The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart (1995)

Stewart is a mathematician and prolific author, having written over 40 books on all aspects of maths, as well as publishing guides to the maths used in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, authoring half a dozen textbooks for students and co-authoring a couple of science fiction novels.

He writes in a marvellously clear style, but more importantly, he is interesting: he sees the world in an interesting way and manages to convey the wonder and strangeness and powerful insights which seeing the world in terms of patterns and shapes, numbers and maths, gives you.

He wants to help us see the world as a mathematician sees it, full of clues and information which can lead us to deeper and deeper appreciation of the patterns and harmonies all around us.

1. The Natural Order

Thus he begins the book by describing just some of nature’s patterns: the regular movements of the stars in the night sky; the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes; the stripes of tigers and zebras; the recurring patterns of sand dunes; rainbows; the spiral of a snail’s shell; why nearly all flowers have petals arranged in one of the following numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89; the regular patterns or ‘rhythms’ made by animals scuttling, walking, flying and swimming.

2. What Mathematics is For

Mathematics is brilliant at helping us to solve puzzles. it is a more or less systematic way of digging out the rules and structures that lie behind some observed pattern or regularity, and then using those rules and structures to explain what’s going on. (p.16)

Kepler discovers the planets move in ellipses. The nature of acceleration, ‘not a fundamental quality, a rate of change’. Newton and Leibniz invent calculus to help us work out rates of change.

Two of the main things that maths are for are 1. providing the tools which let scientists understand what nature is doing 2. providing new theoretical questions for mathematicians to explore further. Applied and pure mathematics.

He mentions one of the oddities, paradoxes or thought-provoking things that comes up in many science books which is the eerie way that good mathematics, whatever its source, eventually turns out to be useful, to be applicable to the real world, to explain some aspect of nature. Many philosophers have wondered why. Is there a deep congruence between the human mind and the structure of the universe? Did God make the universe mathematically and implant an understanding of maths in us? Is the universe made of maths?

Stewart’s answer is simple and elegant: he thinks that nature exploits every pattern that there is, which is why we keep discovering patterns everywhere. We humans express these patterns in numbers, but it isn’t the numbers nature uses – it’s the patterns and shapes and possibilities which the numbers express, or define.

Mendel noticing the numerical relationships with which characteristics of peas are expressed when they are crossbred. The double helix structure of DNA. The computer simulation of the evolution of the eye from an initial mutation providing for skin cells sensitive to light, published by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger in 1994.

Resonance = the relationship between periodically moving bodies in which their cycles lock together so that they take up the same relative positions at regular intervals. The cycle time is the period of the system. The individual bodies have different periods. The moon’s rotational period is the same as its revolution around the earth, so there is a 1:1 resonance of its orbital and rotational period.

Mathematics doesn’t just analyse, it can predict, predict how all kinds of systems will work, from the aerodynamics which keep planes flying to the amount of fertiliser required to increase crop yield to the complicated calculations which keep communications satellites in orbit round the earth and therefore sustain the internet and mobile phone networks.

Time lags: the gap between a new mathematical idea being developed and its practical implementation can be a century or more: it was 17th century interest in the vibration of a violin string which led, three hundred years later, to the invention of radio, radar and TV.

3. What Mathematics is About

The word ‘number’ does not have any immutable, God-given meaning. (p.42)

Numbers are the most prominent part of mathematics and everyone is taught arithmetic at school, but numbers are just one type of object that mathematics is interested in.

The invention of numbers. Fractions. Some time in the Dark Ages the invention of 0. The invention of negative numbers, then of square roots. Irrational numbers. ‘Real’ numbers.

Whole numbers 1, 2, 3… are known as the natural numbers. If you include negative whole number, the series is known as integers. Positive and negative numbers are known as rational numbers. Then there are real numbers and complex numbers. Five systems in total.

But maths is also about operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And functions, also known as transformations, rules for transforming one mathematical object into another. Many of these processes can be thought of as things which help to create data structures.

Maths is like a landscape with similar proofs and theories clustered together to create peaks and troughs.

4. The Constants of Change

Newton’s basic insight was that changes in nature can be described by mathematical processes. Stewart explains how detailed consideration of what happens to a cannonball fired out of a cannon helps us towards Newton’s fundamental law, that force = mass x acceleration.

Newton invented calculus to help work out solutions to moving bodies. Its two basic operations – integration and differentiation – mean that, given one element – force, mass or acceleration – you can work out the other two. Differentiation is the technique for finding rates of change; integration is the technique for ‘undoing’ the effect of differentiation.

Calculating rates of change is a crucial aspect of maths, engineering, cosmology and many other areas.

5. From Violins to Videos

A fascinating historical recap of how initial investigations into the way a violin string vibrates gave rise to formulae and equations which turned out to be useful in mapping electricity and magnetism, which turned out to be aspects of the same fundamental force, understanding which underpinned the invention of radio, radar, TV etc, taking in contributions from Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz and Giulielmo Marconi.

Stewart makes the point that mathematical theory tends to start with the simple and immediate and grow ever-more complicated. This is because you have to start somewhere.

6. Broken Symmetry

A symmetry of an object or system is any transformation that leaves it invariant. (p.87)

There are many types of symmetry. The most important ones are reflections, rotations and translations.

7. The Rhythm of Life

The nature of oscillation and Hopf bifurcation (if a simplified system wobbles, then so must the complex system it is derived from) leads into a discussion of how animals, specifically animals with legs, move, which is by staggered or syncopated oscillations, oscillations of muscles triggered by neural circuits in the brain.

This is a subject Stewart has written about elsewhere and is something of an expert on. The seven types of quadrupedal gait are: the trot, pace, bound, walk, rotary gallop, transverse gallop, and canter.

8. Do Dice Play God?

Stewart’s take on chaos theory.

Chaotic behaviour obeys deterministic laws, but is so irregular that to the untrained eye it looks pretty much random. Chaos is not complicated, patternless behaviour; it is much more subtle. Chaos is apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that actually has a simple, deterministic explanation. (p.130)

19th century scientists thought that, if you knew the starting conditions, and then the rules governing any system, you could completely predict the outcomes. In the 1970s and 80s it became increasingly unclear that this was wrong. It is impossible because you can never define the starting conditions with complete certainty.

Thus all real world behaviours are subject to ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. From minuscule divergences at the start point, cataclysmic differences may eventually emerge.

He then explains the concept of phase space developed by Henri Poincaré: this is an imaginary mathematical space that represents all possible motions in a given dynamic system. The phase space is the 3-D place in which you plot the behaviour in order to create the phase portrait. Instead of having to define a formula and worrying about identifying every number of the behaviour, the general shape can be determined.

Much use of phase portraits has shown that dynamic systems tend to have set shapes which emerge and which systems move towards. These are called attractors.

9. Drops, Dynamics and Daisies

The book ends by drawing a kind of philosophical conclusion.

Chaos theory has all sorts of implications but the one he closes on is this: the world is not chaotic; if anything, it is boringly predictable. And at the level of basic physics and maths, the laws which seem to underpin it are also schematic and simple. And yet what we are only really beginning to appreciate is how complicated things are in the middle.

It is as if nature can only get from simple laws (like Newton’s incredibly simple law of thermodynamics) to fairly simple outcomes (the orbit of the planets) via almost incomprehensibly complex processes. To end, Stewart gives us three examples of the way apparently ‘simple’ phenomena in nature derive from stupefying complexity:

  • what exactly happens when a drop of water falls off a tap
  • computer modelling of the growth of fox and rabbit populations
  • why petals on flowers are arranged in numbers derived from the Fibonacci sequence

In all three cases the underlying principles seem to be resolvable into laws and functions – and we see water dropping off taps or flowerheads all the time – and yet the intermediate steps are bogglingly complex.

Coda: Morphomatics

He ends the book with an epilogue speculating, hoping and wishing for a new kind of mathematics which incorporates chaos theory and the other elements he’s discussed – a theory and study of form, which takes everything we already know about mathematics and seeks to work out how the almost incomprehensible complexity we are discovering in nature gives rise to all the ‘simple’ patterns which we see around us.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Cubism by Philip Cooper (1995)

Browsing through books about Cubism in either a bookshop, library or second-hand shop can be a bit dispiriting because there are just so many of them. Where to begin? Should you read them all? And shouldn’t you know all about the most famous art movement of the twentieth century already?

The Colour Library look and layout

Cubism is a volume in Phaidon’s ‘Colour Library’ series. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop and snapped it up for £3, mainly because the size and format means it includes lots of full-page, full-colour illustrations – something often lacking in longer, more text-based accounts (e.g. the ‘World of Art’ volume, Cubism and Culture).

It’s coffee-table-sized (22.9 x 30.5 cm) but, being a paperback, is light and easy in the hand. It’s divided into two sections:

  1. Pages 5 to 25 give a surprisingly thorough history of the Cubism movement, surprising because I’d forgotten, or never knew, there was quite so much to it, nor that it spread to have quite so many exponents.
  2. Then there are 48 double-page spreads with a full-colour plate on the right-hand page, and commentary, artist biography, sometimes a b&w illustration of a related work, on the left.

Altogether the 48 illustrations show a surprising range of paintings and sculptures by precursors, core cubists and peripheral members of the movement, namely:

  • Cézanne (2 paintings)
  • Picasso (9)
  • Braque (7)
  • Léger (4)
  • Juan Gris (5)
  • Robert Delaunay (3)
  • Chagall (1)
  • Marcel Duchamp (1 – 1912)
  • Gino Severini (1 – 1912)
  • Natalia Gontcharova (1 – 1912)
  • Albert Gleizes (1 – 1912)
  • Jean Metzinger (1 – 1912)
  • Alexander Archipenko (1 – 1913)
  • Francis Picabia (1 – 1913)
  • Piet Mondrian (1 – 1913)
  • Lyonel Feininger (1 – 1913)
  • Franz Marc (1 – 1913)
  • Emil Filla (1 – 1915)
  • Edward Wadsworth (1 – 1915)
  • Max Weber (1 – 1915)
  • Henri Laurens (1 – 1920)
  • Stuart Davis (1 – 1921)
  • Amédée Ozenfant (1 – 1925)
  • Ben Nicholson (1 – 1947)

Cubist forebears

  • The Impressionists tried to capture fleeting impressions of objects in changing light, as they appeared to the artist, not as they objectively were (e.g. as depicted in the increasingly prevalent photographs).
  • Post-Impressionists – specifically van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, used unrealistic colours and vivid brushstrokes or strong black outlines and stark colour schemes to express emotion.
  • The Fauves (1905-8) took the colour idea further to represent real-life scenes or people in garishly bright and deliberately unrealistic colours.
  • The German Expressionists depicted real people or scenes in harsh, primitive woodcuts or angular ugly paintings.

