Mustn’t Grumble by Posy Simmonds (1993)

In 1987 cartoonist Posy Simmonds brought down the curtain on the weekly strip cartoon she’d been drawing for the Guardian newspaper and which featured the everyday lives and woes of a gaggle of well-meaning middle-aged, middle-class mums and dads, coloured by a feminist slant on the tribulations of being a stay-at-home mum, or a working mum, or a young woman, or just a woman, in a sexist, man’s world.

The strip focused in particular on the married couple George and Wendy Weber, he an earnest, hunched-over, mustachioed lecturer in sociology at a London polytechnic, she an ex-nurse and harassed mother of six trying to do night school classes, the pair of them united by a commitment to touchy-feely liberal socialism, and vegetarianism and environmentalism. They felt a bit out-dated when they first appeared in the paper in 1977, and they and their world had failed to move with the times, with the triumph of Thatcherism, the unashamed declaration that ‘greed is good’, the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation in the City of London which brought tsunamis of new money coursing through the capital, out into the Home Counties and bought tens of thousands of holiday homes around the countryside, while the Thatcher government did its best to dismantle the post-war welfare state, demonised single mums and welfare scroungers, and huge tranches of heavy industry were denationalised or scrapped.

In 1987 Simmonds axed the Posy strip and concentrated on writing and illustrating children’s books. She continued to do miscellaneous illustrations for the Guardian and other newspapers and magazines. Then in 1992 she returned to the paper with a new strip which lasted a year, chronicling the misadventures of a grumpy, middle-aged, male novelist, J.D. Crouch. (Why, I couldn’t help thinking, does a vehement feminist devote a strip to a man, and a grumpy, middle-aged man at that? Is it because men are more interesting to write about – but surely that’s feminist heresy. Or is it because men, middle-aged grumpy men, are such fun to lambast and satirise?)

This volume, Mustn’t Grumble, brings together that miscellaneous work, plus some of the Crouch series, so feels a bit bitty.

I think the title, Mustn’t Grumble, is ironic. I assume it is an ironic comment on what would nowadays be called the white privilege of most of the characters, who are members of the comfortably-off, London, middle-classes – with a particular focus on Crouch and the London world of writing and publishing – who, despite living what a lot of the rest of the British population would regard as a life of luxury, still manage to be unhappy and find fault with everything.

A calendar from 1988

Simmonds created large-format, monthly cartoons – more illustrated texts – for the Spectator magazine through 1988 and 1989. The calendar format allowed Simmonds to focus on a completely new range of characters, one a month, whose lives are taken to typify the ‘greed is good’ decade as it ended and gave way to the 1900s. Thus:

  • January Miles Upmaster (42) LMX broker at Johnson, Duff, Morant, lives in Parsons green with wife Vanessa and daughters Jojo and Davina
  • February Chloe Banister (37) design consultant at a top Soho consultancy, a house in Dulwich Village with husband Hugo (TV commercials director) and son Jack, who’s down for Westminster.
  • March Jackie Green (29) bed and breakfast landlady, husband’s off work ill, Jackie’s doing lots of jobs to make ends meet and can no longer afford to live in the seaside village of her birth.
  • April Desmond Duff (82) retired engineer and resident of Deddingham Court Rest Home.
  • May Mr Robin Chutney-Darke, a dealer in 18th and 19th century paintings, educated at Eton.
  • June Katie Gilleyman (7) is having a birthday party, which in true bilious Simmonds style, is an opportunity for her to describe the snobbery, hypocrisy and showing off among the various mums.
  • July Tony McVitie and Lorraine, waiting exhausted in the departure lounge for the plane back to England from Malta, where they’ve been on holiday and Lorraine’s lovely long legs got a) sunburnt b) bitten by mosquitoes.
  • August Farmer Hughes facing financial ruin.
  • September Prissie Rugeley, mother of four and wife of a British Army infantry officer stationed in Germany.
  • October James Dalston Crouch (59) fading novelist, is at Euston accompanied by sexy young publicity girl from his publishers, having arrived back from a dismal outing to a book signing in Manchester where only six people turned up.
  • November Simon Sandercock (33) single, company director, rugger player, in blue and white striped tie and bright red braces, what a hoot he is!
  • December A characteristically cynical and downbeat take on Christmas, Simmonds focuses on an ageing failed actor named Gerald, who had high hopes, played a number of roles in provincial theatres and a few sitcoms, and now is reduced to working as Father Christmas in a department store.

What’s striking is how wordy these profiles are, how densely worked-out everyone’s backstory is, as if they are characters in a novel. There’s nothing particularly comic or even entertaining about the characters, except, maybe, the wry smile of recognition which I identified earlier as the prime pleasure from a Posy Simmonds cartoon.

And they’re in colour, full colour, unlike all the Posy strips, attention to colour which will come into its own in the later graphic novels.

Six bounden duties

I had to look up the meaning of this phrase. A ‘bounden duty’ is ‘a responsibility regarded by oneself or others as obligatory’. Each of the six is in the page-sized format of the Posy strips.

  1. Conservation A message from Aubrey Shyte, owner of Grade II listed Rakesham Hall, in which he spouts the usual crap of owners of very big houses which are largely funded from the public purse, and explains why it is necessary to close the public footpath through his deer park.
  2. Numeracy and literacy As if for children, the strip compares the world of Smilies (1st class travel, 1st class service, 2nd homes, 2nd cars, 3 hour lunches etc) and Grumblies (1 parent families, 2nd class citizens, 3rd world conditions etc) i.e. the gleeful rich and the miserable poor. The sentiment is hardly novel, and the tone is bleak and bitter. The entertainment, such as it is, comes in the format and in the satirical use of child-style drawings to convey this bitter truth.
  3. A sense of humour Simmonds parodies a range of different comic styles with dead humourless, depressing, grim content i.e. the first little strip is about the gender wage gap, then how we’re killing the planet with radiation, then the health gap between the rich and the poor, then a working class woman complaining about male chauvinism… Hard to see who this kind of thing is aimed at… Is it preaching to the choir to make them feel more bitter and angry?
  4. Keeping the lines of communication open Middle class parents in the kitchen with a bottle of wine open discussing their awful children, lazing around reading porn all day… while the teenage kids are in the living room saying their parents are grumpy because they’re going through the menopause and mid-life crisis – both teams saying it’s just a phase the others are going through. This just feels bleak and depressing.
  5. Not to change one’s spots A comfortably off middle class family claim they haven’t changed a bit, well, they’ve sold the old C CV and bought a Volvo, sold the bean bags and Che Guevara posters, and built a new conservatory on the back of the house, still running a poster shop which is doing frightfully well, and as to politics it’s not them that’s changed, it’s the Labour Party. — Obviously the point is to show how they have changed out of all recognition from their young adult selves.
  6. To record Some kind of satire on the middle class compulsion to record everything with a camera and on video, with a bit of extra satire / bitterness thrown in at the end saying there are some events too traumatic to be photographed… and that’s when the bloodsucking media step in… Odd, because Posy did of course work most of her life for the bloodsucking media.

The cherry orchard A satire on Londoners and their second homes in the country, cast in the form of a parody of the Chekhov play, with the middle class couple lamenting the fact that the orchard across the road was sold by the farmer to a developer who’s built a bloody great garden centre there! The couple can’t wait to sell up and get back to London.

Hard Times (1992)

As mentioned above, Simmonds returned to the Guardian with a new strip rotating about the failing novelist J.D. Crouch, but giving herself the freedom to feature other ad hoc characters and even – the occasional cameo appearance from the old Weber favourites.

  • Hard times An ironic strip in which reinsurance broker Miles Upmaster gets home and berates his young wife for having friends round, eating expensive food etc, seeing as he’s had no bonus for two years, the firm’s reorganising and he might even be sacked. In the final picture he lies back on an elaborate, swagged and bow-tied four-poster bed and laments how hard his life is.
  • An explanation by J.D. Crouch, Author Crouch explains that the recent interview and photos of him at home with his family are a travesty, that he dislikes his grown-up son and is going through a rough patch with his second wife.

  • Mid-life libido in forward and reverse J.D. Crouch first of all rants to his wife that their son had a pretty young woman over to stay and how dare he use the place as a knocking shop. When his wife puts him right, that they’re not shagging, just friends, he slept on the floor etc, Crouch switches to the polar opposite position and says, Good God, why on earth is his son not knocking off such a fabulous ‘piece’, lovely bum in figure-hugging leather. In other words, Men, eh! Lascivious hypocrites.
  • Mens sana Crouch and his adult son have an argument because the old man is always having epic baths, which triggers a trip down memory lane, remembering all the baths he’s had in all the cheap shitty flats, and how much he cared about Thom Gunn and Suez in the 50s, and Ferlinghetti and Czechoslovakia in the 60s, and the more luxury bath he got when his first novel made it big and was adapted for TV. Now we find Crouch splashing about in a huge jacuzzi!
  • Literary party Crouch tells us about a literary party he went to, giving his version of events in which he nonchalantly sailed through the crowd – but this is counterpointed by sub-titles pointing out what really happened, which is that Crouch barely got close to the people he said he talked to, and nobody was interested in talking to him except a waitress who said she thought her granny liked his stuff. Depressing portrait of a man on the way down.
  • Club ability Crouch’s wife Sophie is invited to his club where a crusty old cigar-smoking bore explains to her why they don’t allow women members and she proceeds to take the mickey, yes, my God, what would happen if women were allowed in to remind men of their child-rearing responsibilities or maybe drinking all alone at the bar or… Feminism = helping middle-class women join exclusive London clubs.
  • Haves and have-nots An idealistic young teacher is trying to teach a junior school class to pretend to be flower buds in the soil which slowly wriggle upwards and burst into the light. One little boy gets it, but when she asks the others to do the same they explain he’s only showing off because he’s got a brand new pair of Nike Air trainers.
  • Lost Eden A Victorian picture of children playing in the street is criticised by do-gooding modern parents, tut tut, they might be knocked down by a lorry or abducted by a paedo… contrasted with a picture of today’s young people, packed inside onto a sofa, eating junk food and watching violent videos on TV.
  • Noises off A well-off middle class woman is in bed with her husband and the can hear the coughing of the vagrant who sleeps in their doorway all night, and she then has an aria describing how awful it is and how awful she and her husband feel, and that’s why they’re double glazing the window so they won’t be able to hear him any more.
  • The vileness of penury Vanessa, blonde wife of reinsurance broker Miles (who we’ve met several times by now) answers the door to her ex-cleaner. Miles has been laid off so they’ve had to sack all their staff and the strip consists of a sequence of speeches in which Vanessa asks the tracksuit-bottomed cleaner to feel sorry for her, now that they’re both in the same boat and all.
  • Common market A stuck-up posh mum walks round a London market lamenting the scruffy way the common fruit and veg are displayed and comparing everything negatively with the simply super markets you get in France (where she, of course, has a second home) – and wonders why all the stall-keepers scowl at her.
  • Insecurity Miles and Vanessa Upmaster (again) she wakes up in the middle of the night (in their wonderfully curtained and beribboned double bed) because she hears something outside and her subsequent fears give a list of all the burglars and criminals a posh white lady can imagine, up to and including the hiss of an ocy-acetylene kit until they realise… it’s the sound of someone having a piss in their doorway.
  • Beneath the ivory tower The life of a writer is a hard one, grinding away, wasting time in all kind of displacement activities. And so grumpy J.D. Crouch goes to the grocers where he buys some peas and some such while listening to customers discussing the ups and downs of Lady Di’s marriage to Prince Charles (they were married on 29 July 1981, during 1992 the book about her by Andrew Morton, plus leaked phone recording revealed their marriage was a sham). Crouch takes a characteristically pompous and high line that he doesn’t read ‘newspapers’ or mucky his fingers with current affairs. Whereas we then see him take the groceries home wrapped in a newspaper which he feverishly unfolds, straightens out and reads.
  • Agony and ecstasy The Webers haven’t completely disappeared. Here George makes a reappearance. An old friend from the poly took early retirement and was irked when, shortly afterwards, the poly upgraded to a university. Now he meets George and colleagues in the pub who set him right about how working conditions are ten times harder, no-one will fund their course, the seminar room is always booked, the students are doing so many other modules they can’t concentrate on your courses, and so on…
  • Object lesson A mum who bears a resemblance to an older, grey-haired Wendy Weber, tries to comfort her daughter who’s convinced she’s fat and ugly, the mum telling her she’s not and she should be glad not to be treated as a ‘sex object’, the result of all the battles her mum and the feminists of her generation fought, and any way she’s bombarded with phone calls from boys. That, mum, the girl is explained, is because I can drive. They want me to be their taxi driver. As she slopes away she sobs, ‘I’d rather be a sex object.’
  • Dating a single parent Man arrives to take a woman on a date. Her little one bursts out crying and needs to be comforted. When she asks the teenage daughter to look after the toddler, the teenager bursts out that mum doesn’t care about her revision or her exams. So they all end up crying in a cuddle, and when the mum eventually extricate herself to go with her date, she looks frazzled. Being a woman is so hard!
  • Coming cleanish Crouch is having an affair with a young woman (do writers do anything else, in Posy Simmonds?) and spends the strip working through different scenarios how to tell his wife, ending up with bottling out and not telling her at all.
  • Acquiring the habit Crouch comes across his teenage children quietly reading books and is astonished and delighted and tells wife Sophie to keep quiet, but she insists they’re a load of old rubbish they found at the jumble sale, full of nauseating stereotypes and their bickering puts the kids off reading so they turn on the TV and get glued to the box.
  • Fireworks At a fireworks party a grandad is arguing with his teenage grand-daughter, complaining about her generations’s pessimism, they’ve never had it so good etc. The mother intervenes to break up the fight but finds both the others turning on her, the grandad saying the 60s generation had it lucky, with an economic boom, growth in higher education, jobs galore, cheap flats, sex on tap thanks to the pill, yes and all before AIDS says the daughter and before you know it, old and young have ganged up on the middle-aged mum. It’s tough being a middle-aged woman!
  • Sunbeam corner A bizarre strip in which a balding middle-aged man conducts a smiling exercise, in order to keep optimistic, although the words underneath spell the grim news headlines of the day (Maastricht, wages freeze, subsidiarity, British steel, Downing Street, Public spending freeze, Price increases etc.
  • We’re dreaming of a white Christmas Aubrey Shyte, the pompous rich landowner, has become a real hate figure for Simmonds, and leads this hypocritical rendering of ‘White Christmas’, against the backdrop of a dingy, rundown street somewhere in London with a couple of homeless people sleeping in doorways, until the snow covers up the homeless and the street looks remarkably scenic and festive. God, Simmonds hates Christmas! Of the ten or so Christmas cartoons she’s done, all are dyspeptic.

