on me as the main narrative, and radically changed my impression of the whole.

1. The final chapter, detailing the various soldiers’ post-war careers is in many ways more interesting than the preceding 300 page account of their wartime deeds. These few pages contain the seeds of a probing and maybe disturbing novel. The shiny heroes of the previous chapters move on into the Postwar world and become CEOs of big corporations or alcoholics, teachers or suicidal depressives. Some of these stories are just as poignant as anything told in the main narrative. For me, the stories told in these sections are better than a novel. They’re as brief as good short stories; their brevity is as suggestive as poetry.

2. The final section of acknowledgements details Ambrose’s intense involvement with the men of Easy Company, meeting with many of them on numerous occasions, attending their reunions, visiting with them the sites of battles described in the text, hearing about their attempts to stay in touch with each other or help comrades who’d fallen on hard times. Eventually he is elected an honorary member of the Company.

The depth of Ambrose’s involvement with these living men, the amount of activity the veterans kept up over the years, the large amount of texts they generated in a whole range of formats, and the poignancy of their post-war lives struck me as being more dense, more felt, more evocative and more moving and more complex than the war stories they are so keen to share.  And this depth and complexity and lack of happy endings, the messiness of their lives and of the way Ambrose got involved in those lives and became a player in the events he was describing, made me think of the book as much more of a modernist novel than you usually experience from a work of ‘history’.

‘Band of Brothers’ – HBO home page

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