The single greatest source of Cubism was the later painting of Paul Cézanne, who used a variety of techniques to bring out the geometric forms, the planes and rectangles implicit in a subject, to the fore – not least by creating patches of paint which look like facets of a view.

For example, Mont Saint-Victoire (1904) where the notion of realistically depicting the foliage of trees or houses has long since disappeared to be replaced by the idea of blocks or chunks of paint. The effect is to undermine the idea of a painting as ‘a window on the world’, and replace it with the arrangement of units of paint for semi-abstract aesthetic purposes.

In Cézanne’s still lifes he painted, for example, the bowl of fruit, the table it sat on, and the floor or background wall, all at different angles, with different implied perspectives – Still life with plaster cupid (1895).

The invention of Cubism

Cubism takes these trends a decisive step further. Cubism abandoned 450 years of the careful development of Renaissance techniques for creating a sense of perspective in a painting – rejected the notion of one particular vanishing point towards which all lines in the image converge which gives the viewer the illusion they are looking through a ‘window on the world’ – and instead set about representing the same subject from multiple points of view depicting all sides, top and bottom as required solely to create an aesthetic composition. Abandoning realism or naturalism. Conceiving the work as a purely aesthetic creation.

Cézanne had died in 1906, and 1907 saw two major retrospective exhibitions of his work held in Paris. It is a neat coincidence (or maybe no coincidence) that the first, proto-Cubist painting was made the same year, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. In this seismic work the idea of a coherent perspective giving depth and shape to the objects depicted has obviously been ripped up in favour of a stylised depiction of space and objects which is is impossible to relate to in any of the traditional ways of ‘seeing’ art.

In 1907 Braque saw Les Demoiselles in Picasso’s studio. He was also bowled over by the big Cézanne retrospective. By the next year he was painting landscapes at the village of L’Estaque in a kind of exaggerated Cézanne style, converting houses, trees and roads into increasingly stylised geometric forms. – Houses in l’Estaque (1908)

Thus began a period from about 1908 to 1914 when Braque and Picasso worked very closely together, to begin with both living in rented rooms in a rundown building in Montmartre, the bohemian area in northern Paris, named the Bateau Lavoir. Here they spent the days painting and the nights drinking, partying, joking, discussing ideas, and often spending the summers painting in the same or similar locations.

Very quickly they moved towards painting a relatively small selection of objects:

  • common-or-garden objects from their lives – jugs, newspapers, guitars
  • interiors – so few if any landscapes
  • in muted tones of grey and brown

If Matisse and the other ‘Fauves’ (Vlaminck and Derain) were continuing to explore colour in all its garish vibrancy, B and P undertook an almost scientific analysis of what happens if you paint things after abandoning the idea of there being one point of view in either time or space, if you bring in facets from every angle, if you abandon the idea of producing one coherent perspective on an object and instead, use your artistic power to depict whatever elements you want.

In 1910 Braque painted Violin and pitcher, the palette restricted to grey or brown, the entire composition broken up into numerous clashing planes, with only hints of the ostensible subject (actually, the violin is fairly easy to make out). The trompe l’oeil image of a nail hammered into the top of the painting (complete with its own shadow) conveys the ideas that a painting is a two-dimensional artefact.

Analytic cubism

Violin and pitcher is an example of so-called ‘analytical cubism’ i.e. the subject has been taken to pieces and the resulting fragments reassembled so as to seem splayed out, so as to emphasise a multitude of clashing picture planes.

Now objects can be seen from all points of view at once. Or denoted by one or two scattered attributes – a moustache for a man, an eye for a human being, a fragment of text to denote a newspaper, and so on.

The effect was liberating and seismic. It spread right across the art world like wildfire. As early as 1912 Gleize and Metzinger published a book On Cubism. Contemporary critics and artists related it to Einstein’s undermining of the traditional world of Newtonian physics with his new theory of relativity. Others related it to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea that Time isn’t made up of discreet, definable moments measured by clocks and human reason, but is instead an endless flux in which perception of the present moment is flooded with memories of the past and anticipations of the future: all happening at once, as all sides of an object can be depicted simultaneously in a cubist picture.

In 1911 Braque and Picasso went on to break objects down into constituent parts and not even reassemble them, making it almost impossible to see what they are. This further stage is referred to as ‘hermetic’ or ‘high analytical’ cubism. Thus Woman Reading (1911) by Braque – you can make out the curlicues at left and right indicating the wings of the chair, but after that…

It created the notion of the painting as puzzle, with only the title giving the viewer any help in identification.

It’s all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time. (Braque)

the book reinforces how cubism really was a joint venture by the artists, the look of their works converging into the same style. They often didn’t sign works, giving rise to a century of confusion and misattribution.

In 1912 Braque introduced several further techniques:

  • the use of stencilled lettering, which he had learned as an apprentice housepainter, and which further flattens the surface
  • a method of using steel combs to create the effect of wood grain (faux bois)

There were also three major innovations in materials:

  • Collage, i.e. attaching real objects and non-artistic elements onto the canvas. – Still Life with Chair Caning (May 1912) by Picasso.
  • Paper sculptures – Braque pioneered the idea of making sculptures of paper and then drawing or painting on them i.e. paper is no longer a flat surface i.e. the picture itself can be folded and sculpted.
  • papiers collé where collé means pasted. You paste a flattish medium onto paper and then paint or draw on that. Braque pasted imitation wood-grain wallpaper onto white paper and drew on it; Picasso, always the brasher and more experimental of the two, used newspaper pages. –
  • They mixed sand with paint to give the paintwork a real texture.

All these experiments with medium move the work of art away from being a flat, illusionistic window on the world into being a fully autonomous object in its own right, completely divorced from all previous aesthetic theories. It was a volcanic upheaval in art.

Picasso extended these techniques into the sculpture, Guitar, a) made from scrap metal b) with a rough finish c) inverting space (the sound hole should go into the guitar; instead it protrudes out from the surface like a tin can.

All these deliberate rejections of the entire history of Western sculpture were to have seismic repercussions and affect sculpture right down to the present day.

Synthetic cubism

These latter works are examples of what the critics came to call ‘synthetic cubism’. Whereas ‘analytic cubism’ reduced a given object to its constituent elements and then reassembled them according to a new aesthetic, ‘synthetic cubism’ took elements which had nothing to do with each other (newspaper, sand, spare metal) and assembled them into new objects, which were the end result of the process, not the starting point.

1913 saw Braque and Picasso experimenting with introducing more colour into analytical works, and experimenting further with sculpture and synthetic works.

Montmartre cubism and Salon cubism

But these stunning innovations had not gone unnoticed. Juan Gris was living in the same building as B&P, observing their innovations, and decided to give up his career as an illustrator and commit to becoming a painter.

In 1912 Gris painted a cubist portrait of Picasso. Immediately you can see the difference between his approach and that of B&P – how the idea of breaking down an object (here a human being) into facets can be done in completely different ways by different artists with different personal styles. The facets here are bigger and arranged in a much more orderly way – to the line across the top and the lines off at diagonals create a very regular geometric space of a kind never found in Picasso or Braque. (Cooper points out that Gris trained as an engineer and this may explain his love for architectural regularity.)

This is what now happened – at first a trickle and then a flood of other artists began to incorporate one or other aspect of analytical of synthetic cubism into their own practice.

While B&P didn’t exhibit their new works in 1912 or 1913, another group of artists, based around Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, was exhibiting regularly at the various Paris art shows and/or had dealers who promoted them. They quickly soaked up the lessons of cubism and incorporated them into their own works. Other members of Salon cubism at the time loosely include Robert Delaunay, Henri le Fauconnier, Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de la Fresnaye, Louis Marcoussis and Alexander Archipenko.

Salon Cubism is characterised by:

  • size – B&P’s works are often small and intense: Salon Cubist works are often immense, metres across
  • ambitious subject matter
  • less severe, demanding and complex

They also theorised and wrote about their work, something B&P never did. Thus it was Metzinger and Gleizes who co-authored On Cubism, which put the ideas into phrases which are still quoted. They had realised they were working in the same direction when their works were hung more or less by accident near each other in the 1910 Salon des Indépendants.

They recruited like-minded colleagues and then lobbied the hanging committee to get their works deliberately hung together in one room for the next year’s (1911) show. The effect of having a roomful of the new style hung together was to cause scandal (as so often in Paris art history). The poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a long defence of the show and thus came to be seen as a spokesman for the movement.

As to the name, Matisse, who was on the hanging committee of the 1908 Salon which B&P submitted some early works to, is said to have dismissed them as little more than a bunch of ‘cubes’.

The art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who has the distinction of having made the throwaway remark about the paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck looking like the works of wild things – thus naming the art movement of Fauvism) in 1910 referred to the collected works of Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger and Le Fauconnier as ‘ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes.’

Whatever the precise origin, the book On Cubism cemented the term and promoted it to a wide book-reading public.

La section d’Or

The Salon cubists held another show in October 1912, named the Section d’Or, French for ‘Golden ratio’, a mathematical concept which had fascinated artists for 2,500 years. It contained over 200 works and was designed as a deliberate retrospective, showing the evolution of a number of artists from 1909 to 1912, and also to establish cubism as a much broader range of styles and approaches than the narrow high cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Its strength (its diversity) was also its weakness. By 1913 many of these artists were pursuing their own visions and interpretations, so much so that Apollinaire’s book of 1913 – The Cubist Painters – was forced to divide the movement into four distinct categories.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay named their experiments in colour combination – painting interlocking or overlapping patches or planes of contrasting (or complementary) colours – Simultanism. Apollinaire called it Orphism or Orphic cubism insofar as it was interested in abstract shape and colour, and the play of colours was identified – by Delaunay and Apollinaire (as by Kandinsky, who Delaunay corresponded with) with music.

Meanwhile, a work like Metzinger’s Dancer in a café (1912) uses cubist rhetoric but is obviously much more decorative and accessible than P&B’s more demanding experiments – the lamp at top right is pure Art Nouveau.

Contemporary movements affected by cubism

Futurism The impresario of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, published his loudmouth Futurist manifesto in 1909, then took his gang of painters and poets to Paris to see the latest work. Well organised and polemical, the Futurists adapted many of cubism’s tricks but focused on the modern world of machines and on the challenge of depicting movement. They were soon attacking cubism for being quaint and staid and conservative (ladies with mandolins, newspapers on cafe tables, how dull!).