A calendar from 1989

Another series of page-large pieces, each featuring a person of the month, described in immense wordy detail and accompanied by a full-scale, colour cartoon, with a spattering of other smaller ones illustrating the text.

  • Janvier Mme Rutherford, harassed French teacher, two young children in daycare, husband works at a garden centre, worn down with stress by the horrible kids, growing class sizes, LEA cuts so she has to cover other teacher’s lessons, and soon. God, it’s hard being a woman (teacher).
  • February Conversation among a gaggle of middle-aged men and women attending a health spa in the country, ending with the sort of comedy that they sneak out to scoff a packet of Maltesers in the car park.
  • March A soliloquy from Australian dentist Warren McMurdo moaning about the bad state posh patient Simon Sandercock arrives in.
  • April Rachel (14) on her horse Sultan, at this year’s First Gashford Hunt.
  • May Dido is 18 from Haverstock Hill and at a super private school.
  • June Etiquette for the new landed gentry: Dealing with trespassers i.e. if you’re nouveau riche and bought a whopping house in the country you need to clear trespassers off your land but be damned certain they’re oiks and walkers, and not other members of the gentry who you need to keep buttered up.
  • July Gillian Button (25) with a first in French and Drama, is now a PA at the BBC, and a surprisingly heavy smoker.
  • August Clive Troutley (37) a golf addict.
  • September When harassed housewife Pippa gets to W in the alphabet book she’s reading her kids, she realises everything named in it is either a health hazard or threatened with extinction (panda, whale etc). Depressing.
  • October Adam Nubleigh (27) went to a North London comprehensive but dresses and sounds as if he went to a posh private school and flogs fake antique furniture to the over-rich.
  • November Posh Naomi Padfield is a big opera fan. She is given a soliloquy about how she’s driven up to Covent Garden from Beaconsfield despite the beastly traffic on the M40.
  • December Colin Cockley is managing director of Retouché Studios, here he is at the firm’s Christmas party.


  1. how everyone is white, heterosexual and all are either Londoners or from the sunny Home Counties. Black, Asian or immigrant experience, lower-middle or working-class experience, are things beyond Simmonds’s ken and which she therefore, wisely, avoids.
  2. The use of rich deep colouring.
  3. The very heavy use of text. At least half, sometimes more, of the space is text. There’s little funny or amusing about these caricatures, but a great deal of effort has gone into thinking through each of the characters’ backstories.

Bumping along the bottom

Being a further set of the weekly strips Simmonds devoted to failing novelist J.D. Crouch, with appearances from other characters, and a few cameo appearances from our old friends George and Wendy Weber.

Does ‘bumping along the bottom’ refer solely to Crouch, or to the entire middle class which was hit hard by the recession of 1991-2?

  • Bumping along the bottom Miles Upmaster, who we’ve met a number of times, is now officially unemployed and trying to sell his house, reduced to scrubbing and cleaning it and then keeping his temper while prospective buyers walk round it poking and prying.
  • Scene from a literary life J.D. Crouch takes his dog for a walk on the common and, noticing people stopping and staring, egotistically assumes because he was on TV last night doing an interview. Simmonds gives him plenty of room to preen and swank before pulling back to reveal that all this time his dog is being shagged by another dog. That’s why people are staring and pointing.
  • Missing persons Canvassers for political parties are shown working their way along a busy road of suburban houses, and the inhabitants making all kinds of excuses for not speaking to them. Only at the end does one of the frustrated canvassers explain they’re all dodging the poll tax (which required that you had to register to pay the council tax in order to get on the electoral register. An estimated million people preferred to have no vote and so avoid paying the tax).
  • Election fever A satire on the Crouch household getting ‘election fever’, told from the point of view of the wife, Sophie, who feels dizzy and nauseous for three weeks (being a Labour voter) compared to grumpy old Crouch the novelist who votes Conservative (Why? ‘Because of my wallet’), the strip follows through election night when, contrary to all the opinion polls, the Conservatives under John Major returned to power (9 April 1992).
  • Tired old sociologist George Weber sits, alone and alienated, in a shopping centre and marvels that people are still continuing on the same mindless consumerism which characterised the 1980s, despite the economic crash, unemployment, bankruptcies and so on. His musings are transformed into those of a naturalist studying the great herds of the African savannah.
  • Topped balls Crouch is trying to get membership of an exclusive golf club but his attempts are ruined by his wife, Sophie, who insists on coming along, bring the two small children and picking mushrooms.
  • Spot the difference Using the split screen or binary technique she’s used elsewhere, Simmonds contrasts the fortunes of a dealer in oil paintings and watercolours at their 1988 ‘view’ and the same event four years later in 1992 i.e. at the 1992 view, he can’t afford canapés, the wine is cheap and nobody is buying.

  • Terminal belly ache Waiting at the airport department lounge with his wife and children, Crouch volunteers to go and get a magazine for his wife to read. When he returns after some delay he is in a filthy mood, complaining about the junk people watch and read and eat and drink. Wife Sophie knows what this means. He didn’t find a copy of one his books in the bookstall.
  • Déjeuner sur le patio A simply lovely English middle-class couple lament that their simple holiday hideaway in rural France has been ruined by all kinds of pollution (from the septic tank, the chlorine in the swimming pool, the copper sulphate they spray the vines with), there seem to be endless repairs, snarling dogs if you go for a walk and they’re the only ones in the village who didn’t vote for Le Pen. God how they wish they could return to the simple life in London!
  • Old rose-tinted spectacles Two big pictures contrasting Then and Now. Once, grown-up folk cast friendly eyes on children… Now they’re scared of them.

Old rose-tinted spectacles by Posy Simmonds (1993)

  • One man’s meat A middle-class couple agonise about what to take to their kids’ school’s International Picnic to represent British cuisine. Everything they think of (bacon, ham, sausage rolls, pork pies) will offend one or other religious or cultural sensitivity.
  • The brood Seems to be the Weber family’s kitchen in which are Wendy Weber, now that much older and with grey hair, talking to her married daughter Belinda, who appears to have had a baby, and the eldest daughter Sophie. Sophie’s thinking about having a baby and has seen something on the telly about how over-50s can be fertilised. Belinda and Sophie both think that’s gross and, more to the point, both think Wendy should be investing her time and savings in them and their babies.
  • P.C. PC 43 A heavy-handed satire about a police constable who uses only politically correct language e.g. referring to the homeless as ‘the involuntarily undomiciled’.
  • A lecture Crouch is invited ‘all the way out here’ to the polytechnic where George Weber works to deliver a lecture. Now, afterwards, George is accompanying him to the train station. Initially Crouch complains about the poor attendance and the bad food and the crappy wine and slowly George – an older, grey-haired George Weber – turns the tables and starts to lecture Crouch about how hard it is trying to keep an underfunded university lit and working despite not having the advantage of fancy-ancy Oxbridge colleges.
  • Sour grapes of wrath Crouch is at a book signing and seethes with jealousy because no one is asking for his signature but crowds are flocking around comedian Nigel Doyle and working mum and TV presenter Denni Welch. His loathing bursts out into muttered insults and abuse with his PR people telling him this isn’t going to persuade people to come over. This struck me as sad, not funny and is, I think, the third book signing strip we’ve seen.
  • The perfect present As usual, Christmas brings out the bilious, cynical and bad-tempered in Posy Simmonds, as she describes the tribulations of a young woman who has become the girlfriend of a married man who left his wife for her. This Christmas the ex-wife is holidaying with her lover in Luxor and the girlfriend knows that, whatever she buys and no matter how much effort she goes to, her boyfriend’s kids will vent all their rage and anger at their parents’ break-up onto her.
  • I’m dreaming of… Packed with resonance for fans of the Posy strip, this shows Belinda, eldest daughter of George and Wendy Weber, now married to her banker, (options trader) Alistair Razor-Dorke and director of her own upmarket catering company, as they ponder whether to spend Christmas with her parents (George and Wendy in their poky terrace conversion) listening to them moan against the government, or with his parents (frightfully posh but live in a draughty old country house and will serve posh but decrepit old food) – or stay in their swish two-bedroom, waterfront, duplex apartment, hmmm, it’s not a difficult decision.
  • I’m dreaming of… Reappearance of the appalling alcoholic Edmund Heep who rings work to say he’s too sick to come in and describes the night before when he went on a pub crawl with a friend, downing an appalling amount of booze, nearly getting into a fight with skinheads before stumbling into a late night caff and ordering scrambled eggs. Now he is claiming it was the eggs, the eggs that made him ill.
  • Christmas: The adoration of the general public As usual, Simmonds’s take on Christmas is jaundiced and cynical. Her Christmas strip for 1988 consisted of one large cartoon showing two sides of Christmas (this binary juxtaposition of past and present or idealised and actual, is an extremely common device). On the left we see the crib with the baby Jesus in it and Mary worshiping surrounded by angels, in the style of a Renaissance painting. On the right we see the identical stable but in this one Father Christmas is doling out presents to excited kiddies whose parents are queueing up in front, under the watchful eye of a security guard with walkie-talkie. There is a comic touch in that many of the mums and dads are saying ‘aaah’ at the religious scene, but the security guard is saying into his walkie-talkie ‘aaah… over.’

The end of January 1989

Once again, this is done in a calendar format, with one strip for every month of the year. I didn’t understand why they’re titled ‘The end of…’ January, February etc. The pictures are smaller than ever and overwhelmed with explanatory text, which sometimes begin to read like short stories.

  • The end of January A wordy sequence explaining the career of Kevin Penwallet, once an anthropology lecturer who quite working at the same polytechnic as George Weber to set up a shop in the sweet Cornish?) seaside village of Tresoddit. He started with health foods in 1979, but was forced to bend to prevailing commercialism and in 1989 turned it into Ye Olde Gift Shoppe full of twee knick-knacks before, in 1988, turning it into an upmarket delicatessen catering to the ever-increasing numbers of wealthy Londoners, to a chorus of disapproval from the locals, and from his old friend George Weber who accuses him of ‘collaboration with the consuming interests of the over-rewarded.’
  • The end of February George Weber is appalled by the mother’s day cards his daughters are browsing and points out to Wendy that they all present reassuring images of motherhood, mostly from the 19th century, and this is because we, as a society, are traumatised and sacred of numerous new hazards – streets full of muggers and addicts, paedophiles, country full of radioactive sheep and cows with BSE, rivers full of junk and pesticides, ozone layer being eaten away, sex is dangerous (AIDS) – and so need mummy’s hand to cling on to. Trouble is, when he tries to envision a perfectly up-to-date vision of mother caring for her young ones, what he sees is… a child-minder.
  • The end of March A sustained blast against the comprehensive pollution and desecration of the countryside, as seen by the endless flow of bumper-to-bumper traffic heading down our polluted motorways.
  • The end of April A soliloquy from an unbearably posh upper-class lady telling us how they’ve done up their house, and the whole neighbourhood is gentrified and you can buy decent prosciutto and the tramps have been kicked out of the square which has been turned into a wildflower garden and they can afford the best private education for their kids, mind you all this comes at the high cost of security, security locks, security buzzers, a panic room and an electrified truncheon.
  • The end of May: Jerusalem A satire on the new young rich and their passion for redecorating their stonking new homes, set to a parody of Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘And did those brogues in ancient times, Walk upon Nigel’s verdant sward, Or were they only just acquired, In Bond Street with an Access card…’ and so on.
  • The end of June: Our friendly neighbourhood Use of the frequent juxtaposition technique, two large pictures showing past and present or appearance and reality, in this case showing the polite greetings made between a cross-section of modern young people out walking, set against…the ferociously aggressive messages conveyed by their huge and frightening dogs.