  • States of mind: the Farewell by Umberto Boccioni (1911) breaks down the subject into facets (and uses a very obvious bit of stencilling) but in order to convey the dynamic and modern subject of a fast steam train gathering steam in a railway station.

Rayonism Russian artists wanted to create a home-grown brand of modern art. In 1911 Mikhail Larionov invented Rayonism, an attempt to depict the rays of light reflected from objects using spiky splintered forms. Kasimir Malevich experimented with this angular look and in 1913 he would invent Suprematism, starting from the radical ground zero of his famous black square. Many other contemporary works are described as Cubo-Futurist, for combining elements of both.

Expressionism Cooper sees the influence of cubism on the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc, whose rather naive paintings of animals from 1910 or so, become steadily more involved and broken up by complex sheets or facets as the cubist vision influenced him.

In fact Cooper attributes this highly colourful use of facets and planes more to Robert Delaunay’s version of cubism, than to the grey and brown style of Picasso or Braque.

Vorticism Established in London by the Canadian writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, named by the American poet Ezra Pound, Vorticism published on edition of its bombastic journal, Blast, trying to outdo the Futurists at their own game, and (inevitably) pouring scorn on cubism for being pale and passive. Nonetheless, in its brief life Vorticism attracted impressive talents including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson and Jacob Epstein.

The Great War

World War One brought modern art to a grinding halt – Vorticism ceased to exist, Futurism’s key artists were enlisted; two of the key artists of German Expressionism (Marc and Macke) were killed.

Many of the French artists were called up (the Spaniard Picasso being lucky in this respect) and ceased working for the duration. Across Europe there was a reaction against the avant-garde in face of an understandable rise in patriotic nationalism. In France this was called the rappel a l’ordre.

The best example I know of this move to order is in the music of Igor Stravinsky, who moved from the barbaric primitivism of the Rite of Spring (1914) to the orderly, post-war, neo-classical ballet Pulcinella of 1920, which is still recognisably Stravinksian, but made orderly and sensible.

Something similar can be seen by comparing any of Picasso’s pre-war cubist works with Three Musicians of 1921. The later painting keeps many of the elements of cubism, but is somehow completely different. Every object now has a solid outline unlike the swirling blurring of facets in the pre-war work. There are brighter colours instead of the earth browns and greys of high cubism. The colours themselves are painted in solid unshaded blocks, unlike the very rough dabs and strokes of paint in pre-war work. All these changes go to make the later work much more readable that the esoteric ‘hermetic cubist’ works of the pre-war.

The use of much more clear and precise forms has given rise to the term crystal cubism to describe this late style.

Braque fought in the war, and survived. On his return he was never again so close to Picasso and continued to plough a traditionalist cubist furrow, earth colours and all, reworking the same still lifes, becoming maybe a bit more decorative. For example, Fruit on a table cloth with a fruit dish (1925). You can see why Picasso’s style would be more popular.

Léger, meanwhile, was perfecting the ‘shiny tube’ style which was to last the rest of his career. – The card players (1917)

These and other post-war ‘cubist’ works are included in the forty-eight colour plates of this impressive little book.

After cubism

By 1919 the poet Blaise Cendrars wrote a piece saying Cubism had been hugely important but was now finished. Artists were looking elsewhere. In Russia socially-committed Constructivism influenced the new post-revolutionary avant-garde. In Germany the airily ‘spiritualist’ Expressionists were succeeded the grotesque social satire of Otto Dix and George Grosz, which came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit.

In Zurich, Berlin and New York, the Dada movement (1915-20) ridiculed everything, all previous art included, in an outburst of nihilism whose most enduring artistic legacy was the invention of photomontage by John Heartfield in Berlin, a sort of spin-off of cubist collage but focusing exclusively on elements found in newspapers and magazines.

And when Dada fizzled out it was replaced by a new anti-rational movement, Surrealism, led by the imperious writer André Breton in Paris, and exploring dreams, automatic writing and drawing, which also criticised Cubism for being tame and passive.

Around 1918 the Purist movement was founded by Edouard Jeanneret (better known as the modern architect Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant who co-authored a book, After Cubism in which they criticised the fragmentation of the object in cubism and the way in which cubism had become, in their view, decorative by that time.

They proposed a kind of painting in which objects were represented as powerful basic forms stripped of detail. Purism reached a climax in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion of the New Spirit built in 1925 for the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris which contained works by the three principals and the cubists, Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz. Soon afterwards the movement lapsed and the painters went their separate ways. – Still life with jug by Amédée Ozenfant (1925).

But it didn’t really matter what these or any other art movements said about Cubism – its historical important is still vast, as seismic as the French Revolution. It definitively ended a centuries-old way of thinking about art as naively representational, and opened up a whole range of strategies and ideas and opportunities, and the use of new media and materials, which are still playing out to this day.

But that’s the subject of another book (in fact, whole libraries of books). This Phaidon volume combines a fact-filled and intelligent introduction with a generous selection of works to show how cubism influenced an entire generation of artists.


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Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995)

As a recent article by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books explains:

Ever since Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin published The Sixth Extinction in 1995, we have known that humanity is extirpating species at a rate unmatched since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hunting, deforestation, the introduction of nonnative organisms and diseases, and now climate change have increased the rate of species loss to the point that scientists fear for the functioning of entire ecosystems…

In this pioneering book, Leakey and Lewin take us by the hand through recent (in 1995) discoveries in ecology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and geology, to present a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing the natural world and our place in it.

1. Human evolution is a random accident

This is that we – human beings – are NOT the product of some ineluctable force driving evolution towards higher and more sophisticated species and, ultimately, towards Mind and Consciousness. We are emphatically not the pinnacle of the universe. The reverse: we are a cosmic accident. We now know that the long fossil record of life on earth has been marked by countless disasters, accidents, extinctions, most of which have no intrinsic or logical rationale, and that we are the incredibly fortuitous outcome of these massively random events.

2. There is no balance of nature

Older naturalists held that there was a Balance of Nature whereby the complete global system of life worked together to keep things – oxygen levels, complex ecosystems – in a careful balance which favoured the optimum thriving of life forms. But the closer we look at the record, the more obvious it becomes that there is no balance of nature. The more we learn, the more we realise that nature is in fact given to chaotic  and random fluctuations. It is also much more complex than we ever suspected.

3. Fluctuation and accident are the norm

Taken together, these two ideas suggest that flux and fluctuation are an intrinsic part of the history of life on earth.

Humans long for predictability, in relation to the world of nature around us and, most particularly, in relation to our own existence and our future. But it is obvious that, in the realm of evolutionary biology and ecology, ours is an unpredictable world and our place in it an accident of history; it is a place of many possibilities that are influenced by forces beyond our control and, in some cases at least, beyond our comprehension. (p.231)

4. Extinction events

The most dramatic embodiment of this fluctuation – and of the workings of chance – are ‘extinction events’. In the 540 million years since multicellular life suddenly arose in what scientists call ‘the Cambrian Explosion’, there have been no fewer than 15 ‘extinction events’. These are relatively short periods in which – for some reason – the fossil record shows that between 15% and 40% of all species went out of existence, never to return.

Among these 15 were five really big extinction events, ‘the Big Five’, in each of which over 60% of all species went extinct. And king of the Big Five is one real monster, the extinction event at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, when an estimated 95% of all terrestrial species on earth were wiped out!

The more we learn about the extinction events, the more obvious it becomes that we are the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of a whole series of catastrophes, not through any intrinsic merit in our forebears (who, if you go back far enough, were worms) but from sheer dumb luck.

5. Darwin’s theory of evolution is over-ridden by extinction events

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is undoubtedly the mechanism by which new species come into being and by which all life forms are continually competing with all others. But in Leakey’s view, Darwin’s theory is only relevant in the relatively stable periods between these global catastrophes. These periods have lasted tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years – but the history of life on earth is certainly not the slow, steady evolution of more and more sophisticated life forms, as portrayed in older evolutionary theory.

Instead Darwin’s process has been overshadowed time and again – in terms of impact of the history of life on earth – by extinction, catastrophe and random events. In other words, by the accidents and arbitrariness of History.

6. Humans are the most destructive species on the planet

This new emphasis on the importance of destruction, of the really breath-taking mass extinction of life forms, in the long story of life on earth, dovetails with other, recent discoveries about man’s role in nature. For a variety of sources now suggest that Homo sapiens is and always has been, immensely destructive of the ecosystems around him.

  1. For a long time Europeans have thought that when European explorers and colonisers encountered native peoples in places like America, the Pacific islands, Australia and so on, those peoples were living in a blessed ‘harmony’ with nature. Only in recent decades have scientists realised that the supposedly ‘pristine’ environments of all these places had in fact been severely damaged by the arrival of those peoples. One of the most dramatic examples is Hawaii, which looks like a tropical paradise to tourists, but where we have now discovered evidence that the hunter-gatherers who arrived there 1,500 years ago proceeded to burn down much of the rainforest and wipe out most of the larger species, including a majority of the bright songbirds.
  2. This pattern has been replicated wherever humans appeared, most notably in the Americas, where the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago across the then-existing land-bridge from Asia, and their slow spread southwards, coincides exactly with the extermination of the continent’s megafauna i.e. all its large mammals. There is debate about whether other factors were involved as well but the case of New Zealand presents the case with brutal clarity. The Maori only arrived there 1,000 years ago, and promptly cleared much of the rainforest and hunted all the species of flightless birds and large mammals to extinction. So the native peoples which European explorers encountered in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were far from living in harmony with nature; they were living amid the ecological devastation their ancestors had wreaked wherever they – wherever humans – went.
  3. In the 1990s (this book was published in 1995) everybody knew that tropical rainforests around the world, especially in the vast Amazon basin, were being destroyed at an unprecedented rate (an acre a minute is one calculation), each acre home to millions of species. Since then the news about endangered species or about the rainforests has been overshadowed by the growing sense of crisis about man-made global warming. This has distracted attention away from the story on the ground, which is the alarming rate at which we are continuing to exterminate species throughout the world by the incessant demands of an ever-growing population. When Leakey wrote this book there were 6 billion people in the world. Now that number is 7.5 billion and climbing. The pressure to destroy natural habitat to convert it to farm or grazing land, along with the relentless polluting of the seas, the rivers and the air, can only escalate.

7. Humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event in global history

Having given a thorough account of modern understanding of the 20 or so extinction events which punctuate the fossil record – and especially of the Big Five in which 60%-plus of species went extinct – Leakey’s last chapters introduce us to the final conclusion of their long survey – the idea that we, Homo sapiens, are now having such a destructive impact on the natural world that many if not most environmentalists think we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth.