  • The end of July: Turning back the floral clock A history of the floral clock on the seafront parade of some coastal town, as it evolved from 1959, 1969, 1979 to 1989, with tut tutting comments from each generation of locals.
  • The end of August This is a laboured satire on a middle-class family with two older children, just back from shopping at their local organic grocers’ with their right-on dad, who proceed to find various slugs and maggots in all the fruit and veg, much to the children’s disgust, but the patronising father assures them this is a good sign, shows no pesky pesticides were used.
  • The end of September: A Jeremiad for the new academic year We’re in the staff room of George Weber’s poly where the staff are grimly depressed about the start of a new year, and where the principal lecturer in information design brings them even lower by revealing that his students are doing signs for the new massive ‘Phosco’ superstore being built on the edge of town.
  • The end of October Soliloquy by one of Simmonds’s trademark posh mums with massive hairdo who spends the first half lamenting what blood-sucking bastards the people who bought their house are… and the second half explaining how they’ve screwed a great deal out of the people they’re buying from. Hypocrisy doesn’t come much purer.
  • The end of November: The march of feminism as shown by the changing shape of women’s shoes from 1969 to 1989, with a bit of satire thrown in about how the Forward March of feminism seems to be being held up by sisters in the 1980s. Tut tut.
  • A Christmas Carol A typically sour Simmonds take on Christmas in which the spirit of Christmas, looking very much like our old friend, the alcoholic Edmund Heep, appears to a sleek, well, manicured City banker, all to the accompaniment of a parody of the festive hymn: ‘While Shepherd watched his stocks by night, And monitored the pound, The other chaps went down the pub, And Gloria stood a round…’

As mentioned, there’s so much text and information in some of these cartoons that they read almost like short stories. This affects the size of the pictures, which are often very small and crammed with narrative text, and then further filled with speech or thought balloons – quite a stuffing of text and meaning until the ‘reading’ experience becomes quite complicated or demanding.

All this anticipates the style of her graphic novels with their dense interplay of different types of text (narrative, dialogue, thoughts, along with parodies, songs and quotes) with very tightly-drawn pictures arranged in very precise and rather cramped compositions.


Negative and depressing

When I first read through the six books collected in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus I came to the end deeply disliking Posy Simmonds for her unremitting negativity and satire which I felt lacked wit but overflowed with bile.

Having taken the time and trouble to go through and itemise pretty much every cartoon in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, I now realise the negative feeling I took away largely stems from this final collection, Mustn’t Grumble, for in it the tone really darkens, she stops being very funny at all and the satire – for example against brutal rich bastards like Aubrey Shyte – becomes genuinely bitter.

Meanwhile the extended series of cartoons about the failure and self-loathing of past-it novelist J.D. Crouch also – for me – had nothing redeeming about it, it’s just episodes from the life of a middle-aged man who is failing and angry against the world.

And the twenty-four calendar characters from the Spectator similarly have next to nothing humorous about them but are all-too-accurate barometers of a society becoming steadily, relentlessly more greedy, self-serving, and shamelessly unequal.

So I realise now that it was mainly this last book which left such a bitter aftertaste in my mind, and overshadowed the fact that most of the earlier collections are much lighter in tone, and do contain genuinely comic moments which are worth savouring and remembering.

Abandoning the Weber family meant, to some extent, abandoning the containment of her bitter vision of the world within the cosy arena of the regular gallery of comic characters.

Set free, unconstrained, but also unsoftened, by the mollifying filter of the Weber characters, Simmonds’s vision emerges in this final collection, as one of real anger and bitterness at the social injustice and the revolting hypocrisy of the new, rich middle classes of Thatcher’s Britain.

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From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!

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Kandinsky by Hajo Düchting (1993)

The German publisher Taschen launched its inexpensive ‘Basic Art’ series back in 1985 with a volume on Picasso. 33 years later, it has nearly 200 titles in the series and recently relaunched them as tall, slim hardbacks at a standard price of £10. Decades ago I picked up a clutch of titles about the Expressionist painters when they were in their cheaper, paperback incarnation.

This one, about the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, is 96 pages long. It has about 80 illustrations, mostly in full colour, which give you an excellent overview of Kandinsky’s development from late-Victorian figurative work, through the Expressionist years – which saw his accelerated movement into abstraction around 1910 – his 7-year spell back in Moscow, before he moved back to Germany to teaching at the famous Bauhaus school of art and design, before his final years in exile in Paris.

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Kandinsky’s life in six chapters

The chapter titles give a good overview:

  • Mother Moscow 1866-1896
  • Kandinsky in Munich 1896-1911
  • Breakthrough to the abstract: Der Blaue Reiter 1911-1914
  • Russian Intermezzo 1914-1921
  • Point and Line to Plane: Kandinsky at the Bauhaus 1922-1933
  • Biomorphic abstraction: Kandinsky in Paris 1933-1944

The pioneer of abstract painting

A picture paints a thousand words, so here’s an overview of his evolving style:


Born and educated in Moscow, Kandinsky’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his aunt who gave him a lifelong love of Russian legend and fairy tales. He studied law, and had a sideline in anthropology – in fact he was made a member of the Society for Anthropology and Ethnography for a study he made of rural peasant culture. But by the mid-1890s Kandinsky’s thinking had moved on. He had decided he wanted to be an artist. Recently married, in 1896 he persuaded his new wife that he was going to abandon his law studies and that they should move to Munich.


Munich had already experienced a ‘secession’ of progressive young artists from the official art school in 1892 and, as Kandinsky arrived, was just becoming the German centre of Art Nouveau (in Germany dubbed the Jugendstil) which advocated the rejection of Victorian mass-produced clutter, and a return to clarity of line and design.

Kandinsky applied to various art schools, took life and painting classes but he also proved to be a good organiser. In 1901 he was instrumental in setting up the ‘Phalanx’ group of painters and organising a series of exhibitions. For the next 14 years he was a leading light in a whole succession of movements and organisations in southern Germany.

In 1908 Kandinsky settled in the small Bavarian town of Murnau, where he lived and worked with his second wife-to-be, the painter Gabriele Münter. He joined the Theosophical Society, a promoter of arcane spiritual knowledge. We know from his letters that he was studying the abstruse teachings of the 13th century writer, Joachim of Fiore. In other words, Kandinsky was soaked in arcane and hermetic spiritualist teachings, convinced that the world stood on the brink of a new era and that his painting would help to usher it in.

In 1909 he began to divide his works into three categories:

  • Impressions which still have elements of naturalistic representation
  • Improvisations designed to convey spontaneous emotional reactions
  • Compositions the most serious category, only created after substantial preliminary work

Note how all three names are taken from the language of music, indicative of the era’s interest in ‘synaesthesia’, in the combination of music and art which had been fashionable since Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ and ‘compositions’ of the 1870s.

The Blue Rider

In 1911 Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group, which he led with Franz Marc. Both men wrote extensively on the importance of the ‘spiritual’ in the new art, indeed that’s the title of Kandinsky’s major theoretical work, On the Spiritual in Art (1913).

Together he and Marc compiled the ‘Blue Rider almanac’, designed to include a wealth of illustrations, not only of contemporary art but primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass. It included nine major essays, not only about art but on contemporary music and included the scores of pieces by the new group of ‘Second Vienna’ composers, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

In both the selection of essays and its innovative interplay of word and image, The Blaue Reiter Almanac remains one of our most critically important works of literature on the art theory and culture of the twentieth century.

The almanac was a call for spiritual renewal across all the arts, which would unite, in particular, music and painting, an idea which remained an inspiration for Kandinsky all his life.

Very quickly he now moved through increasingly abstract depictions of the subject to his first utterly abstract work, painted in 1910 (when he was 50 years old). Kandinsky spent the next four years experimenting with the new idea of ‘subjectless’ painting and was still exploring this new approach when war broke out in 1914 and he was forced to flee Germany to Switzerland. In 1915 he moved back to Mother Russia.

Back in Moscow

Düchting explains how Kandinsky the organiser and networker had also developed quite a career as an art journalist and critic. He had been working for Russian art journals throughout the 1900s, reporting on developments in Germany’s avant-garde. Through his contacts with Russian art journals he had been associated with successive post-Symbolist art movements in Russia such as ‘the World of Art’, ‘the Blue Rose’ and the ‘Karo Bube’ groups – so Kandinsky had plenty of contacts to look up when he reappeared in Moscow in 1915.

But he was to be disappointed. Kandinsky found his extreme spiritual attitudes and wispy abstraction out of tune with the times. The 1912 Futurist manifesto, ‘A slap in the fact to public taste’, had been popular with the new generation of iconoclasts in Russia. Constructivism had been founded in 1913, Suprematism in 1915 – and both were fiercely anti-spiritual, interested in very hard edges and geometric abstraction.

The coming young artists were Rodchenko, Malevich and El Lissitzky, artists who were to flourish in the extreme avant-garde environment created by the Bolshevik revolution, a world away from the nature worship and spiritual ideals of his colleagues in Germany.

Nonetheless, Moscow was a big city, with many artistic strands, and so Kandinsky found employment. He helped to organise a series of exhibitions, found teaching and journalism work – but felt unwanted. He managed to navigate the chaos of the early years of the Russian Revolution. He even found work in the early versions of a State Cultural Institute. It wasn’t Soviet pressure that led him to feel increasingly alienated as the 1920s dawned – it was the opposition of the leading figures in new Russian art. The times were changing.

The Bauhaus 1922-33

In 1921 he returned to Germany – wise move as it turned out. His key compadres in the Blue Rider (Marc, Macke) had been killed in the war and Berlin was now dominated by the bitterly satirical mode soon to be named ‘the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’).

So Kandinsky was relieved to be invited to join the new Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar, where some of his former colleagues – Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger – were already working. It looked to be a more congenial environment.

Kandinsky began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1922. He taught students in the new Introductory Course where he could involve them in his ongoing investigations of pictorial elements. A few years later he published a summary of his discoveries in ‘Point and Line to Plane’ (1926).

Kandinsky’s teaching was highly schematic, with courses on the meaning and nature of the different colours, their relative positions on colour wheels, their warmth or coldness etc – as well as technical teaching about the effectiveness of different binding media for painting canvas, glass, walls and murals. Paralleling these were lessons on lines, curves, circles and other shapes, exploring their effect on the eye and mind.

(It all sounds technical and impressive, but it’s important to emphasise that all these teachings, thorough and systematic though they were, were essentially subjective, based on his own knowledge of colour and line. If you’re looking for a truly scientific understanding of the impact of colour and line, you have to look elsewhere.)

In 1923 the Bauhaus underwent a reorganisation, with the departure of Johannes Itten, a precursor of the hippies, who valued intuition, held meditation and controlled breathing classes, and was a follower of the obscure fire-breathing cult of Mazdaznan – and his replacement with the Hungarian polymath, committed communist and devotee of industrial design and functionalism, László Moholy-Nagy.

Under the influence of the Bauhaus new emphasis on unifying the arts in the practical cause of building affordable houses for the masses, Kandinsky’s art entered a new, ‘cool’ phase, exploring the interplay of much more clearly defined, geometric shapes.

The Bauhaus went through a number of iterations, the original Weimar incarnation closing in 1925 and moving to purpose-built buildings at Dessau. By the end of the 1930s the leadership and some of the students were becoming politicised by the deteriorating situation in Germany. Hannes Meyer, director from 1928 to 1930, was a communist and encouraged students to criticise Klee and Kandinsky’s ‘ivory tower painting’.

It’s worth stopping and pondering the enormous social and cultural changes Kandinsky had seen since he arrived in Germany in 1901.

The Bauhaus was harassed by the Nazis before they even came to power and once Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 the intimidation intensified. Its final director, the architect Mies van der Rohe declared it officially closed in August 1933. By that time many of the faculty had left the country. Once more Kandinsky had to flee, this time heading west to France.

Paris 1933-1944

Kandinsky’s output from this last decade in Paris is characterised by wonderfully light, even humorous, zoomorphic and biomorphic abstractions. They often look like a fantasy of bacteria seen under a microscope.

He was, as always, involved in the politics of the art world, finding himself rejected by the dominant school of Constructivist artists as well as remaining traditionalists. Believe it or not, he flirted with the Surrealists and met their leader, André Breton who in the 1920s bought some paintings off him. But by the mid-1930s Breton had hardened his approach, politically and aesthetically: for the Surrealists the unconscious was everything, but Kandinsky’s post-war output had been the opposite – extremely carefully planned and organised using his elaborate theories about colour and shape – the opposite of ‘automatic painting’.

Most interesting to me is that, although they all came from different roots, and from different countries, Kandinsky’s art ranks alongside that of Klee, Miro and Arp in a generation which fully established abstract art as a profound and varied visual universe. It’s an odd social phenomenon, the convergence of so many artists on such a similar approach.

And with regard to Kandinsky in particular, it is lovely to finish the book and discover that, even as the world situation deteriorated through the later 1930s, and even as a new World War broke out, he continued to produce work of unparalleled calm, clarity and beauty.

What a colourful journey! What a wonderful life!

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)

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Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris


So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.


From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 to 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s ‘The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD’, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes.

The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095 to 1099), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).


  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe:

  • the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’
  • a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’
  • the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’
  • Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’
  • Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’

Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how Christ’s Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pages 148 to 152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.


This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.

Other medieval reviews

Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes (1993)

Antarctica. The same setting as Innes’ previous novel, Isvik, and we are introduced almost immediately to one of that book’s central characters, the mysterious moneyman, entrepreneur or spy (we never really learn which), Iain Ward. But it was only around page 200, when the narrator of this novel, Ed Cruse, actually joins the crew of the Isvik, setting sail with the same characters we met in the previous book – Iris Sunderby, Nils Solberg and the previous novel’s narrator, Peter Kettil – that I realised it was a full-blown sequel, though, at 416 pages, it’s a longer and more complicated book than Isvik.

(In an odd manoeuvre, that book is itself referred to by the characters as a factual record of what happened on Ward’s previous expedition, as a true account written by its actual narrator, Peter Kettil, but published as fiction in order to get round a D-notice banning accounts of it (p.161). As such it is read by the narrator of this text, Ed Cruse, on the flight to the south Atlantic, so that Cruse is briefed about the events of the previous adventure and knows the peculiar histories of the characters, especially the hot-tempered Latina, Iris, and her bizarre love affair with her half-brother and evil murder Mario Ángel Gómez – before he meets the same characters in real life.)

Plot summary

Michael Edwin ‘Ed’ Cruse has been in the RAF all his life, like his father before him. But he is an irresponsible daredevil and has got into trouble – and become notorious – for at least two stunts: During the Falklands War his Harrier jet was running out of fuel when he spotted an Argentine plane, a Pucará, apparently abandoned on a makeshift airstrip; he made a vertical landing with a view to siphoning out the Pucará’s fuel, but then heard on its radio, warning of two other Argentine bandits flying in to attack our forces; so he took off in the Pucará and attacked the bandits with it, forcing them to abandon their attack. Mad, irresponsible, but brave and it worked.

Then on a training exercise back in Britain, Cruse was ducking and diving among fighters along the river Severn and at the last minute realised he was going to have to fly under the Severn Bridge. In a Hercules transport plane! For this and other more traditional misbehaviour (trashing the mess one drunken night) he is discharged from the service (after a memorable farewell party from his admiring squadron, complete with bridge-shaped cake!).

Before he’d even left the force, Cruse was approached by a woman, Kirsty Fraser, on behalf of Iain Ward, to do a job. Ward is involved with an organisation which was building a mining base in Antarctica, run by a company called KLME, and which was being supplied by a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. One night the ice shelf fractured and the base was split in two, half the buildings, the aircraft hangar, the C-130 and half the runway marooned on a vast block of ice which detached from the mainland and floated slowly out to sea. The job is to fly the C-130 off the drastically shortened runway, then to the nearest base, to be refuelled and reused. A simple but very risky job many people think is impossible. Someone had heard about Cruse’s high profile antics and thought he’d be the man for the job.

The first hundred pages of the novel comprise a busy sequence of meetings with numerous colourful characters in London, Scotland and Paris, introducing us to the details of Cruse’s business deal and, in a larger perspective, to the network of characters and relationships who will feature in the story:

  • Ward’s secretary tips him off that Ward’s wife, Barbara, is bored and lonely because her husband is always gallivanting off round the globe, so she’s taken to placing small ads in the paper looking for company. Cruse calls the phone number and makes a date with Barbara in order to find out more about his mysterious employer. She turns out to be a respectable middle-class, middle-aged woman who is simply bored and frustrated. Cruse eventually coaxes her to describe her husband’s history and character as he treats her to an expensive meal at The Compleat Angler in Marlow, giving us useful background info before Cruse meets the man himself. Some weeks later, most of the arrangements for the trip in place, Cruse takes Barbara out for another date before he flies south, since he warmed to her on their first meeting. After dinner they go back to her place for a ‘romantic interlude’, but he finds himself impotent, his mind obsessed with the harrowing story of La Belle Phuket (see below). After the time spent on describing her and their meetings, I thought Barbara would become the ‘love interest’, but no, the novel – like real life – is more complex and confused than that, and we don’t hear of Barbara again.
  • Iain Ward Centre of the story, as he was of its prequel. Ward has a long, colourful past, starting as the son of a Glasgow prostitute, gravitating to small-time crook in London’s East End, and then getting to a scholarship to Eton, paid for by his crooked mentor, before getting involved in dubious deals in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is all before the adventure described in Isvik – travelling across the ice to find Eduardo Connor-Gómez, the sole survivor of an Argie ship loaded with political prisoners who had been deliberately infected with anthrax as part of a mad scheme to infect the Falkland Islands and make them uninhabitable. (Anthrax? You have to read Isvik to savour the full Gothic horror of the story…)
  • Travers, the original pilot of the C-130, repatriated to Scotland after the ice shelf broke off. He gives Cruse a typically spooky, atmospheric description of what it was like to be woken by the banging and creaking of the ice break and find the end of your hut ripped off as the crack spread across the camp (pp.68-72). He thinks he saw a ship or maybe a whale for a moment in the black night-time sea which opened up. Could it have been saboteurs who laid explosives to cause the calving? People like…
  • Bjorn Lange a youthful activist with Greenpeace who trails Cruse from his London meeting with Kirsty Fraser and confronts him in an underground car park to explain that Antarctica should remain a World Park unsullied by mineral exploitation. He is given some naive speeches about Man’s Greed and Inhumanity and we’re wiping out the world’s species and decimating the Last Wilderness etc, enough to make us think he is going to play some kind of sabotage role in the story…
  • Cruse travels to Paris, to the HQ of CALIB insurance, to tie up details of the deal on the C-130 which Ward has suggested to him. Here he discovers the boss is a formidable woman, La Belle Phuket, an extraordinary character, a south-east Asian woman raised in Phnom Pen whose family fled before the Khmer Rouge and were hiding in a remote village when a Khmer gang arrived. She saw her father bayoneted to death, her mother eviscerated before being beheaded, then was gang-raped for weeks, before the platoon moved on and she was thrown into a burning hut to die. But she survived, horrifically scarred, and walked across country to the coast, stole a fishing boat and made it to Thailand, to the island of Phuket which is where she was discovered by a French film crew, organising local crime. From there she made her way to Paris where she is now a powerful and feared businesswoman. — It is typical of Innes to include such a grotesque horror in the book; all his novels start off about rational, sensible men, trained in a sober profession, they include lots of technical details about flying or sailing as well as scads of stuff about stocks and shares and takeovers and shell companies and so on: yet always at the core, there are dark, murderous and often incestuous narratives about doomed and ill-fated families – like biting into a fairy cake in a Cotswold tearooms and tasting fresh blood.

Back in the daylight world, the deal is that Cruse will contract with the insurance company, CALIB, to buy the C-130 for a nominal sum ($10,000), to have his expenses for the flight to the Falkland Islands and beyond paid in full, and then will contract with KLME to do their flying and pay CALIB back from the KLME fees. All assuming he can fly the plane off the truncated runway. If he can’t, he’s stuck with a worthless heap of scrap metal and faced with the cost of disassembling it and getting it shipped somewhere. So it’s a big financial gamble for him, personally.

In the concluding scenes of the UK section:

  • Cruse goes for a last date with Barbara Ward, the one where he can’t get it up because he is so haunted by La Belle Phuket’s life story.
  • His last visit to Ward’s London office is marked by a remarkably intimate hug and kiss and good luck send-off from the secretary, Kirsty, who I also speculated might become the ‘love interest’. Wrong again…
  • He is contacted by the head of Greenpeace who says the boy he met, Bjorn Lange, has gone missing on an Antarctic Survey ship that was heading south, so can he please keep an eye out for him (this storyline is obviously going to be important and probably, if I know Innes, head for tragedy).
  • He does his last-minute shopping (thermal undies, toothbrush), and then meets up with the flight engineer he’s tracked down and sub-contracted to check the engines before he’ll even consider flying the Herc off its truncated runway (drunk, randy but brilliant engineer Charlie Pollard).
  • Then the pair drive to RAF Brize Norton to catch an RAF TriStar flight to Ascension Island; refuel in the blistering sunshine; and the seven-hour flight on to the Falklands.

In the Falkland Islands

Cruse, Charlie Pollard and Ward arrive on a plane at Port Stanley to a) a highly detailed description of the military and administrative set-up in the Falklands, as well as the geography, the sight and smell of the place (obviously a result of one of Innes’ famously detailed research trips) and b) to discover the place is in a flap because an unknown boat was seen dropping an unknown dinghy which desposited some unknown men on the other side of the island. At the end of his first day there, Cruse is having a drink in a pub when the cook brings him a note from someone wanting to meet him down at the War Memorial.

Lange’s warning

Predictably, it is the young environmental zealot, Lange, who tells Cruse:

a) that he hates La Belle Phuket because she masterminded a hostile takeover of his father’s company, KLME, leading his dispirited dad to eventually commit suicide (typical Innes family tragedy)
b) that, despite this, he must see Phuket to warn her and he must be smuggled aboard the Isvik when it sets off south. Very typically for an Innes novel, Lange refuses to explain why he must do either of these things to Cruse, who becomes nearly as frustrated and exasperated as the reader.

Eduardo returns

In a surprise development, Ward arrives on the boat and introduces Ferdinand Barratt (p.225) who turns out to be none other than Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother. It was he, who, in the previous novel, had been revealed as surviving on the ice-bound frigate for over two years after the ‘passengers’ – political prisoners of the Argentine dictatorship locked in the hold – had been sprayed with anthrax and thus doomed to a horrific death. Afterwards, Eduardo spiked the crew’s drinks, managing to get rid of them at gunpoint by making them clamber into one of the life-rafts, never to be seen again. But alone on the giant three-master sailing ship – the Santa Maria del Sud – Eduardo lost control so that it drifted with the Trade Winds south, before finally coming to rest amid the ice of Antarctica, where Eduardo was able to survive on the ship’s rations and fish he caught through ice holes and birds he shot. It was when an English glaciologist spotted the ice-bound ship on a flight over the ice, that the plot of Isvik began, for that prompted Ward to commission the expedition to find her, which is the subject Isvik.

It had been given out in the press that Ward had returned from that expedition with a sole survivor, Eduardo, who then died of his fragile condition. Iris even attended the official funeral. But Eduardo obviously didn’t die for here he is! – though why Ward went to so much trouble to conceal his identity, why he lied to Iris about it, and why he has smuggled Eduardo all the way from Britain to the Falklands, remains shrouded in mystery.

La Belle Phuket arrives

In another surprise development it turns out La Belle Phuket has herself flown out to the Islands. She is collected by our team – Cruse, Ward, Nils, Iris – and insists on being transferred, via a tug’s inflatable dinghy, to another ship. This is a tortuous pretext for the dinghy she’s in to be hijacked – it’s found floating with the sailor coshed and unconscious – and this kicks off a furious chase. Ward grabs control of the Isvik from an angry Kettil, and we share his and the narrator’s terrible fear that Phuket has been kidnapped and is being tortured, raped and murdered by the survivors of the gang who raped her back in Kampuchea!

There are several pages of desperate night-sailing out into the open sea, high waves, struggling with the seas and the cross-winds, gambling that she’s been taken to one of the several shipwrecked hulks around the Falklands coast. Ward and Cruse anchor the Isvik before taking its dinghy and motoring quietly out to the likeliest candidate, the Suzie Whittaker. Here they tie up and step gingerly onto its sloping deck and then… hear a heart-rending scream of agony from the bowels of the ship! Like so many scenes in Innes, the story has somehow morphed into horror.

The suspense is too much for Cruse who goes running down the steps and bursts through a cabin door, gun in hand to find – a man tied spreadeagled to a mattress made out of a filthy old sail, his trousers pulled down and his genitals reduced to a pulp, beaten and mashed, his lower guts cut open and his viscera spilling everywhere – and La Belle Phuket standing frozen in shock, the rusty, jagged spar, covered in gore, which she has used to castrate him, still in her hand.

One by one, we learn, she has tracked down the men who raped her and personally, or had people do it for her, castrated, crippled or blinded them. This was the last, the leader, Tan Seng. She knew he was following her (and so did Lange; this is what the boy so desperately wanted to tell Cruse back at the Falklands Memorial) and she had allowed herself to be captured as a calculated gamble. Ward and Cruse are stunned, but then move to tidy up: they take the bloody corpse up to his dinghy, set off in both dinghies, throw the weighted corpse overboard, set Seng’s dinghy adrift, then return to the Isvik where they cobble together a story about finding Phuket being beaten up, there’s a fight, Ward fires in self-defence etc.

Two things are notable about this long and searing episode.

1. Its randomness: this is another novel about a carefully-planned, financed and resourced expedition to the Antarctic, presented by another sensible, sober, professional Innes narrator (Cruse, the professional RAF pilot). Yet somehow Innes has worked into it a fictionalised reaction to the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields and the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime. What? Why?
2. Despite its completely random insertion into the plot, it is nonetheless hair-raisingly powerful. The horror of Phuket’s personal story and the blood-thirstiness of her revenge are convincing at a deeper level than mere plausibility. Once they are safely back on the Isvik and sailing back to shelter, it seems wildly inappropriate yet is, at some primitive level, satisfying, that Cruse is astonished to find this little, horribly scarred Asian woman suddenly clinging to him, kissing him and saying, ‘It is over now. Here in the wild sea in the rise of the big waves, it is over. I am reborn.’

It is the main characteristic of Innes’s fiction to have these gruesome, intense, almost mythic experiences embedded in texts which appear on the surface, or start off being about, reinsurance values and cargo manifests and mining companies. It is as if the immensely detailed descriptions of planes and boats and corporate law and mineralogy are the booster rockets, the boringly believable first stages which are necessary to launch the bizarre, psychologically compelling and irrational core subjects which are what you remember of Innes’s strange and compelling narratives. Almost like therapy which takes hours and days and weeks to dig through layers of mundane detail and workaday life to suddenly strike the phobias, terrors and traumas which lie beneath.

She turned her head and smiled. There was a strange serenity about that smile, so that I suddenly felt I was looking at an older world in which vengeance, justice, call it what you like, was a matter for individuals. (p.297)

Something which redeems or helps the process is the way the narrators are themselves generally puzzled and bewildered by the experience. Innes’s narrators are not masters of the situation – by and large they are deeply in the dark about what the hell is going on – and quite routinely they are exposed to situations and feelings they don’t know how to deal with. The narrators’ own shocked reactions help the often bizarre climaxes and horrors at the core of his books be that bit more acceptable, or less absurd.

The Falklands War

Although eclipsed in imaginative power by this torture scene, it should be noted that the Falklands section is 130 pages or so long and contains detailed descriptions not only of the islands, their geography and especially the sailing conditions around them, but makes continual reference to the War, the casualties and to the several moving memorials to the war dead.