This is an event so momentous that many geologists and evolutionary scientists think it deserves to be defined as a distinct geological era – the Anthropocene Era – the era in which we human beings are irreversibly destroying the vast majority of life forms on the planet we share with them, on a scale only comparable with the devastation caused by the Big Five extinction events.

We are destroying the world.


Leakey and Lewin

Richard Leakey (b.1944) is a paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born and bred in Kenya, where he made significant discoveries of fossils of early humans, before going on to run the country’s national museums and then become its overall Director of the Wildlife Services.

Roger Lewin (b.1944) is a British prize-winning science writer, a staff member of New Scientist for nine years before going to America to become News Editor for Science. He’s written about 20 books, including three in collaboration with Leakey.

The first two of their collaborations are about Leakey’s work into the origins of the human species, in and around Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, part of the enormous Rift Valley. Due to the fact that hominids need water, and the mud around rivers and lakes preserves footprints and the bones of dead animals better than the harsh savannah or bare rock, Lake Turkana has been a goldmine for fossil hunters looking for relics of our earliest ancestors. In his early explorations, Leakey’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

In the late 1980s Leakey’s interest shifted away from paleoanthropology towards wildlife conservation and ecology. This book – itself now quite dated – combines his two areas of expertise to give a thorough and quite academic history of the evolution of life on earth and to situate the evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens within it, before going on to present its Big Issue.

Key dates

  • Age of the universe – 13.772 billion years
  • Age of the solar system – 5 billion years
  • Age of planet earth – 4.6 billion years
  • Simplest life forms – prokaryotes, single-celled organisms which lack a nucleus -3.5 billion years ago
  • Eukaryotic organisms, whose cells contain a nucleus – 1.8 billion years ago
  • 530 million year ago – the Cambrian Explosion, when suddenly a huge diversity of multi-celled life forms and body shapes and sizes emerges in the fossil record
  • The Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era, lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago. Period when ‘dinosaurs ruled the earth’.
  • 7 million years ago, approximate parting of the line which led to humans from the lines which led to the great apes
  • 150,000 years ago, evolution of the new species, Homo sapiens
  • 13,000 years ago – end of the last Ice Age triggers the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which slowly spreads around the globe and with it the arrival of what we like to call human ‘civilisation’

It’s from the Cambrian Explosion – 530 million years ago – that everything most of us think of as life forms – fish and dinosaurs, plants and trees, then later we mammals – derive. Most of the epochs and periods we hear about – Jurassic, Triassic etc – occur during that 530 million period, most fossils of life forms derive from that period.

The sixth extinction

The central premise of the book, which gives it its title, is that, over the half-billion-year history of multi-celled life on earth, there have been a number of ‘moments’ in the geological record when a significant percentage of the flora and fauna of a certain era seem to have died out very suddenly (in geological terms) – known as ‘mass extinction events’. Having explained the background and possible reasons for them, the book then goes on to point out that we are living through a sixth mass extinction event, in which huge numbers of species are being driven to extinction. There is no doubt at all what is causing it: it is us – humans. Human beings are wiping out the earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.

The ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions

The Big Five are defined as extinction events in which at least 65% of species were obliterated. The end-Permian is the biggest, in which an estimated 95% of species on earth were wiped out.

  • at the end of the Ordovician Period – 440 million years ago
  • the Late Devonian 365 million years ago
  • the end-Permian 225 million years ago
  • the end-Triassic 210 million years ago
  • the end-Cretaceous 65 million years ago

There is huge debate about the possible causes of these great ‘dying outs’. Climate change? The conglomeration of all the continents through continental drift into one mega-continent? The most dramatic suggestion, first mooted in the 1970s by a team led by Luis Alvarez, is that it was asteroids. They found thin layers of iridium at the archaeological line marking the end of the Cretaceous period, an element which is extremely rare on earth but is found in asteroids. This discovery has been replicated at other end-Cretaceous sites, and then a candidate for the giant crater caused by a monster asteroid was discovered on the coast of Mexico. The idea is simple: monster asteroid hits earth with the power of a million hydrogen bombs, throws up vast amounts of dirt and dust into the air which blocks out the sun, as well as triggering widespread volcanic activity. Result: mass extinctions of life.

There’s a lot of evidence for it, but archaeologists and biologists are an argumentative lot, as this book amply demonstrates, and other scientists have piled in to claim that asteroids might have put only the finishing touches to what other causes – climate change, sea level rises, environmental or atmospheric fluctuations and so on – had started. Others – David Raup and Jack Sepkoski – have pointed out that there have been over twenty extinction events over that half billion year span, of which the Big Five are only the most notable (p.56), and which occur at roughly 26 million year intervals. Only the recurrent arrival of a shower of asteroids could explain this regularity, although more recently doubt has been cast on the evidence for this neat pattern. But there’s no doubting, now, that externally-prompted mass extinctions have been a recurrent feature of terrestrial evolution.

Which gives rise to an immense debate about the deep meaning of the theory of evolution, which can be summarised in the phrase ‘bad genes or bad luck’. Is there an inevitability in the way life has evolved? If we ran the tape of evolution again, would life forms turn out much as we see them around us? Is there a kind of deep logic to the way things would have evolved, to fit the available niches?

Or has the evolution of life on earth been subject to mind-boggling accidents and contingency? Could things easily have turned out wildly differently? Was it the merest luck which led to the various mass extinctions, to the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the rise of the mammals and then, right at the end of this string of improbable accidents – to us, reading these words?

These and many related questions are tackled – with the help of quite technical diagrams and explanations – in the first half of the book. It takes a few rereadings to get the timelines clear in your head, and then more rereading to understand what the numerous debates are about.

For example, uniformitarianism is the idea that evolution takes place gradually and slowly over vast periods of time. Darwin had to arrive at his theory by battling essentially religious ideas that species were suddenly created by a Creator God, so he and his followers were vehement uniformitarianists. However, from the birth of geology as a science in the early 19th century, geologists recognised sudden abrupt changes in the record – catastrophic changes in the fossil record which the extinction events seem to support. Broadly this view of evolution is called catastrophism. The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed his own version of catastrophism, which he called punctuated equilibrium – long periods of stasis interrupted by abrupt changes in earth’s biota, or life systems. Modern thinking about the importance of mass extinction events has led to what some call ‘neo-catastrophism’ i.e. Darwin’s laws work most of the time, except when some external force steps in to overshadow them – be it drastic climate change, asteroids, volcanic activity, sea level changes or whatever.

Man the destroyer

We are but one of millions of species here on earth, products of half a billion years of life’s flow, lucky survivors of at least twenty biotic crises, including the catastrophic Big Five. (p.71)

But these and various other theories and debates about the detail of historical evolution are really just the background, the introduction to the meat of the book, which is a lament for man’s destruction of the natural world. Leakey uses numerous examples to show how modern science has revealed just how much life there is, all around us.

He reports Danish scientists who investigated one square metre of tropical rainforest and discovered 46,000 earthworms, 12 million roundworms and 46,000 insects. Just one gram of this soil contained more than a million bacteria, 100,000 yeast cells and 50,000 fragments of fungi (p.136).

The rape and destruction of the earth which we are causing is mind-blowing. It is estimated that ‘we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year.’ (Scientific American)

But all that’s new is the scale: man has always been a destroyer. Between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago 50 or so large mammal species went extinct in North America. The extinctions coincided with the arrival of the first peoples from Asia (across the land bridge across what is now the Bering Straits) and their slow fanning out across the continent. Although some paleontologists prefer climate change or disease as the cause, many think these first human settlers of the Americas hunted its large mammals to extinction. This theory is called the Overkill hypothesis. The case is even clearer in New Zealand, which Maori colonised about 1,000 years ago and where they hunted the large flightless birds to extinction, while the rats they’d brought from Australia wiped out whole systems of ground-roosting birds and other fauna.

‘The notion of man-the-exterminator is secure in New Zealand.’ (p.186)

Same on Hawaii (pp.188-190).

Numbers

How many species are there on earth? Nobody knows. Leakey quotes an early estimate from the 1960s of 3 million. Terry Irwin, in 1982, estimated there may be 30 million species of insects alone in the rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, Leakey quotes estimates of the total number of species as 50 million, and then references Robert May’s speculation from the 1990s that there may be as many as 100 million species. These appear to be the end points, which is why later articles refer to ‘anywhere between 3 and 100 million’.

More recently, a 2011 estimate using a new methodology gives the total number of species in the world as 8.7 million – 6.45 million on land, 2.2 million in the sea. According to this calculation, 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued. But googling the subject, though, one comes across a bang up-to-date estimate from 2016 which says there might be as many as 1 trillion species on earth!

In other words, despite E.O. Wilson’s calls for governments to invest more in finding out how many species we share the world with – a plea from the 1990s quoted in this book (p.123) – we still haven’t a clue how many there are. What we can be confident about is that we are wiping out most of the species we share the earth with before we ever get to discover, identify, record or analyse any of them.

In fact, we don’t even know precisely how many species have been identified and catalogued. It appears to be about 1.25 million species – roughly 1 million on land and 250,000 in the oceans – but as many as 700,000 more are thought to have been described by local scientists which have yet to reach the central databases and so be included in global counts…

Value in diversity

How do we preserve nature? Well, in our demystified, instrumental, capitalist world, we have to give it a value, the only thing most people understand. Leakey identifies three types of value:

  1. Tangible benefits we can extract from the environment, such as food, raw materials, medicine.
  2. Maintenance of the environment: we need the full web of life to continue its circulation of gases, chemicals and moisture in order to make the world inhabitable by humans.
  3. Psychological health: most people with the money, prefer to live in the country, people like to visit and roam in the country, patients in hospital with a bed by a window in a green space have better recovery rates than patients in a windowless room. The presence of greenery and nature keeps us psychologically healthy – and that greenery doesn’t exist in the abstract – it is made up of incalculably complex webs of organisms. E.O. Wilson has named this sense ‘biophilia’.

Food and drugs are the obvious ones. The world is dangerously dependent on monocultural varieties of a handful of food crops. If a pest devastated the world’s wheat or rice crops, billions would starve. Wild varieties contain genes we haven’t identified or analysed which would provide important genetic variations which could help develop new varieties, if the worst ever happened.

Similarly, important worldwide medicines have been sourced from wholly unexpected wild plants and flora. Aspirin and penicillin are the two obvious examples, which changed the world and saved hundreds of millions of lives. Who knows what cures for cancer or AIDS may be lurking undiscovered in some of the 250,000 species of plants? And in species we are merrily burning to extinction every day?