It adds nothing to the plot that the narrator sits on a local plane next to the mother of one of the young British soldiers who died at Goose Green and who has saved up to fly the length of the planet to visit the memorial cross on the hilltop there, and is crying as she tells Cruse about her boy. Adds nothing to the plot, but contributes to the sense, as in so many Innes novels, of tremendous emotion, of loss and grief and conflict and death, just below the surface of the narrative.

Incidents like this and numerous references to the battles, the dogfights, the missiles exploding, the corpses laid out on the green grass, make the novel upsetting, maintaining a continuous level of emotional disturbance. It isn’t like a thriller or a detective story where you are kept on tenterhooks trying to figure out what will happen next. It is more emotionally gruelling than that, the ‘plots’ such as they are, are often just vehicles for delivering these primal feelings, of upset and horror and hurt.

Towards the ice

After farewell dinners and drinks, the crew of the Isvik (Cruse, Nils, Iris, Peter, Charlie, Phuket and a newcomer, Geordie Gary McShane) set sail. As in the previous novel, there are long and convincing descriptions of the day-by-day sailing east towards South Georgia, of crossing the Antarctic Convergence, before turning south towards the ice, wind and waves and fogs, maps and navigation aids and the endlessly rolling of the ship. Ward, we discover, is also heading south but travelling separately, along with others and his mysterious cargo, on an ice-breaker he’s chartered.

In fact, after the horror interlude in the ruined wreck, the rest of the plot proceeds fairly logically. After scores of pages of vivid description of sailing in the Antarctic, the Isvik finds the leads or passages the ice-breaker has carved through the ice towards the free-standing ice floe which is still upright and on whose surface can still be seen huts, tractor and the hangar containing the plane, all covered in a winter’s worth of snow. Crew from the ice-breaker have already created a scaffold of steps up to the top and have begun clearing the ice.

The big take-off

There are several pages giving a detailed account of how you clear a Hercules transporter of ice, de-ice it, check all the equipment until Cruse and Charlie are ready to risk their lives taking it off but – fog descends, the weather worsens, and they sit around drinking too much coffee brooding on the high-risk, one-off feat they are about to undertake: trying to fly a C-130 plane which requires 500 feet of runway off an icy slippery runway which is just 450 feet long.

Finally, conditions clear up and it is time to discover whether Eddie will earn his money, fly the C-130 (and survive). This is a genuinely tense scene, a couple of intense pages describing fear and anxiety which have to be read to be fully experienced because the reader all the time suspects the unsurprising answer – Cruse succeeds.

The plane dips towards the sea 200 feet below but then Cruse pulls on the handles and it flies, IT FLIES! Cruse flies over to the Ronne Ice Wall where the ice-breaker has dropped Ward and others at the original main KLME base. Here the KLME personnel have used a bulldozer to create a regulation length runway where Cruse lands – though also not without risk.

From this point the novels moves very fast. Ward is on Cruse’s back to fly south as soon as possible to locate the position of the frigate. They see it far below, embedded in the ice, and Ward again bullies Cruse to find a large area of apparently flat ice where he lands the C-130, not without anxiety that the ice will be too thin and crack. It doesn’t.


They hurriedly deposit some of the men and a ‘mole’ or mobile drilling device. And at last we find out what the whole plot has been about. Turns out that at the conclusion of the previous novel, Ward discovered – along with the grotesque story of the ghost ship full of anthrax victims – that during the two years Eduardo had survived alone in the frigate, eating the crews’ rations and catching fish, he had happened to scour up stones from the seabed not far beneath the ice. When Eduardo had shown them to Ward the latter immediately realised they were – diamonds. Raw diamonds. Lots of them. It was to confirm their provenance that Ward took Eduardo back to the UK so abruptly at the end of Isvik. It was to escape possible revenge by the Argentinians that he faked Eduardo’s death, to the extent of deceiving his own sister.

Now Ward feverishly sets about organising a camp near the frigate, setting up the mole to drill rocks up from the seabed, another machine to sort and grade the resulting slurry, with tents for a small crew of men to manage the process round the clock. Cruse belatedly realises that at least three of these men, and the taciturn Gary who sailed with them on the Isvik, are SAS men, complete with an impressive amount of weaponry.

All this may be needed since, from as far ago as South Georgia, the Isvik knew it was being tailed by another ship. That has been nearly a hundred pages. Only here in the last few pages is Cruse able to fly Ward over the pursuing ship and confirm it is an Argentinian warship. It anchors at the edge of the ice field and they guesstimate it will take a team travelling over the ice maybe three days to reach the frigate.

Out with a bang

So it’s the third or fourth day of drilling when they watch the soldiers in snow kit arrive at the frigate half a mile away. Will there be a firefight? Will Cruse have a machine gun thrust into his hands and watch his colleagues get mown down? No. The Argentines seem interested only in the old ship. Our chaps watch from a distance as they rig the old ship with explosives. Presumably they want to remove all evidence of the mad plot-to-infect-the-Falklands-with-anthrax.

And so, boom go the charges as our boys watch the remains of the frigate blown sky high. But then they are horrified to see the Argentinians turn and run towards them: the vast iceberg which the frigate had come to rest against all those years ago, undermined by the explosions, starts to collapse onto the frigate and the Argentinians. But not only that, as it does so, huge gouts of steam appear where is had been and cracks radiate out from the site. Ward, Cruse and the SAS boys run like hell for the plane and are cranking the propellers as they begin to see gouts of magma erupting into the air. The whole area, we had been told earlier, is at the junction of tectonic plates – and the Argentine charges appear to have blown open vents to the liquid rock beneath. In a hair-raising few paragraphs Cruse takes the C-130 off across ice disintegrating with cracks and blown apart by powerful geysers and the germ of small volcanoes. Up, up into the air the big plane escapes, Ward haggard in the back, clutching a bucket of stones, his dreams of untold wealth crumbled to dust.

That’s it. No epilogue or tying up of loose ends, no information about what happens to Lange the environmentalist – who had jumped ship when they anchored off the ice – no news about how Cruse’s burgeoning affair with Phuket will pan out, no follow-up on Eduardo or Peter Kettil or Iris, let alone on Barbara Ward back in London or Ward himself, or the narrator. It just ends.


Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes was published by Chapmans in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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

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

Violent Ward by Len Deighton (1993)

I had a bad feeling about this one – books set in America by British writers are often duff – but this is Deighton’s most enjoyable novel for years.

Mickey Murphy

It’s a first-person narrative in the voice of Mickey Murphy, a street-wise, fast-talking, unscrupulous Los Angeles lawyer. Inevitably, he’s divorced – the novel opens with him cowering under his desk yelling at his secretary, the sternly German Miss Huth, to call the fire brigade because his shouty ex-wife, Betty, is on the balcony outside threatening to jump . He’s also sadly alienated from his grown-up son, Danny, who is a lazy slob, allegedly studying at USC (which Mickey nicknames the ‘University for Spoilt Children’) and shacked up with a difficult, rude girlfriend, Robyna.

The plot features numerous incidents and encounters with wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, fading Hollywood stars and agents, classic car collectors, hoodlums, and hit-men, in a wide selection of bars, dives, hotel lobbies, Beverley Hills mansions, private airfields and up in the exclusive ski resort of Aspen. Deighton shows, or shows off, an impressive familiarity with the street layout of LA, his narrator sharing in-depth knowledge of which freeway to take at which hour of the day, along with short cuts and alternative routes, as well as a breezy familiarity with US law, police procedure, TV shows, fast food menus and so on.

Plots where Los Angeles lowlife and Hollywood glitz meet are not exactly a neglected subject, in fact it may be the most over-done subject in the English-speaking world, if you add to the tens of thousands of novels on the subject, all the movies about movies, and the hundreds of thousands of TV shows about California detectives.

Nonetheless, for me, it worked. It’s the first Deighton for some time that I read with pure pleasure, gripped by the plot, loving Murphy’s wise-cracking jaded tone of voice, laughing at the jokes. Its 360 pages flew by. It’s a great airport or poolside read.

The plot

The novel opens as Murphy’s struggling law practice is bought up by one of his clients, Californian zillionaire Zachary Petrovitch. (Murphy has the standard shabby lawyer’s office downtown, opposite dingy takeaways and flop houses, his secretary is a no-nonsense German immigrant, his two partners are Koreans, one of whom (Korea Charlie) was shot dead by a client at a party celebrating getting off a murder charge, so there’s only one left, Billy Kim.)

Murphy is chuffed to be taken over by his biggest client, chuffed to be invited to Petrovitch’s star-studded parties, flattered to be invited out to his luxury house in the skiing-resort-of-the-stars, Aspen. And emotionally moved to meet up again with the love of his life, Ingrid, who was his sweetheart when they were both kids back at Junior High, even though she is now married to Mr High and Mighty Petrovitch.

In a series of scenes Ingrid slowly conveys to Mickey how unhappy she is, her worries that Petrovitch might be planning to kill her, her paranoia that, although she is ordered to sign lots of documents about new companies being created in South America, she never understands them, and has begun to have dark suspicions that, having set them up, she will then be disposed of.

Things move towards several mini crises: first of all Ingrid asks Mickey to find a friend of hers who’s disappeared, a guy who was on the board of various charities with her. He owns a distinctive classic car, a Packard Darrin. This makes it relatively easy for Mickey to track down the man, who’s been using various aliases, including Pinter, Panter and Pindero. Pindero is drunk when Mickey arrives at his hilltop hideout and drunkenly tells Mickey he’s a hitman who Ingrid has hired to bump off Petrovitch. He himself has a strongman protecting the house, a couple of Dobermans and a mini firing range. Hmm. Is he showing off or does he mean it?

A few days later Mickey returns to the house, finding no guard, no dogs, everything spooky and empty. This is a good atmospheric scene, as Mickey goes from room to room in the darkness and silence, convinced something is wrong but unable to put his finger on it. Until he opens the freezer and Pindero’s folded-up corpse tumbles out. Aha.

In a second eerie scene, Mickey’s just getting into bed after a hard day when he gets a call from Ingrid. She is down at the Malibu pier, can he come and collect her. When he does so she reveals she’s naked under her raincoat, having stripped off all her clothes in readiness to jump in the sea and commit suicide. But she couldn’t bring herself to. Mickey drives her to his place and is running a hot bath, listening to her fears for her life, when Petrovitch’s hatchet man, Goldie Arnez, rings up. They know Ingrid’s there. They’ll be round directly. Mickey gives her pyjamas to wear as he sees her to Petrovitch’s enormous limo. Petrovitch welcomes her back blank-faced. What the devil is going on? Is Ingrid so unhappy she wants to kill herself? Is Petrovitch really planning to kill her? Why does she go back to him so tamely?


Throughout the novel there are plenty of other sub-plots bubbling away to keep Mickey and the reader puzzled and distracted.

Budd Byron One concerns a fading though still handsome Hollywood actor, Budd Byron, who Mickey socialises with, attends a barbeque at his stunning hilltop pad, and, against his better judgement, helps supply with a $300 handgun. He also was at school with Ingrid and Mickey.

The Rainbow’s End shelter for homeless men In another strand, Mickey is obliged to return the many favours he owes his Korean partner, Billy Kim, by managing the shipment of a corpse from a downtown shelter for homeless men, run by the sinister pastor, ‘Rainbow’ Stojil. Only once he’s committed does Mickey realise this is some kind of scam, the corpse in question bearing an uncanny resemblance to another of his clients, Sir Jeremy Westcliffe, a titled Brit who’s involved in countless shady deals via his alcoholic Brit lawyer, Vic Crichton. Since the death certificate gives the stiff’s name as Jeremy Westcliffe, Mickey deduces Sir J is disappearing and will reappear under a new identity somewhere. Ho hum. That’s show business.

Vic Crichton keeps turning up at inappropriate moments making awkward comments. There’s some broad comedy when he introduces everyone to his gorgeous, dolly bird wife at one of Petrovitch’s glamorous parties, only for Vic’s actual wife to phone Mickey later that night; she’s flown in from London to surprise him; yes, she probably will surprise him in bed with his mistress.

On a more serious note, Vic is involved with his partner in the scam around Sir Jeremy’s fake corpse. Not that that interrupts Sir Jeremy’s ongoing business deals with Petrovitch, for which Vic is the middle-man and gofer. These seem to involve the creation of a specific kind of legal entity which can be signed over to ’empty bearers’ in the US, but then collected and re-owned in South America. The owners of numerous Petrovitch corporations would legally cease their ownership of them – then reclaim them in Peru. (Peru? Yes, because Peru has no extradition treaty with the US.)

This dodgy procedure means the owners will owe no tax in the country of origin (the US), although Mickey is at pains to point out it involves risk at the point of ‘re-owning’. Someone else could establish right to the deeds before the intended owners – if, that is, anyone else knew about them.

Vic disconcerts Mickey by telling him point blank this is why Petrovitch has bought Mickey’s law practice; not because he’s old pals with Ingrid; not because of his stunning legal acumen; but because he can be bumped off and his rackety office torched in an arson attack, destroying all records of the dodgy transactions, once they’re carried through.

Petrovitch’s point of view

As the book enters the final straights, Petrovitch calls Mickey in for a Grand Audience. Mickey’s sarcastic wise-guy manner rises to the occasion of describing ‘Big Pete’s millionaire mansion, stuffed full of display cases showing genuine antique pots and coins and heavy classical paintings of ancient Rome,

‘Get Mickey a cup of coffee, will you, Goldie?’ As Goldie disappeared into the study room, Petrovitch sat down and stretched out his long thin legs to admire his patent leather Gucci loafers. Above his head, Marcus Aurelius was expelling the Germans from the Danube provinces; the river was very blue, the way Johann  Strauss liked his Danube. (p.312)

Petrovitch assures him he knows Ingrid is unbalanced. He, with Goldie nodding by his side, claim that far from him wanting to bump off Ingrid, Ingrid hired Pindero to bump him off. ‘Happy marriage, is it?’ Mickey asks. ‘We know you visited Pindaro,’ Petrovitch says, with menace in his voice: ‘Were you acting as go-between for Ingrid? Were you part of the conspiracy to murder me?’ Er, no, Mickey replies. Emphatically.

The Rodney King riots

Trundling along in the background has been the protracted, true life court case surrounding the beating of black taxi driver by white police officers on 3 March 1991, which was caught on video. On April 29, 1992, the mostly white jury acquitted the police officers who had been brought to trial for the beating. the acquittal led to the 1991 Los Angeles riots, an explosion of violence, arson and looting which required the police, the U.S. Army, Marines and National Guard to restore order by which time the riots had caused 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.

The climax of the novel is timed to coincide with the riots. Mickey has made an appointment to meet Ingrid, Petrovitch and Vic Crichton on that very afternoon. As he drives to it he notices gangs of people rampaging in the streets, then he’s attacked in his car while stopped at lights. Parking in the underground car park he’s met by his neighbours toting revolvers and even a machine gun. In his office he finds Miss Huth in hysterics and Budd Byron pacing up and down brandishing his newly-acquired Browning pistol.

They watch the chaos spread in the streets and blocks outside and via the live TV news footage from the numerous media helicopters which swarm over the city. It is against this backdrop of riot and mayhem, that a helicopter arrives carrying the unexpected pairing of little Vic Crichton and smartly dressed Ingrid. Mickey rushes out to them carrying the documents they need to sign, having persuaded Vic to replace the bearer bonds with powers of attorney for him and Ingrid. They sign in a flustered hurry,but in the middle of this chaos another plot strand comes to a climax.

For Budd Byron comes running over waving his hand-gun. He asks Ingrid to get out of the helicopter. He loves her and, as they’d planned, he’s got everything arranged to take her away from all this to a new life. Mickey realises he was expecting Petrovitch to be in the chopper and was fully prepared to murder him. But Ingrid cruelly rejects him, says she was mentally unwell when she seduced him, now she is better and is reconciled with her fabulous husband. As the chopper lifts off and moves forward Budd chases it shooting his gun, emptying the magazine. I was braced for the chopper to crash and burn, killing Mickey’s childhood sweetheart, in the kind of cold-hearted, sudden death you get used to when reading Deighton – like the horrible death of Inez Cassidy in MAMista or the eviscerating of that nice Harry Wechsler in City of Gold. Fortunately Budd’s shots all go wide and the chopper flies off over the smoke-filed skies of the riot-torn city.

Mickey retreats to his office with the signed documents and watches more riot footage, before his secretary decides it’s safe to head off home and Mickey drives cautiously across town to his son, Danny’s, pad. Here he finds his ex-wife Betty, comforting their son. And, in an unusually heart-warming sequence, Mickey ends up sleeping with his wife and being at least partly reconciled to her. Aaaah. Partly because, amid the general mayhem, his wife seems to have reinvented herself as a Hollywood producer, seems to be putting together a package with good old Budd Byron, and is talking about getting a job on the set or in production for their lazy son. It’s a crazy town.

The reveal

Only in the last few pages of the novel do we finally understand everything that’s been going on. Petrovitch phones to make an appointment and flies in in his chopper, accompanied by his bulldog, Arnie. Mickey jumps into the passenger seat and explains: He has put together lots of the evidence – fake dead bodies, dummy death certificates, new identities, both Budd and Pindosa being seduced or paid by Ingrid to threaten or actually harm Petrovitch. But it was only when Ingrid showed up with Vic Crichton that he was sure they were in a conspiracy together. Their plan was to de-own shares in almost all Petrovitch’s companies, convert them into ‘bearable bonds’ (which appear to be a kind of share which has no named owner), then fly to Lima ahead of Petrovitch and, in that different country and legal jurisdiction, use the new identities they’d been creating with the help of Rainbow Stiloj to claim the bearerless shares, thus legally owning Petrovitch’s entire empire. ‘And you knew all this and let them get away with it?’ asks Petrovitch, with just a teeny hint of menace in his voice.

‘No,’ replies Mickey. He explains to Petrovitch that he persuaded Vic that leaving the ownerless shares to exist unclaimed, in legal limbo, until he and Zach arrived in Lima to claim them, was too risky. So Vic bought Mickey’s suggestion of having power of attorney over the shares and, in the panic of the helicopter-among-the-riots, Mickey got Vic and Ingrid to sign a power of attorney which would allow them to manage the shares in the ownerless interim. They certainly will fly to Lima under the new identities provided by Rainbow Stiloj and discover – that a power of attorney is only valid in the names signed on the form. Ingrid and Vic will arrive under new identities with new passports and discover – that their powers of attorney documents are invalid because they were drawn up and signed in their old (real) identities, and that they are powerless to claim the shares. Result: Petrovitch can fly down there at his leisure to claim ownership – and do what he thinks fit with the two absconders, if he can find them.

Petrovitch eyes Mickey coldly. ‘Looks like you were the only one who knew what was going on all along, Mickey. You’re a smart guy. You’re coming to Peru with me.’


And so it ends with Mickey the hero of the moment. The narrative foregrounds Mickey’s tough guy attitude, his street smarts and cynicism about Californian life and the Hollywood merry-go-round, but not very far below the surface beats a heart of gold.

Mickey’s voice is street-wise, snappy, convincingly American and often very funny. Although Deighton is venturing into territory done to death by the great Raymond Chandler and a thousand – ten thousand – imitators, I think it works. Deighton pulls it off. Violent Ward is as sharp and funny as his 1968 comedy, Only When I Larf, should have been and wasn’t quite. It is one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read in ages.

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 Night Manager by John le Carré (1993)

Jonathan Pine, orphaned only son of a cancer-ridden German beauty and a British sergeant of infantry killed in one of his country’s many post-colonial wars, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometimes army wolfchild with a special unit in even rainier Northern Ireland, caterer, chef, itinerant hotelier, perpetual escapee from emotional entanglements, volunteer, collector of other people’s languages, self-exiled creature of the night and sailor without a destination. (p.57)

Jonathan Pine

Jonathan Pine is a haunted man. He was in the British Army in Northern Ireland, where he killed two IRA men in an ambush. He still has nightmares about their heads blowing off (pp.129-30) and flashbacks recur scores of times throughout the text to emphasise just how haunted he is. He quit the forces and hid away as the manager of a luxury hotel in Cairo. Here – in a very flimsy scene – Sophie, the beautiful Arab moll of a powerful Cairo criminal, Freddie Hamid, asks him to keep some incriminating documents in the safe overnight: Hamid is doing a big arms deal with some Brit called Roper, Richard Onslow Roper.

Intrigued, Pine reads the documents, photocopies them and – despite her warnings that Hamid is jealous/watching her/has contacts in British Intelligence – Pine gives a copy to a man he knows is British Intelligence in Cairo, Mark Ogilvey. Although Pine then spirits Sophie away to Luxor, where they fall passionately in love, have lots of warm weather sex etc, he returns to the apartment one day to find her brutally murdered and disfigured. Hamid caught up with her and punished her for her betrayal. A guilty, haunted man he flees to another hotel, Meister’s, far away in the Austrian Alps, where he now suffers from flashbacks of killing the IRA men and memories of murdered Sophie.

In other words, he is the stereotypical thriller protagonist – the psychologically wounded, self-pitying, hard drinking, no-nonsense, loner hero of a thousand spy novels.

Then, one day, into the Austrian hotel arrives the very Richard Onslow Roper he’d heard so much about, and his creepy entourage of accountants, fixers, bodyguards and the (inevitable) over-glamorous dolly bird, Jemima (aka ‘Jed’), who flirts dangerously with Pine. Worried they might know or discover his association with the murdered Sophie, that they might realise he knows about Roper’s activities, Pine makes his way to the British Embassy in Zurich and, after passing a message to the consul, finds himself being handed on to an Intelligence officer named Leonard Burr.

Here begins the plot proper, for Burr wants to recruit Pine and infiltrate him into Roper’s inner circle in order to nail the man who, we now have it confirmed, is a major league international arms dealer.

Exaggeration and self importance

And it’s about here that le Carré’s particularly inflated style, his mannered worldview and approach really kick in because as we find out more about them, Burr and his small team – mandarin Rex Goodhew and pipe-smoking Bob Rooke – are treated as legends in their own lunchtimes. Rex was once called ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’ (p.82), Bob Rooke ‘was Burr’s restraining hand, a retired soldier with grizzled hair and a rugged, weather-beaten jaw’ (p.82), ministers are always ironically referred to as ‘our masters’. The Pine Case soon becomes a ‘legendary’ business, for Roper isn’t just a criminal under investigation, he is Burr’s ‘personal Antichrist’. After all ‘there were few insiders who did not remember Burr’s vendettas’ against various crooks — in fact, Burr himself is so legendary that there are people in the Department who the narrator calls ‘Burr-watchers’ (p.86), who study and ponder his every move.

But it is not just Burr who is a legend: When the American team arrives to co-ordinate the investigation into Roper, the first to land is ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ (p.93). Strelski’s assistant is Pat Flynn from US Customs and ‘legend attached to Flynn’ (p.94). Of course it does.

Even old Pearl, the lady who trundles a trolley with files about ‘the Antichrist’ along the dirty corridors, well, it turns out that ‘they’ – ie Burr’s legions of adoring fans – even give her wonky squeaking trolley a legendary name – ‘They called it Roper’s tumbril.’ (p.87)

Nothing goes unlegended or just simply, factually reported. When Burr gives Pine a radio to keep in touch, it isn’t referred to as a radio. It is ‘the magic box’ (p.396). Everything seems overblown, turned up too loud, exaggerated – the sense of careful detail slowly accumulated which gave the classic Smiley novels of the 1970s their plausibility, has somehow been lost.

Thus the Americans are never the Americans, nor the CIA the CIA: they are ‘our gallant American cousins’ (p.91). The illegal arms traffickers are ‘Burr’s declared foe’. The people who know about Burr’s plan are not just in the know, they are in ‘the charmed circle’. Strelski’s source isn’t just a source, he is ‘his most sacred and delicate source, and this was holy ground.’ (p.95) The civil servants at MI6 aren’t the civil servants at MI6, they are ‘the wayward barons at the River House.’ (p.101) Saddam Hussein isn’t Saddam Hussein, he’s ‘the Thief of Baghdad.’ (p.106) Sophie isn’t the girl he loved who was murdered, she is ‘his accusing angel’ (p.161). The arms dealer Roper is ‘the Roper’, if not (frequently) ‘the worst man in the world’.

When Pine stays in Madame Latulipe’s guest house in a remote Canadian town, she is of course the famous Madame Latulipe, who knows everything that goes on in the small town and who everyone knows and loves. When Pine is working as a cook in a restaurant in the Bahamas, the owner is, naturally, a legend on the island who every night performs for the rich tourists in ‘his famous black basket and riding crop.’ (p.275) Later, on Roper’s private Caribbean island, there are stories about Woody, old Woody, you remember old Woody, ‘Everybody knew who Woody was.’ (p.388). When Pine asks Corky where Roper met Jed, Corky replies: ‘Legend has it, at a French horse sale.’ (p.391) Because all these larger-than-life characters can’t move without myths and legends attaching to them.

Thus Pine, once ensconced in Roper’s circle, is less and less referred to by name, and more and more referred to as ‘the close observer’. Now it becomes clear what the whole Army and Ulster back story was for – all the flashbacks to Ulster showing us Pine lying ‘doggo’ in ditches and hides for days on end waiting for the bad guys to appear. It is to create and justify the attitude of the detached observer which is what le Carré really wants to convey: the book is less about the ‘plot’ than exploring the psychology of being ‘the close observer’ of the shenanigans of a disreputable crew, about being an ‘outsider’, a detached, trained, tough observer. And haunted.

Even when Pine is hiding out in a tiny Cornish coastal village, le Carré immediately makes it a club or school where, once again, everyone knows everyone and has jolly nicknames for each other, old William down the pub, he’s always got a tale or two worth the telling, there’s hunting and shooting and fishing, the woman he stays with is legendary, as is her randy daughter. When Jed reminisces about her youth back in Shropshire, going to horsey events, gymkhanas and such, she tells the story of a certain local named Archie because, inevitably, ‘Everyone loved Archie.’ (p.446). When Corky takes Pine on a bar crawl in Nassau, ‘Everyone seemed to know Corkoran’ (p.455). There are no anonymous characters. Everyone is famous and well-known and a legend and tells cracking jokes and the whole room explodes in jolly laughter.

The actual Britain, the country of big anonymous cities, crappy council estates, windswept shopping centres, of the millions of people who commute to jobs in factories, offices, hospitals, supermarkets, of huge alienated environments, of loneliness, is nowhere in these novels. Instead le Carré’s novels recreate again and again small, self-contained and self-important communities, awash with dashing characters who all bathe in each other’s admiration and play out their romantic and improbable plots in isolation from the rest of the world.