Theories and ideas

Even twenty years ago when this book was published, all educated people should have known about the destruction of the rainforests and endangered species. That aspect shouldn’t be news to anyone. I think the real revelation of this book is the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of ecological and biological and archaeological science – the range of areas and levels and expertises which are now brought to bear on the natural world, the complexity of computer models and the plethora of rival theories.

Leakey’s book is in many places quite dauntingly technical. Plenty of paragraphs contain numbered points or aspects or theories which we need to learn and bear in mind. For example, we learn about:

  • Allopatric speciation – or geographic speciation is speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become vicariant, or isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with genetic interchange.
  • Cambrian Explosion – ‘the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 541 million years ago in the Cambrian period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record’ (Wikipedia)
  • Chaos theory as it applies to ecosystems i.e. modern understanding has undermined the notion of a ‘balance of nature’ to reveal that all systems, even without any external influence, tend to boom and bust and be subject to other ‘internal’ pressures which create fluctuations. I.e. every ecosystem, and nature as a whole, is much more chaotic and unstable than had been appreciated.
  • The ‘protective network‘ of an ecosystem which places an ‘activation barrier‘ around it to prevent new species intruding (p.162-3).
  • The rivet-popper hypothesis and the redundancy hypothesis of how ecosystems are degraded. Rivet-popper = each species in a system is like the rivets in a ship – you can remove one or two without noticing but the more you remove the more you weaken the system until it reaches collapse. Redundancy = most species are passengers on a system held together by a few lynchpin systems: you can remove most with no change; but remove the lynchpins and the system collapses. (pp.140-141)

The relative importance of ‘history’ and evolution

One of the big points Leakey makes is that in his time older ideas like ‘the balance of nature’ and even the primacy of natural selection, have been thrown in doubt. Nature now appears to be much more chaotic than previously suspected. And he explains recent work which suggests that the world we see around us is radically contingent. Archaeologists examined the fossil record of animals off the North Atlantic coast over the past 60 million years, a huge duration during which sea levels rose and fell six times. They discovered that mature ecosystems repopulated the dry land once it was reflooded – but each time it was repopulated by a different combination of species. I.e. the reappearance of life was ‘inevitable’ – but which specific species fill all the niches and grow into a tangled web of an ecosystem – it can be different each time. There is nothing intrinsic or inevitable about the flourishing of particular species or combinations of species in ecosystems. Shake the dice and you get a different set.

As Leakey puts it, History matters. Life there will be, but what forms of life and how they combine, even in the same environment, can vary hugely depending on chance factors. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection still gives the best account of how species evolve over time – but in seeking an explanation for the natural world as we see it, the theory of evolution is dwarfed by the random events of what we call ‘history’.

Insights into human history

Obviously Leakey’s main concern is with nature and ecology but for someone like me who knows more about history than I do about biology or ecology, the multiple insights a scholarly book like this gives the reader into the natural world can also shed tremendous light on the deeper meaning of human history.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s epic account of the colonisation of America. In it he emphasises that it wasn’t just European humans who arrived in the New World, but that they brought from the Old World , in order of importance – their devastating new diseases, new plants and new livestock. These spread like wildfire across the virgin continent, the diseases wiping out up to 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas, while new plants spread like weeds, and livestock drove American rivals extinct.

Quite apart from its ostensible purpose as a warning and a plea, a book like Leakey’s can immeasurably increase our understanding of human history by giving us a deep sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the natural world which human beings have been blundering around, reshaping and destroying, burning and deforesting and planting and mixing up, for centuries – the process we refer to as ‘history’.

It makes us realise what was at stake back then, as well as now. It makes us realise the depth of the damage we have been doing, and for centuries.

Attitude

Obviously the planet is indifferent to individual human opinions, attitudes and stands. Clicking ‘like’ on facebook to a photo of a polar bear or the rainforest isn’t going to change anything. Only a wholesale and comprehensive change to all of our lifestyles, combined with drastic attempts to control and reduce human population, will have any real, practical impact on the problem.

On a personal level, this knowledge does suggest a truer, more accurate understanding of human nature (destructive) and our place in the natural world (destructive) which should have a chastening effect on everything we think and do. It transforms our understanding and it should transform our behaviour.

From time to time Leakey mentions, or quotes other ecologists criticising, humanity’s ‘narcissism’ or ‘arrogance’, each of us infested with thoughts and feelings and desires which a) are ultimately trivial b) obscure to ourselves our fundamental role as destroyers of the environment.

A correct attitude, the accurate honest attitude to the devastation we cause, would be one of modesty, shame and penance.

In a way, understanding these issues better should lead us to a kind of attitude and – ideally – lifestyle, characterised by simplicity and humility. All of us need to consume less, vastly less, than our arrogance and ignorance and selfishness prompt us to.

A proper understanding of our place in the world should lead to the virtues praised by monks and nuns of all religious orders: shun the world, shun consumption, shun exploitation, work in humility and honesty to supply our bare needs. Only then, maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might there be a slight possibility of hope that we do not exterminate most life forms on the planet including, of course, many that we depend and rely on for our own existence.

In order to know ourselves as a species and to understand our place in the universe of things, we have to distance ourselves from our own experience, both in space and time. It is not easily done but it is essential if we are truly to see a larger reality. (p.6)


Related links

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis (1995)

‘She told me she saw something in one of the papers about somebody called something Scott-Thompson writing something about JRP Fane…’ (p.96)

Not particularly successful, forty-something literary journalist, Gordon Scott-Thompson, pitches the idea of writing a ‘critical biography’ of 68-year-old, very posh and very out-of-date novelist Jimmie Fane, to his reluctant publisher.

There follows a series of lunches and dinners with Jimmie and his pukka mates (Tommie, Bobbie), at his house, at nice restaurants, at Jimmie’s club (Grays), and entanglements with old friends and lovers of the great man, which Gordon experiences with varying levels of Amisian alienation and bewilderment.

Characteristically for an Amis ‘hero’, Gordon also struggles to maintain a relationship with his live-out lover Louise, and to manage the attentions of Jimmie’s (fourth) wife, Joanna, after she sets out – successfully – to seduce him.

Complications are introduced in the form of an ancient lover of Jimmie’s – Madge Walker – who he jilted way back during the war and is now living in genteel poverty with her deaf, ex-Navy husband; and in a prolonged visit to the phenomenally posh Duke of Dunwich in his country house at Hungerstream, which is chock-full of Lucky Jim-style comic embarrassments.

This long country house sequence is very funny. There’s no real necessity for it in the plot. It’s simply one of the many country weekends Jimmie is constantly angling to get himself invited to, and his wife, Joanna, simply happens to suggest to Gordon that he comes along – and why not bring his girlfriend, Louise.

In the event Gordon travels there by train, sees a bunch of other, genuinely posh guests at Hungerstream station who all ignore him, a chauffeur-driven car takes them all to the enormous house and then a whole series of comic episodes ensue: from first meeting the dodgy Duke himself, to the ordeal of a formal dinner during which Gordon gets catastrophically drunk, to embarrassing scenes with Louise and with Jimmie’s wife, Joanna, who sets out to seduce him.

This long sequence fits the theme of the novel, which is the English class system, but mostly it is an opportunity for Amis to relentlessly takes the piss out of the English upper classes, their braying inability to speak properly, their permanent drunkenness, their outrageous rudeness – which all around them tolerate and put up with because all around them are themselves such awful social climbers and snobs.

That said, at the heart of the section is a long and curiously touching scene where Jimmie the writer takes Gordon his biographer for a wintry morning walk in the countryside and confesses a teenage attachment to Tennyson and In Memoriam which for so long inspired him to write his own (unpublishably bad) poetry.

It is also during this long country house interlude that Joanna explains to Gordon that Jimmie is planning to return to his second wife – Lady Rowena – who’s come into some money – and so to ditch her, Joanna.

Which is why she began her affair with him – Gordon. Gordon’s not sure how he feels about this but tells her he loves her, just in case. Lucky Jim-style, Gordon drinks himself insensible at the big evening meal at Hungerstream and so misses some kind of showdown which takes place between Joanna and Jimmie. All the cast members return to London next day in various stages of hungoverness and high dudgeon.

Quite separate from all this is a sub-plot in which Gordon wangles some money out of Joanna to pass on to Madge Walker, Jimmie’s former lover, now fallen on hard times, to help support her bed-bound former Navy captain husband. But soon enough the novel hurtles towards its denouements. In the end:

  1. Jimmie gets cold feet about returning to wife number two, after she actually shows up at the Duke of Dunwich’s, thereby forcibly reminding him how ghastly she is. So he abandons his plan, explaining his thinking calmly enough to Joanna.
  2. So Joanna in turn dumps Gordon and returns to the old bugger – ‘I love you darling but… let’s never talk about it again.’ Gordon takes it badly. Now he has lost both his women, Joanna and Louise, and stays up watching crap TV in his rubbish flat drinking himself insensible on whisky.
  3. Gordon’s publisher doesn’t surprise him very much by telling him that he’s been taken over by some vast conglomerate who’ve taken a look at the books and are cutting down on anything which isn’t a copper-bottomed bestseller – starting with weedy lit crit books like Gordon’s. He, the publisher, is himself being made redundant soon. Sign of the times, old boy.
  4. And Louise, the girlfriend he dumped to have the affair with Joanna, but who Joanna asked him to nonetheless take along to the Duke of Dunwich’s as ‘cover’ for their affair. She takes the Duke’s fancy and the novel ends a month or so later with Gordon attending their outrageously posh wedding.

This is Amis’s last published novel. Its immediate predecessor, You Can’t Have Both, was lengthy and divided into just four long parts or ‘acts’. This made it a little challenging for the reader to orientate herself within what presented themselves as long continuous floods of prose.

By contrast The Biographer’s Moustache is divided into 30 short chapters. This has the effect of making each chapter address one ‘scene’ only, and encourages them to be more clipped and focused. As a result, the book is both easier to read and gives a stronger impression of pace and focus.

The style

Vague That said, Amis’s style is as weird as ever. It revels in vagueness and inconsequentiality with none of the characters ever thinking or saying anything plain or logical. To pick up an Amis novel is to enter a maze of equivocation and diffusion, with the anti-hero – Gordon, in this one – likely to be stuck in an ‘everyday condition of puzzlement and unsatisfied curiosity’ (p.97), amid a wreck of bewildering and unpredictable other characters. Our man rarely understand what’s going on, what other people are doing or thinking, or what he’s meant to do next.

The use of ‘or’ A big symptom of this attitude is Amis’s addiction to giving multiple variant interpretations of even the simplest activities, and linking them with the word ‘or’. Hardly anything is said or happens which isn’t given at least two possible interpretations:

  • The number was or seemed to be permanently engaged. (p.105)
  • When he left her after the rissole lunch she had talked without pause till they were on the doorstep, then said something hurried and unemphatic that he remembered or had interpreted as a directive to get in touch or keep in touch with her… (p.98)

There are so many usages of ‘or’ that you could sub-categorise them. Some of them are dismissive, conveying an irritable, short-tempered attitude in the author or character:

  • Jimmie explained to Gordon as they sat in an otherwise empty corner of the lounge, or whatever it might have been called. (p.68)
  • ‘He’s in Cambridge, having lunch with the Master or the Warden of somewhere…’ (p.73)

At moments like this the narrator (or characters – the same tone is interchangeable between them) seems to be saying ‘Listen, I’m just in too much of a bloody hurry to bother with the details, alright?’

At that moment she got out of the green chair and strolled towards a window or a picture or a bookcase… (p.75)

A different type of ‘or’ occurs when the narrator seems to be trying to capture subtle differences in human behaviour, where the narrator is recording characters’ equivocation or uncertainty about their own motives.

  • This too he did, or started to. (p.103)
  • Perhaps he was in love, or was going to be. (p.179)

These give the appearance of a keen scholar of human motivation striving to find just the right definition or phrase in the way ‘the novel’ is traditionally meant to:

  • He must have been responding without knowing it, or more likely without admitting it to himself. (p.74)

So is the proliferation of ‘or’ sentences – and there are three or four on every page – the sign of a clever investigation of human nature – or just an irritating mannerism?

  • In fact he arrived at the building a few seconds before the agreed hour, just when a neurotically precise or something-like-that person would have got there. (p.107)
  • In one way or perhaps in more than one he had welcomed this. (p.118)

Whatever the precise intention of individual deployments of the word ‘or’, the overall impact of them is to weaken and undermine the main statement.

More than one in a sentence creates a diminuendo effect: the more there are the more they make the power or certainty of a statement deflate like a punctured balloon. Like a lot of Amis’s mannerisms it can be funny or serious or irritating or all three at once; one thing is sure, this stylistic tic occurs numerous times on every page and is a dominant feature of his style.

  • Joanna’s voice slackened. She had the look of somebody who has said more than enough, or perhaps less than enough… (p.127)
  • She gave a long sigh, as if resigning something or the hope of something. (p.152)

Some of that Being in a state of permanent bewilderment means that Mr Confused and Puzzled is at a loss for how to handle, think about or cope with other people. When they talk to him he perceives it as being talked at and gives the impression of just sitting nodding waiting for ‘it’ to end. He – and the other characters, since all the characters share the narrator’s frame of mind and turn of phrase – use a set of frequently repeated phrases to convey this sense of having to sit through the unbearable twaddle other people are spouting: having to endure bits of ‘stuff’ or ‘that lot’ of piffle or ‘more of the same’, or ‘this section’ of whatever they’re on about, as though it’s all incomprehensible.

  • Gordon could not think of any useful reply to make to this last lot… (p.139)
  • This phase was soon ended… (p.165)
  • Cooper arrived with the tea in time to hear this last bit. (p.256)

Quite regularly the protagonist thinks he’s being assailed with a foreign language or just gobbledygook. Even regular conversation feels like a burden he has to sit through, miming appropriate expressions of happiness or understanding or interest as best he can.

Dialogue To some extent Amis’s dialogue – and there’s lots of it – makes an admirable effort to capture real people’s hesitations and evasions, repetitions and stumbles. The downside is that nobody in Amis ever seems able to get to the point, if indeed there is a point. Amis’s dialogue must be the vaguest and most obtuse of any published author.

  • ‘Of course I’m not sure that’s what he said. People aren’t, you don’t, people can’t expect to be sure of what he said any time, can they?’ (p.173)
  • ‘On consideration, something I don’t go in for much these days, I should say that the best part of me, or the least bad part of me, or the least bad part of what there is of me, or was of me… is in verse form.’ (p.178)

His characters don’t discuss something to establish its nature and come to logical decisions; their conversations are masterpieces of mutual incomprehension, games of obfuscation which the narrator or protagonist observes with bemused detachment.

  • Gordon had no chance of either improving or throwing doubt on this reading of motives in what followed. (p.189)
  • Gordon was conscious of having put his point with something less than unimprovable clarity and force. Jimmie shared this general view, or affected to. (p.265)

Abandon all hope of crisp, pithy, pointed dialogue. Relax and enjoy this world of confusion, uncertainty, vagueness and misunderstanding.

The absent protagonist The net effect of all these peculiarities is that quite often the hero seems to be only barely present in his own life.

  • He soon found himself quite unable to decide whether he had started an affair or received the equivalent of a very friendly pat on the head. (p.76)
  • ‘You aren’t one of those characters?’ he found he had said. (p.191)
  • To visit a part [of the house] he had at least seen before gave him a feeling, however illusory, of being in touch with events, even perhaps of having some influence over them. (p.197)

Mostly the effect is played for laughs but sometimes can be quite unnerving and is so consistent across the whole book that this feeling of detachment from other people even himself – of watching everything from a bubble – is one of the book’s strongest flavours.

Acting Sometimes the sense of detachment is so intense you almost think you’re in the mind of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who can’t read or puzzle out other people at all. And if you can’t read other people – if you are incapable of deducing their intentions even when they’re talking directly to you – then you have to guess what they’re on about from any available sources, maybe from how you’ve seen people behave in films or TV; and you yourself attempt to reply by adopting similar play-acting and mime, by imitating people of who do know how to respond, or at least look like they know how to respond.

Jimmie’s face took on an expression of overdone and also somehow proletarian dismay. Gordon was emboldened to drop into his efficient television-cockney. (p.83)

Adrift in a world of play-acting you come to think that everyone else is also acting a role, and this seeing other people as actors is a consistent aspect of Amis’s worldview and style.

  • He peered in the direction he had been going and saw Jimmie  just started on a very life-like imitation of a man unself-consciously opening the front door of his house and presently shutting it after him. (p.106)
  • Doing his best not to impersonate a schoolboy taken out for a special treat in a grown-up restaurant… (p.126)
  • Gordon sipped with pretended relish. (p.130)

Time The need to act instead of to directly experience the world, is related to Amis’s odd perception of Time. Time doesn’t flow in Amis’s novels, but is always broken up into sections, chunks, bits and pieces, and the protagonist experiences his life as an endless negotiation and navigation through ‘the next bit’ or the stuff which happens ‘quite soon afterwards’, through ‘the next section’, and so on, as if incapable of experiencing the flow of time without dividing it up into units which have to be managed and coped with.

  • Just before or just after saying that… (p.48)
  • The ensuing pause was quite brief, but it was long enough for several thoughts… (p.74)
  • By way of completing this section, Gordon laughed loudly… (p.91)
  • He said the last part as he left the bedroom… (p.170)
  • Eventually the whole party had gathered in the library… and that went on for some time without detectable damage to anyone present. (p.186)
  • … but then perhaps he had slept through that part. (p.196)
  • Later, more than at any time, but not only later, Gordon thought about the duke… (p.201)
  • When the time came, or when he could put it off no longer… (p.237)
  • Without anything that could be called a delay he was taken to a room… (p.243)
  • For the moment, in fact any moment, he would have to stand up to arriving in the place. (p.276)

His relationship to Time is so odd I wonder if some kind of paper or article could be written about it, which would refer to 20th century philosophies of Time as well as current psychological knowledge about the human perception of Time, in order to clarify the different tactics Amis adopts towards it, in order to investigate the problem of ‘duration’ and the fundamental challenge of understanding human experience.

Although mostly played for laughs, this problem with Time and experience seems to me to be the issue underlying all his novels.

Transparent The protagonist of You Can’t Have It Both, Robin Davies, gives the impression of being fairly canny and calculating right up to the end of the book, when he’s exposed as being childishly transparent – a hopelessly selfish womaniser, who his mum and dad and wife and girlfriends can all read like an open book.

Useless Similarly, in this one, Gordon is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to dealing with the suave Jimmie, his snobbish pals, his seducing wife, his sly publisher or his own capable girlfriend. You get the sense that everyone is ‘playing’ the hapless hero. In a funny moment, after their first kiss, Jimmie’s wife asks if he wants to proceed and, in that half moment, Gordon realises that he’s toppling into having an affair because he can’t think quickly enough of any way to politely say No. He is, like so many other Amis men, completely useless.

Funny Sometimes Amis escapes all his mannerisms to be just funny about the world we live in, sometimes very funny.

Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest. (p.70)

After a short while there presumably sounded some buzzer or kindred device inaudible to Gordon and all at once Lady Rowena withdrew her attention from him so totally that he felt like glancing down at himself to make sure he was still there. (p.190)

Moments like this are like spending hours trying to tune a radio and suddenly stumbling across a clear audible signal, or hacking your way through a jungle and suddenly stumbling into a clearing and strolling across it nice and easy.

But clarity of intention and phrasing like this is rare in Amis’s work. Most of the time we are subjected to the wandering divagations of the all-too-easily easily-distracted prose. Instead of writing the thing itself, Amis can’t stop himself writing nugatory elaborations on it, or something like it, or whatever. Almost as if he’s bored of writing and has to give sentences an unexpected twirl just to keep his interest alive.

The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. (p.56)

And sometimes the combination of all Amis’s odd mannerisms brings the prose perilously close to gibberish.

  • At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. (p.25)
  • Gordon was just opening his mouth to give another and firmer refusal when he caught the sound as of a heavy body falling somewhere upstairs, faint at this distance but no doubt substantial on the spot, not perhaps an unmistakable advertisement of the duke’s presence near at hand but not mistakable enough for Gordon, who forthwith told Jimmie to lead on. (p.171)

On every page Amis bends and distorts the language but not towards the crisp expressiveness of Americans like Martin Cruz Smith – not towards clarity or modernity – but clotting together an array of old-fashioned English phrases and idioms with what often seem to be experiments in seeing just how convoluted a sentence can be twisted before it breaks.

If you’re in a hurry to read for the plot, it can be very irritating but in this novel, because of its shorter chapters and more focused presentation of character and scene, I mostly found it stimulating and amusing.