Public school mindset

A lot of the exaggeration is schoolboy – specifically English public schoolboy – slang, and the entire book is dogged by this tone of exaggerating, mocking, superior banter. When there’s a long pause in a phone conversation, Rex doesn’t say, ‘Leonard, are you still there?’ he says, ‘Leonard, art though sleeping there below?’ quoting the poem Drake’s Drum (1897) by the late-Victorian poet, Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the quintessential public school and Empire poem, Vitaï Lampada, with its refrain, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game.’ They’re all chaps together and they all get the same spiffing jokes and references.

In my review of Le Carré’s previous novel, The Secret Pilgrim, I pointed out how the self-congratulatory, self-mythologising tone of Ned the narrator, an about-to-retire Intelligence officer, sounded just like Mr Chips, like a senior master at a jolly public school reminiscing about some of the rags and japes he got up to as a young master, albeit tempered by more mature respect for the old school and its legendary senior masters: ‘It may have its faults, but St Bede’s is not such a terrible place, you know, I think you’re going to like it here, young Chalmondeley.’

As rugged old Bob Rooke takes the pipe from his mouth to respond to another jesting sally from the legendary Leonard Burr, the scene is straight out of the Common Room of a provincial public school, circa 1950. You expect Ian Carmichael to come running through the door, asking if any of his fellow masters can help out at this afternoon’s upper-fifth rugger match.

Thus Burr and the chaps in his close circle have the habit of referring to the bad guys not by their names but as ‘brother this’ and ‘brother that’ and the police aren’t the police, but the ‘heavy-footed brethren’. And Corky turns out to have the same habit, referring to ‘Brother Harlow’ (p.358) and ‘Brother Meister’ (p.361). When Pine thinks back to the period before the mission began he doesn’t call it the period before the mission began, he calls it ‘the days of his youth.’ (p.452). When Rex Goodhew considers his career in Whitehall it isn’t described as his career in Whitehall, it is his ‘quarter-century before the Whitehall mast.’ (p.465) The Foreign Office Registrar doesn’t have an office – he has a lair. Like a dragon in a fairy tale.

Public school slang. Self-mocking grandiosity, Latin tags and scraps of Victorian poetry – the book and its characters are saturated in it.

I was especially staggered on page 98 when Rex Goodhew ( ‘Whitehall’s Talleyrand without the limp’) is at his Whitehall club, taking a bit of chafing from the other chaps, senior civil servants, Tory MPs, you know the sort — until one of them particularly needles him and Rex replies: ‘Sheer balderdash!’— Sheer balderdash? Maybe these characters aren’t from the 1950s, they’re from the 1920s. Or the 1880s.

Public school characters

Pine is meant not to have come from a traditional professional upper-middle-class background. It is carefully explained that his father was a sergeant in the Army, who died a hero in some hush-hush operation and who Pine has always tried to live up to – and his mother died of cancer, after which he was brought up by various aunts. But when he is recuperating from a beating, he remembers the chaps ragging him at his boarding school and various beastly tricks they played on him. Jed’s voice as he lies in bed sounds like the matron. Matron? When he visits his ex-wife he remembers she’s now married to a chap who’s something in the local hunt. The local hunt? His unpublic school persona keeps slipping, to reveal the basically privileged, elite worldview of the narrator.

And the circle of bad guys he is sent to infiltrate is overwhelmingly, stiflingly posh. Roper (not a cynical arms dealer, remember, but ‘the worst man in the world’) affects an upper-class drawl. And so does his sidekick, Major Corkoran (‘I’m rooting for you. So’s the Chief. This isn’t England. Men of the world, all that.’). And Roper’s moll, Jed, is described as ‘an upper-class waif’ (p.164) who ran away from her posh boarding school, got in with a crowd of Hooray Henries in London, before being picked up by ‘the Roper’. And one of the Roper’s key associates is fellow posh British arms dealer, Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and his phenomenally posh wife, Caroline. At one remove is Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, Roper’s man on the ground in the UK (and who we were introduced to in the very last pages of The Secret Pilgrim) posh, very. All these frightfully upper-class chaps means that the majority of the conversations are in the slurred, dismissive, entitled, exaggerating tones of the very posh English upper classes. Slightly different characters, slightly different takes on it, but all within a very narrow range.

Reading this novel is a bit like being stuck in a garden party thrown by a millionaire at his Berkshire mansion during Royal Ascot: occasionally you hear the rough voices of the servants or some state school oik, but overwhelmingly the sound is of the guffawing and braying of the ruling classes behaving disgracefully. 700 pages is a long time to have to spend in their company.

Jemima, also known as Jed

‘Gosh, Arno! But, darling, you’ve lost pounds! Georgina, darling, how are you? Super! Gosh Hullo!‘ (p.404)

Daniel, Roper’s 8-year-old son, known as Dans

‘Why’s Roper in a bait with Jed?’ (p.413)

‘Corky’ Corkoran

‘Message from the Chief for you, Mr Pine. H-hour is upon us. Prepare to kiss Crystal and everybody else goodbye. Firing squad assembles at dawn.’ (p.453)

‘Sandy’ Bradshaw

‘Fuck should I take orders from you, Christ’s sake?… No executive powers, lot of wankers on the touchline.’ (p.634

‘the’ Roper

‘Whole things a stag hunt… You trek, you wear yourself out. Things pull you down, trip you up, you press on. And one day you get a glimpse of what you’re after, and if you’re bloody lucky you get a shot at it. The right place. The right woman. The right company. Other chaps lie, dither, cheat, fiddle their expenses, crawl around. We do – and to hell with it! Goodnight gang. Thanks, cook. Where’s the cook? Gone to bed. Wise chap.’ (p.562)

Was this really the face, the voice, of international arms dealing in the 1990s?


Le Carré often has his common rooms laughing at jokes which aren’t really funny at all. Burr asks Joe Strelski to stop going for daily jogs because just thinking about it is giving his team heart attacks. ‘Everyone laughed.’ (p.94). Is it that funny? The only woman in the team running Pine is an American called Katherine Dulling but in this little self-congratulatory world she is nicknamed ‘Darling Katie’. At the one big meeting with the ‘gallant American cousins’ she accuses an attending senator of calling her a femagogue and claims she is as harmless as a mouse. ‘Jolly laughter fills the room’ (p.180). Really? That funny? (Jelly’s off p.486) In the guerrilla camp in the jungle Roper is the centre of attention and holds court at the evening, telling humourless jokes which have everyone roaring. ‘Remember Mickey?’ he asks Langbourne.

‘Oh too bloody well,’ Langbourne drawls, and once more earns the merriment of the house: these English lords, you’ve got to hand it to them! (p.560)

Funny? Nope. Like the legends and nicknames and tags, it is all exaggeration. Le Carré asserts that his characters are funny; but they never are. There’s a lot of chafing and ragging and people telling duff jokes ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560) but in fact, nobody says or does anything remotely funny in the whole 700 pages. It is a remarkably humourless book.


In a similar gap between promise and delivery, le Carré has a regular manoeuvre of describing someone’s pronouncements (particularly Smiley’s) as profound, insightful, the fruit of years of legendary experience – but when they’re actually quoted so that we can read them for ourselves, these pithy sayings all too often turn out to be disappointments: ‘The Russians are only human, you know.’ John Sutherland, in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, declares that Smiley’s lectures to the young students reveal him, alas, to be a bore – ‘Like other old-boys, his speech-day truths sound pompous and self-important’. The same is true of too many of the characters in this book, as well as the smug and sentimental narrator.

Self pity

Pine’s self-pitying self-image seems scandalously overblown: repeatedly we overhear him thinking, God, I am such a tough guy, I am a loner, every woman I touch is doomed.

‘Stay away from me. I betray. I kill. Go home.’ (p.165)

‘That’s what I do for a living, he thought: I obliterate faces.’ (p.253)

And in the last few pages, despite having been beaten to a pulp, he is still self dramatising:

I kill, I do wrong, there is good and bad and I am bad! (p.706)

Must be hard being such a tough guy. And yet so sensitive. So stricken with sensitive guilt.


But just in case the Pine character didn’t seem sufficiently self-important and doomed and tough and haunted, the narrator and character add in a dollop of Catholic guilt and Christian imagery. The night before he and Burr’s team are going to stage manage the ‘death’ of his business partner and his own flight from the little Cornish village (all part of giving Pine a convincing criminal back story for when he infiltrates Roper’s setup and they check his background), Jonathan knows that ‘the ordeal that awaited him was a mere foretaste of a lifetime of penance.’ (p.167) When he goes to see his ex-wife one last time because he knows he’s going to end up either dead or with a new identity, it is a journey ‘in search of atonement’ (p.174). He practices what he’s going to say to her until it becomes ‘a heroic song in his mind’ (p.174). Earlier in this review I quoted references to the Antichrist, to holy ground, to Sophie the accusing angel. When Pine meets  his ex briefly and they discuss her attempts to become an artist, he doesn’t make a reasonable assessment of her skills, her strengths and weaknesses, whether she had any shows or sold anything, nothing factual and, potentially, interesting – no, everything is cast in a tone of Victorian melodrama as he remembers how:

they had both worshipped her great talent, how he had abased himself in order to elevate it, cooked and carried and swept for her, believing she would paint better for his self-denial. (p.175)

At a late stage Burr discovers Joyston has been ripping off Roper, as he goes round Europe buying up illegal arms, but Burr doesn’t set about tabulating the embezzlements, he sets about ‘the length record of Joyston Bradshaw’s sins.’ (p.615) Similarly, when Jed confronts Roper with the truth of his activities as an arms smuggler, she ‘taxes him with his sins’ (p.489). When Roper takes Pine to see the actual shipment of arms in their vast containers in the port, he stands in the darkness of one of the containers surrounded by ultra modern weaponry and

He was in the presence of his own accomplishment. He was in a state of grace. (p.521)

And the last word of the whole novel is souls.

But I don’t think there’s any theology in these statements. There isn’t the slightest sense of religion or the numinous. It’s just another rhetoric, another set of tags and quotes and exaggerations, like the bits of Bible and bobs of Victorian poetry, which can be used to over-egg the situation, a self-mocking inflation of language.

Like the jokes which aren’t funny and the wisdom of Smiley which is banal and the protagonist who thinks he’s a medieval crusader but is in fact just an ex-soldier going undercover – in a similar way the narrator talks up the plots themselves in these later novels, plots which take hundreds of pages to describe and yet which, on closer examination, don’t really live up to their own billing.

The plot

Jonathan Pine is an ex-British soldier. He is recruited by a section of British Intelligence led by legendary Leonard Burr to infiltrate the social circle of British arms dealer, the Roper. They name it Operation Limpet. To build up a back story as a bit of a crook he is sent to live for a while in a small Cornish community where he makes just enough impression – especially on the good looking and willing local totty, Marilyn – before disappearing after having, apparently, murdered his partner (an actor put up to the job, just as the local police are recruited to make the whole elaborate scam look real). Then he is sent to a small town in Canada where he makes just enough impression before being chased out of town by the hotel owner where he’d been working, for seducing his beautiful and very willing daughter, Yvonne.

Then – still part of the elaborate scheme – he gets a job at a restaurant by the beach in some island in the Bahamas where Roper’s cruiser often puts in for meals. Here Burr’s team pull off an elaborate scam: on the night the Roper and his entourage dine there, the team arrange for two CIA-arranged goons to stage a phony hold-up of all the guests; the goons not only relieve the guests of all their jewellery and money but begin to make off with the Roper’s 8-year-old son, Daniel as hostage. This is Pine’s cue to intervene and heroically save Daniel. Unfortunately, the red mist descends – suddenly his mind is full of flashbacks of those IRA men through the night scope of his rifle, and the look of Sophie’s badly beaten face – and he overdoes it, breaking one of the ‘friendly’ goons’ arms, whereupon the other goon goes nuts, hammers him in the face with his gun, knocks him to the ground and kicks him in the head and balls, before they both run off.

As he lies bleeding he hears Roper and his entourage come running up and Roper ordering his sidekick, Corkoran, to ring up his private helicopter to take the man who saved his son’s life to a private hospital where his private surgeon will fix him. Thus, at around page 320, Pine has finally arrived in the Roper’s world, and his mission can begin.

Plot part two

Pine recuperates on Roper’s island in the Caribbean, observing the luxury lifestyle of posh Roper – the Roper – glamorous girlfriend Jemima ‘Jed’ Marshall, camp ex-military fixer Major ‘Corky’ Corkoran, Roper’s son by his first marriage Daniel ‘Dans’, several security guards (even the security guards have schoolboy nicknames, ‘Frisky’ and ‘Tabby’), Lord ‘Sandy’ Langbourne and an ever-changing population of the international elite, the elite of arms smuggling, that is.

His controller, Burr, told Pine on no account to break into Roper’s inner sanctum nor to have an affair with his dolly bird, Jed, but Pine, inevitably, does both. For just at this moment Jemima has suddenly realised what a crook Roper is and what a fool she’s been! And immediately responds by sneaking out of the big mansion and down to Pine’s quarters for soulful conversations and snogs. Obviously Pine has never seen a James Bond movie or he’d know that plooking the billionaire bad guy’s dishy girlfriend is always a bad idea. And he is a 1,000% aware that’s he’s repeating the pattern of Sophie – screws billionaire crook Hamid’s dolly bird; she is beaten to death: screws billionaire Roper’s dolly bird.. what do you expect?