Class

‘A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of the class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is…’
‘I know, it’s dead.’ (p.22)

I’m not generally interested in a book’s ‘themes’ since these are often so obvious and so obviously designed to be written about, analysed and discussed in book clubs or GCSE classes. But mention should be made of the way this novel very conspicuously ‘investigates’, ‘uses’, ‘explores’ etc the English class system.

Specifically, the hapless hero Gordon is continuously aware of being at a disadvantage whenever he’s with Jimmie or his nobby friends at the club or with his pukka wife in bed, let alone among the posh guests of the impossibly upper-class Duke of Dunwich.

On the surface this gives rise to:

a) actual experiences of upper class snobbery, as when Gordon is blanked at Hungerstream train station when the Duke’s other posh guests realise he’s nobody significant, or is insulted by Jimmie’s pals at the club, or is intimidated by the Duke’s butler or chauffeur
b) discussions of the class system with Jimmie himself, with Joanna, with Louise, with the publisher and so on, who all give their take on whether there still is a class system in England, how important it might be, and so on

We can say on the evidence of the text that Jimmie is quite open about being a social climber and loves being invited to the houses of the aristocracy and enjoys teasing Gordon about his middle-class origins – in a running joke he’s always trying to catch Gordon out in non-U pronunciations of words like ‘often’  and ’tissue’.

But Jimmie himself has an uneasy relationship with Bobbie and Tommie at the club who may be a little above him in social class – and is nowhere as lofty as the permanently drunk Duke of Dunwich – whereas his wife Joanna, although she has inherited money, isn’t as posh as Jimmie.

All this leaves Gordon’s girlfriend Louise as his ally in non-poshness, although he is outflanked by his publisher who takes up with a society lady during the course of the novel and so disconcerts Gordon with reports of his goings-on with the Fane family based on Society gossip. And so on.

Money is inextricably linked with all these definitions of position in society and with the pairings or bondings between males and females known as ‘marriage’. Joanna is aware that her family money was part of the reason Jimmie married her – and that fact that wife number two – Lady Rowena – has recently come into a lot of money is the main reason Jimmie seriously considers dumping Joanna and remarrying Rowena – until he actually meets her and remembers how ghastly she is.

So you could analyse the entire story in terms of the complex web of social class and money it creates, and declare it ‘a study of contemporary society and social customs’ etc, as if it was a piece of anthropological research.

Or do a structuralist or narratological interpretation which saw the characters as blocks or units whose overlappings and intersections create nexuses of energy and rest which make up the dynamic patterns across the text.

Or you could inject some morality into the analysis e.g. Gordon’s contempt for Jimmie is ‘right’ and justified by Jimmie’s incurable snobbery, or is itself flawed by his own ‘immoral’ behaviour in having an affair with Jimmy’s wife, etc.

But I prefer to stick to a more stylistic analysis of the actual words on the page, of the deformations or innovations or habits or oddities of language of which the text is actually made up. From this more limited point of view the emphasis on the theme of social class has two results:

  1. It taps into a rich tradition of English comic writers taking the mickey out of the English class system going back through Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse to Dickens, and back further to the earliest comic novels of Henry Fielding. Dim, drunk, huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ types are the stockest of stock characters in English comic writing.
  2. For Amis’s more particular purposes, being a class outsider is just another (time-honoured) way of achieving the aim of most of his novels, which is to present the hapless hero as hopelessly isolated, confused and discombobulated.

The main conclusion I’d draw from the presence of the ‘class theme’ is that Amis’s return to such a time-honoured comic topic results in a novel which is noticeably more straightforward and funny than a lot of its predecessors.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book. The focused story and the use of short chapters make this a more enjoyable read than its immediate predecessors. And whereas Robin Davies (protagonist of the previous book) really came over as a manipulative, selfish bastard, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste at the story’s conclusion, in this, Amis’s final novel, the central figure, Gordon, is more sinned against than sinning, more the kind of hapless nincompoop that Lucky Jim Dixon was in Amis’s first novel.

And, against all expectations, I found myself warming to Jimmie the snobbish old writer. The long excursion to Hungerstream, the vast country pile of the Duke of Dunwich, was a refreshing change of scene for an Amis novel, so many of which usually take place in rooms in north London houses where people get drunk or are miserably unfaithful to each other. The change of scene seemed to revive his writing, making it both more funny and more moving than in recent books.

For all Amis’s weirdnesses of style and worldview, or maybe because I’m so used to them now that I positively enjoy them, I really liked this book and look forward to rereading it sometime.


Credit

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

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

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe (1995)

The Praelector waited in the drawing-room, staring out into the pulsating night and thinking about the May Balls he had known in his youth. They had been sedate affairs and he had enjoyed them enormously, swinging round the Hall doing the quickstep or a foxtrot and, most daringly of all, the tango with a polished liveliness and delight that was a world away from the mechanical Bacchanalia the young now seemed to crave. Not that he blamed them. They were drowning out a world that seemed to have no structure to it and no meaning for them, a monstrous bazaar in which the only recognised criteria were money and sex and drugs and the pursuit of moments of partial oblivion. (p.475)

The front cover and title page describe this as ‘A Porterhouse Chronicle’ as if it’s one of a whole series of novels about the fictional Cambridge college which made its first appearance in Sharpe’s 1974 novel, Porterhouse Blue. But it took 21 years for this sequel to appear and, in the event, there are only two Porterhouse books, this being the second and last one.

It’s a bit long for a comic novel, at 490 pages in this Pan paperback edition, and it is not as funny as its predecessor. Sharpe is still capable of rising to moments of savage farce, but they’re fewer and further between. And – crucially – the kind of swearing and sexual explicitness which felt taboo-breaking and transgressive in the 1970s, were no longer nearly as shocking in the mid-90s, and now – in 2016 – feels run-of-the-mill. Characters saying ‘fuck’ or dressing up in PVC sex outfits is no longer at the far edge of respectability.

The Plot

The fictional Cambridge college of Porterhouse has a reputation as being the most reactionary college in the university, but its finances are in a dire state. Much of the infrastructure is peeling and dropping off. The college is run by a council of Senior Fellows and the plot consists of following their bumbling and farcical attempts to drum up new financing for their alma mater. They are:

  • the Dean (a small round man with a red face, p.224)
  • the Senior Tutor
  • the Bursar
  • the Praelector (tall and thin, p.224)
  • the Chaplain – amiable, bumbling and deaf – giving rise to numerous comic misunderstandings
  • and the Master

The Master is in fact the former Head Porter, Skullion, who we saw, at the end of Porterhouse Blue, have a major stroke. In fact ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is college slang for just such a stroke. Now Skullion is permanently ensconced in a wheelchair and only intermittently capable of speech.

So off they go to find money. The Dean goes to visit Old Porterthusians around the country who, predictably, turn out to be various shades of nasty, drunk, impoverished and violent, notably the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole of Pimpole Hall, Yorkshire, who was once a gay blade but has turned into a violent alcoholic with a vicious cur.

The Senior Tutor is contacted by Lady Mary Evans, the widow of the former Master, Sir Godber Evans, who we saw dying at the end of the previous novel. Although the coroner ruled it accidental death caused by excess of alcohol and then Sir Godber tripping and cracking his skull, Lady Mary is convinced his death was murder. To confirm her suspicion she gives her dubious lawyer six million pounds to endow a new position at the college, the Sir Godber Evans Fellowship and, after some comic business with various unsuitable candidates, appoints the earnest and upright Dr Purefoy Osbert to the post. Osbert is an expert in capital punishment – author of a classic account of the subject, The Long Drop – and he’s given a remit to write the history of Porterhouse, with special attention to the fate of her late husband. She hopes Osbert will expose the murder and turn up enough evidence to convict the whole pack of Senior Fellows who she loathes.

Meanwhile, in what becomes the major storyline, the Bursar attends a conference on ‘funding ancient institutions’ where he is introduced to the slick American representative of a big TV company – Transworld Television Productions – one Karl Kudzuvine. At TTP’s shiny big London headquarters the Bursar is surprised to realise everyone is wearing an identical outfit of moccasins, white socks, polo neck sweater and shades. And when he meets the sinister head of the operation, Edgar Hartang, he learns they are all copying him.

The TV people say they love the idea of making a documentary series about Porterhouse, and will pay handsomely for using the facilities and persuade the Bursar to let them make a ‘recce’ or preliminary visit, where they swarm all over the ancient buildings, outraging the staff, and onto the roof of the chapel which begins to collapse under their weight, during an actual service, prompting a stampede for the exit in which Kudzuvine is trampled underfoot.

There now begins a lengthy sequence in which the foul-mouthed gangster Kudzuvine is put to bed by the cabal of doddering senior officials – the Bursar, Senior Tutor – while the college doctor casually injects him with a range of new drugs he’s been dying to experiment with. They set the speechless, wheelchair-bound gargoyle, Skullion, to watch over him, so that every time Kudzuvine wakes, befuddled and disorientated, he thinks he’s hallucinating and shrinks further into paranoid terror.

In this deranged state, he eventually reveals what we sort of suspected, which is that Transworld is a front for massive involvement in drug smuggling, but not actually making the shipments – TTP uses its offices worldwide and its international documentary operation to launder and clean drug money for various clients: the South Americans, the Mafia, the Russians. This line of business brings with it a serious risk of kidnapping or assassination from rivals, and it’s this which explains why the paranoid boss makes everyone dress like him – so that potential assassins getting past security in TTP’s Canary Wharf offices, will be confused long enough for him to get away.

All Kudzuvine’s confessions are taped by the wily officers. And the college solicitors send a lengthy claim for damages to college infrastructure and to the finer feelings of staff and students to Hartang personally, seeking £20 million! Obviously, his first reaction is to consider hiring contract killers to wipe out these limey motherfuckers, but he is restrained by his own lawyers, who advise actually paying up. It’s a fraction of his illegal takings. In fact Sharpe shows us the lawyers themselves taking steps to distance themselves from their criminal client.

Complications

Having established all these plotlines by half way through the book, Sharpe spends the next 200 pages detailing their increasingly out-of-control complications. This is one of the things that makes Sharpe’s novels farces – the sense of the plot developments spiralling beyond the sane, beyond the feasible, into a fantasy world of comic hysteria.

Thus the now thoroughly cowed Kudzuvine discovers that everything he’s said about his boss has been recorded, transcribed and witnessed: he can’t go back. Terrified, he is whisked away to the country house of Old Porterthusian, General Sir Cathcart D’Eath, there given work in the abattoir where – in a minor revelation – we learn the General slaughters horses and turns them into cat food. Knives and blood. Hmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some comic consequences…

At his Induction Dinner, the fellows get Osbert drunk and are worried to discover what his real mission is and how much Sir Mary already knows, or suspects. They need to curtail the fellow’s activities – but how?