A Darker plot

Meanwhile, a major new thread and theme emerge. The team back in London running Pine become aware that another Intelligence section, the Procurement Studies Group, run by a man named (rather ludicrously) Geoffrey Darker, has embargoed many of the files and much of the information about Roper, under the codename of an operation ‘Frigate’. It turns out, without much probing, that leading people in British Intelligence and US Intelligence are directly involved in Roper’s latest, biggest deal – the selling of a huge shipment of European, American and British arms to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for vast amounts (‘tens of tons’ p.481) of cocaine, which will be shipped back to Europe.

It’s odd this storyline, because there’s no suspense in it. After a routine meeting with ‘the Cousins’, one of them takes Goodhew for a walk down to the Embankment and there tells Goodhew to back off Roper or they’ll kill him. No suspense whatsoever. A different novel might have focused on the slow revelation of this dark secret, with an investigator peeling away layers over hundreds of pages. Here it is tossed away in a few paragraphs.

After casually blowing the secret at the centre of the story, Le Carré goes on to mention that various senior bankers and other Establishment figures are piling in to invest in the deal — the widespread corruption of the Establishment is not any kind of revelation, but a given. On page 478 the upright civil servant Rex Goodhew learns that his contact inside the Procurement Studies Group, a lily-livered, alcoholic, civil servant lawyer named Palfrey has made a gross error. Palfrey has revealed to Darker the secret that one of Roper’s associates – a Latino named Apostoll – is working for the CIA, is in fact the key source and lynchpin of the US project to penetrate Roper’s operations. And Palfrey further revealed to Darker that Apostoll was briefed specifically to blacken Corky’s name, to discredit Corky so that the infiltrated Pine will be installed in his place, thus giving Pine access to full details of Roper’s operations. In the last 100 pages Burr’s efforts to nail Darker and expose Operation Frigate become a lot more prominent in the story.

This ought to be exciting, there ought to be something at stake: but the novel fails to generate any real tension: it is much more interested in the psyche of Pine, the orphaned child and lonely watcher, the detached observer, his tortured soul and his doomed love affairs, and the garden party atmosphere of Roper’s private island, than in conventional mystery, suspense and so on.

On around page 520 Burr, who has flown to Miami to be closer to the operation he’s running, realises it is going badly wrong. First of all he is called in by ‘the Cousins’ to a crime scene packed with ambulances and cops to find that Apostoll has – almost certainly as a result of Palfrey’s blabbing – been blown, and promptly tortured to death (along with the unlucky girlfriend they found him with). Confirmation that the supposed Brit intelligence officer Darker is passing secrets straight on to Roper’s gang. And which ends the close working relationship Burr had forged with ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’.

But worse, the rattled civil servant Goodhew reveals to Burr that he tried to stir his minister to action by showing him a detailed list of all the investors in Roper’s big deal (p.528). He innocently assures Burr that he changed the page layout and implied it came from a different source, but Burr is horrified nonetheless. There was only one source list and Pine photographed it when he broke into Roper’s office and Roper’s gang will realise that immediately. Should Burr signal Pine to pull out immediately? Yes. But he doesn’t.

So the last 150 pages or so are spent wondering whether the bad guys will realise Pine is a spy sent to gather incriminating evidence and foil the scheme and, if so, whether he’ll be beaten and tortured like James Bond always is, and whether the Baddy’s moll he’s seduced, Jed, will also be roughed up, maybe staked out for the crabs to eat as in Dr No.

Deal in the jungle

Blissfully ignorant of these murky doings back in Whitehall, back in the Tropics Pine is taken by Roper, Langbourne and various fixers to locations deep in the Panama jungle. There is a guerrilla training camp run by Latinos but staffed by mercenaries from round the world – renegade Russian special forces, pissed-off Israelis, bored Europeans. Here, in a vastly improbable but typical scene, Roper holds court at the evening meal, he and Langbourne reminiscing about arms dealers they have known in their languid London clubland voices and – this is the improbable part – holding the whole room of dirty killers from the world’s warzones, holding them enthralled, ‘delighting their admirers’ and making priceless quips ‘to the helpless mirth of all’ (p.560). Even though most of them can’t speak English? Yes, because wherever le Carré’s characters go they quickly install the atmosphere of a self-congratulatory and superior staff room.

The purpose of the visit is to fly on the next day to a good imitation mockup of an airbase complete with tanks, cars and a tame plane which flies overhead, all of which are shot up and exploded by the mercenaries demonstrating the effectiveness of the weapons Roper is selling, to an invited audience of potential buyers. After the war games Roper moves among the rich guests, pressing the flesh with Pine in attendance as his new fixer. But at the end of the day everything changes. Roper receives a telegram from Bradshaw back in England, confirming the information Goodhew and Palfrey had leaked ie that Corky was framed by (the now dead) Apostoll and Pine is a spy. Pine is bundled into a car by Roper’s heavies and they all drive to the Canal Zone.

Having had the scene where the buyers view the arms, now there is a scene in a vast warehouse where Roper and  his people test the cocaine packed into innocent-looking crates labelled with coffee ads. It is the scene from a hundred drug dealer movies where the drug tester is wheeled in for one appearance, slashes packs of white powder taken from a random selection of crates, tastes it, subjects it to a few tests with his arcane equipment, and nods at the Head Baddy, getting to deliver his one, clichéd line: ‘A1 stuff’, or ‘Weapons grade’, or ‘100% pure’. Whereupon the Head Baddy nods wisely, the expert takes his wad and disappears, the two sides exchange suitcase stuffed with dollars or, in this case, sign the elaborate bills of lading and bankers drafts.

After which Pine is hustled away. He has a last few moments in a disgusting toilet where he scribbles a message, hides it in an envelope slipped into a pocket, planning to stash it with address and money to be found by whichever taxi driver drives them away from the warehouse. He knows now that Roper knows about him, and that he is going to die.

More Darker

That’s on page 587. For the next 80 pages we hear nothing more of Pine. The point of view cuts to London, to Whitehall and to Leonard Burr worrying about his agent and his operation. Over the next few days they learn that ships are leaving the docks Pine indicated and passing through the Panama Canal, ships Burr is convinced are carrying weapons to the Colombian drug cartels and cocaine to Europe. But he meets dead ends as he tries to find out more: even old colleagues say they can’t help out, as the entire operation Limpet has been sequestered by the Joint Steering Committee, under a new operational codename, Frigate.

This conflict escalates to a formal meeting of the Joint Steering Committee, attended by the Minister, at which Goodhew, defending the independence of the Enforcement side of the Department, and Burr’s Operation Limpet in particular, takes on Darker, head of Pure Intelligence, and comes as close as he can to accusing Darker of squashing the investigation.

This long scene is a set-piece depiction of a high-level Whitehall meeting where opposing views clash before an innocent Minister while we, the reader, know Darker’s agency to be actively involved in a massive crime. And Darker and his sidekick win the contest by successfully blackening Pine’s name, by reinterpreting his record as that of a psychopath fantasist who murdered two Irishmen, beat his Egyptian girlfriend to death, was seriously involved in drug running and has been trying to hawk intelligence agencies rubbish information for years. And this, they say, is the source, the evidence, the basis for arresting foreign-owned ships in international waters? Goodhew is ridiculed and in fact stalks out of the meeting. The minister is persuaded. Darker has won.

Paralleling this scene, across the pond in Florida ‘the celebrated Joseph Strelski from Miami’ is called in by his boss who has received much the same briefing from CIA Langley ie rubbishing Pine as a source, a scene which leaves Strelski incandescent with rage. Strelski and Burr are the good guys. They are up against profoundly corrupt organisations.

Burr’s sting

Which is why Burr, hearing about Goodhew’s defeat at the Joint Steering Committee meeting, takes matters into his own hands. He arrests the alcoholic lawyer Palfrey, and beats him up in an MoD cell until palfrey agrees tearfully to sign three phone intercepts, each to one of Darker’s offices. Then Burr drives out to Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw’s run-down country pile where he confronts him with the complete lie that Darker and his sidekicks have been arrested for treason and corruption: he makes Bradshaw phone Darker’s numbers, calls which are intercepted by Burr’s assistant, Rooke who, at the first address, impersonates the police and confirms Darker is under arrest; a further call to Palfrey himself has the wretched man quailing and reciting his lines that Darker’s under arrest, the game is up.

Burr goes on to tell Bradshaw the Americans are closing in on Roper, he expects Bradshaw himself might get off with ten years. What does he want? He wants Bradshaw to phone Roper’s yacht, the Iron Pasha and tell Roper that he will drop all charges if Roper releases Pine and the girl.

Pine in prison

On page 672, we rejoin Pine aboard Dicky Roper’s luxuriously appointed yacht, as it sets out for a cruise round the Bahamas, accompanied by various celebrity and high life guests, while Pine languishes in a secure room in the bowels of the ship being beaten to a pulp by Corky and his assistants. There are some intense pages describing Jed’s fear and guilt as she continues to perform the role of Roper’s hostess to the rich guests, and even lets him screw her every day. But all the time she is trying to find out where they’re keeping Pine and how to free him. Then there are several pages describing Pine’s state of mind, kept chained in the dungeon cabin, regularly beaten, punched, kicked, chained in agonising positions. Things look bleak for our heroes.

And then Roper is woken by the phone call from Bradshaw we saw him making under duress from Burr 30 pages earlier, the call claiming Darker has been arrested and the Yanks are onto Roper, but Burr will call all the arresting agencies off if he just releases Pine ‘and the girl’. So Jed finds herself told to dress in practical clothes and Roper orders the goons to unchain Pine, dress him in something clean; in a delirious semi-collapsed state the pair are loaded into the yacht’s dinghy and ferried over to the nearest island, presumably to contact the authorities.

Happy ending

The last chapter cuts away to a completely different scene, to the yokel-ish inhabitants of the little Cornish village where Pine had hidden out during the creation of his backstory. We don’t see or hear him or Jed, we just hear the matriarch of the village explaining to the denser inhabitants that, although it looks a bit like him, this is definitely NOT the Jack Linden who left under such suspicious circumstances all that time ago, that was explained to her very clearly by the senior policeman from Yorkshire who had a word (obviously Burr, the man whose sting appears to have freed Pine and saved his life).

The unnamed couple now living in the old cottage are going to breed horses and paint and lead a quiet uneventful life. She concludes her lecture to the yokels: ‘So I’ll trouble you never to talk out of turn again, because if you do, you’ll hurt two precious souls.’ (p.714)

What happened to Roper? What happened to the shipments of arms and drugs? What happened to Burr for breaking rules around phone tapping? What happened to Darker (did he just win?)? We are not told. All that matters is the happy couple are returned to Eden.

This is such a sentimental, consequence-free and improbably happy ending, that it brought a tear to my eye. Though whether at the Disney ending or simply from having made it through these 714 long pages, I’m not sure.

Le Carré and sex

Le Carré’s initial branding and positioning was as a gritty, realistic, street-level antidote to glamorous James Bond heroics, typified by the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963) and easily contrastable with Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published the same year. But thirty years later, le Carré is writing about a flashy international arms dealer, glamorous dolly bird on his arm, and the lone spy sent to bring him down – exactly as in a James Bond movie.

And the soulful-but-tough hero has a James Bond-like way with women as well: Pine’s ex-wife is gorgeous; he has an affair at the drop of a hat with the spirited Arab woman, Sophie; in Cornwall his strong silent good looks attract gorgeous young Marilyn; in Canada his strong, silent good looks lead to him having an affair with gorgeous young Yvonne. And once in the Roper’s circle he is immediately drawn to the flirtatious and stunningly attractive Jed, who he ends up having an affair with. Everywhere he goes women throw themselves at him.

This is pure Bond, isn’t it? Middle-aged male fantasy. And yet, the book is quick to point out, he is no normal shagger. Dear me, no. He is a soulful, sensitive shagger. A haunted shagger. A shagger with a dream of higher things.

He remembered his early women, no different from his later ones, each a bigger disillusionment than the last as he struggled to elevate them to the divine status of the woman he had never had. (p.163)

‘Divine status’? Pine is a sentimental, self-important James Bond.

But in fact everybody’s at it in this book. On the plane from his island to the mainland, we watch Roper flirt archly with the stewardess, praising her service and patting her bum. Later, at the hotel, Pine overhears Roper screwing her. Posh sidekick Langbourne is making his wife miserable by openly having an affair with the nanny; he comes down to Roper’s shack and asks to borrow his bed for some shagging. Corkoran generously informs Pine, when he first arrives on the island, that he is free to screw any of the women servants, just ‘no touchee Jed’. Corky is himself gay and free with his references to screwing and shagging and ‘having’ various partners.

Towards the end, even after they’ve had a fierce argument in which Roper doesn’t deny he’s keeping Pine prisoner and having him tortured, Jed still has sex with him. Really? And her memories are all sexual: she remembers being deflowered by a village tough, she remembers being raped by two brutes in Hammersmith, she remembers the orgies among the Hooray Henries. When he needs an example of Jed’s intuition about the atmosphere on board the ship, he cites the pretty Filipino maid and the eerie way Jed knows whether she’s been screwing the captain or the bosun or even ‘Sandy’ Langbourne. In fact, whenever a woman is mentioned in the text there is the strong possibility that it is her sexuality which will be described, humorously referred to, exploited.

If you add in Pine’s obsessive flashbacks/memories of lying next to a naked Sophie in the apartment in Luxor or, later on, his memories of Jed’s soft hands on his face (‘He remembered a morning when Jed wore a yellow blouse, and touched him with her eyes.’ p.554), the text is marinated in a particular kind of male fantasy eroticism.

Eventually, it’s hard to tell which is more tiresome, the soft porn atmosphere or the upper class banter. Both completely swamp the plot. This is le Carré for devoted fans only.


The Night Manager by John le Carré, published 1993 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1994 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

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