For his part, once he’s settled into his new quarters at Porterhouse, Osbert discovers that the wheelchair-bound Skullion likes to lurk in a corner of the quad where he’s brought food and bottles of ale by the college chef and they have a good natter. Intrigued, Osbert conceals himself nearby and overhears their conversation. Apparently Skullion has heard rumours that the Senior staff may be trying to replace him as Master and is infuriated. No sooner has ‘Cheffy’, as they call him, gone away than the Dean strolls past and is surprised to discover Skullion hidden in this corner. Their conversation takes a nasty turn, though, when Skullion – unusually drunk even for him – reveals that it was he who murdered Sir Godber at the end of the previous book, and threatens to tell all and ruin the college if the Dean and the other Senior Fellows try to get rid of him, Skullion.

The Dean blusters that no such thought has crossed their minds and walks on to his rooms, appalled – but not as appalled as Osbert. He has discovered the the truth Sir Mary wanted revealed after only a few weeks. But what proof could he bring in court? Everyone would deny it. What should he do with this knowledge?

Now the Dean has accidentally discovered that Sir Godber was murdered, and that Skullion is the cuplrit, the Senior Fellows realise they must do something to nobble Osbert’s enquiries before he finds out. They rifle through his desk and correspondence and come across the fact that Osbert has an unrequited romance with a Mrs Ndhlovo. One night, long before and much earlier in the novel, Osbert had attended an evening class given by Mrs Ndhlovo which he thought was going to be about penal reform in Sierra Leone but turned out to be about Male Masturbation Technique. Taken aback by the explicitness of the material, the naive Osbert fell comically in love. Since then he has romanced Mrs Ndhlovo assiduously but she, in fact already married once and from Uganda, has steadfastly refused his advances until he is ‘a proper man’ with ‘real money’. This was Osbert’s motivation for taking the job at Porterhouse, despite his many reservations.

All this is revealed to the Fellows from Osbert’s correspondence and so they concoct a comic scheme – thinking Osbert has a weakness for black women generally, they commission General D’Eath to find a black woman they can lure Osbert into bed with and photograph, and then blackmail to ensure his silence. The General fails – his old soldier friends turning out disappointingly thin on black prozzies – but he is recommended the services of an ageing white barmaid, Myrtle Ransby, the married mother of nine kids who’ll do anything for cash. So, in increasingly preposterous scenes, the General finds himself dressing – or rather laboriously squeezing – her into a PVC cat suit and then blacking up the exposed parts of her body.

A den of denouements

Of course, things dramatically worsen before anything can get better.

Osbert reconciled with Ndhlovo Unaware of the scheme to entrap him, Dr Osbert meets again with his lady love Mrs Ndhlovo, who reveals that that isn’t her name and tells a long complicated story about how she and her sister were abandoned at birth in Argentina, adopted by nuns, ran away to Europe and smuggled themselves around the Mediterranean using various stolen identities until they fetched up in England, where she mugged up on sexual peculiarities and made a living lecturing about male masturbation and female genital mutilation. Now she’s bored. She wants to be married to a Fellow at Cambridge. So the odd couple come to an understanding. In fact they become an item and the reader almost comes to think of them as real characters who are a little bit in love.

The humiliation of Sir Cathcart With his honeypot scam in place, the General posts a card inviting Osbert to a rendezvous with Myrtle, who gets all dressed up in her PVC suit in readiness – but, in a comic misunderstanding, the Senior Tutor, who is not in on the plot, is handed the invitation by the porter to pass on and, in a fit of irritation against Osbert, tears it up. Therefore Osbert never gets it, never keeps the appointment, and so Myrtle spends a humiliating night on her own in the little ‘love nest’ the General has arranged – drinking a little, then a bit more, then lots – to solace herself, waking up the next day with an appalling hangover. In this raddled state, half falling out of her PVC sex suit, she phones her cousin to come and pick her up and, when the latter has stopped laughing at her grotesque appearance, the pair drive on to Sir Cathcart’s country house. Now, to ensure maximum comic impact, the General just happens to be welcoming a selection of the county’s poshest gentry as dinner guests. In full view of the county’s finest, Myrtle storms up, fat and angry and hungover with various boobs and bulges extruding out of her PVC suit and proceeds to yell abuse at the General in front of all the guests – ‘Yes, he acts all la-di-da, but he likes fat birds in PVC painted black to look like Africans – but he stood her up and now she’s here for her money’. The General’s humiliation could not be more complete. Until the police turn up and ask him to accompany them to his little ‘love nest’ in a suburban street in Cambridge where they have discovered a wealth of sex aids and a one-way mirror with a video-camera behind it. Ooops.

This is an example of the way sexual satire no longer has the same bite. In Sharpe’s novels from the 1970s, a large part of the comedy comes from the way the curtain-twitching neighbours and the police and society at large reel in shock and horror at the protagonist’s sexual misadventures. The fact that Wilt is in ownership (by accident) of a blow up sex doll has the potential to end his career. 20 years later, when this novel was published, post-AIDS, in an era when everyone was encouraged to talk more openly about sexual practices, none of this has the same sense of shock, and therefore the risk of social stigma etc to the protagonists is hugely reduced. This explains why the scene where the police show the General all the sex equipment seems oddly muted and is very brief. This kind of thing no longer had the same charge in 1996. Now, 20 years later, post 50 Shades of Grey, it has almost no comic impact at all.

Skullion’s revenge Surprisingly, given his earlier opposition, Sir Cathcart successfully persuades Skullion to quit as Master. He is promised he can go and stay at Sir Cathcart’s country house. However, it is a trap. The ambulance which comes to collect him instead takes him off to the feared Porterhouse Park, a grim boarding house overlooking the bleak north Norfolk coast, where other super-annuated college staff have been sent to eke out their last days.

Osbert, surprised that Skullion has disappeared, discovers his fate and goes to visit him with Mrs Ndhlovo. Skullion begs to be helped to escape, so Osbert and girlfriend return with a transit van and some rope, liberate Skullion and spirit him away to a safe house in the suburbs of Cambridge. Here, in exchange for his freedom, Skullion begins dictating to the historian Osbert, an ‘alternative’ history of Porterhouse College, its history seen from the servants’ point of view, a very warts and all account. For days on end Skullion talks non-stop into a tape recorder. He dates the start of the decline in standards to after the war, when all the men who came up were returning from National Service, older, less malleable, more likely to be stroppy and ‘bolshy’.

This storyline has stopped being at all funny, but Skullion’s comments are quite interesting as social history.

A drug lord as Master There’s a world of confusion and misunderstanding among the senior staff about who knows, and doesn’t know, about Skullion being the murderer, and his stealthy removal to Porterhouse Park. To everyone’s surprise the weedy Praelector emerges as the strong man in this unclear situation and travels down to London to meet with Hartang’s lawyers and then with the foul-mouthed crime boss himself. And offers him the Mastership of the college!

The Praelector shocks the College Council with his plan at their next meeting, but by bullying and blackmail manages to swing the vote to get Hartang accepted as new Master. Hartang will get cachet and safety from the various forces pursuing him. The College will get a vast amount of money. Hartang comes down from London to check out his new domain and begins to be coached by the senior fellows on the manners and etiquette that will be required. Stop saying ‘fucksake’ all the time, for example.

British Intelligence Behind all this, Hartang wonders if there are deeper forces at work, and so does the reader. Because, coincidentally, four British intelligence officers visit him at this Canary Wharf headquarters. He agrees to co-operate with them in exposing all he knows about various drug-smuggling cartels, so long as they agree to him becoming Porterhouse Master. A week later his most dangerous enemy, one Dos Passos, is found dead in a mysterious car crash in South America. Then a load of computer disks found at Dos Passos’s house turn out to be bursting with incriminating information, their exposure all blamed on the dead man – rather than on Hartang, who was the one who in fact handed them over to the authorities. The security forces have done their job well.

None of this is particularly farcical or even comic. In fact it could come from a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Comic climax

I thought the climax of the novel would be the annual May Ball. It’s a traditional big event, we learn that security men are swarming all over it – I wouldn’t have been surprised if the South American mafia had turned up and run riot through the gayly attired undergraduates, seeking to machine gun their enemy, Hartang.

But nothing like that happens. In fact, throughout the novel the undergraduates are conspicuous by their absence. They are actually there – it is term time – but not a single one is referenced by name. the plot takes place entirely among the doddery ageing dons and senior fellows.

In fact the climax comes a week or so later when there is the grand feast to inaugurate Hartang as Master. His British security minders are protecting him in exchange for the masses of information he’s imparted about international drugs operations and the college is already benefiting from his munificence, with the chapel having extensive repairs. Osbert and Mrs Ndhlovo have finished listening to Skullion’s dizzyingly disillusioning version of the real history of Porterhouse and are busily editing the manuscript into shape.

Against this background, there is this huge feast with all the fellows and students in their gowns and regalia when, at the climax of the meal, the waiters sweep through the magnificent doors of the Grand Hall bearing vast platters carrying numerous roasted boar. Now, the Senior Staff had learned from their taping of Kudzuvine’s confessions hundreds of pages earlier, that Hartang has a loathing amounting to a phobia, a real panic-fear of pigs. Even mention of the name makes him go pale and fumble for his medication. Now, as the waiters spread out and approach the High Table bearing huge pigs at him from all sides, Hartang staggers to his feet, has a heart attack, and dies. That’s the climax of the novel.

Epilogue

Then there’s an epilogue which ties up the various storylines.

Both Skullion and the Praelector are now seen resignedly residing at the retirement home looking over the sea.

As his last act Skullion named his successor to be the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole, the appalling alcoholic who the Dean encountered early in the book. The surviving fellows put up with his boorish manners confident in the expectation that he will soon drink himself to death with the help of the college’s bottomless wine cellar.

Osbert delivers a first draft of Skullion’s history to Lady Mary’s lawyers, who both consider it so scandalous they quietly decide to suppress it. Neither Lady Mary, nor the world at large, will ever read it.

And Mrs Ndhlovo confides in a lady friend that Osbert is just too scholarly, too kind and considerate. So she is going to quietly leave him.

That’s it.


Anti-modern and anti-American

Broadly speaking, satirists tend to be conservative and right-wing in their thinking, preferring the old ways and satirising trendy new-fangled notions. This is very much how Sharpe’s earlier novels struck me. Thinking the modern world has gone to pot is part and parcel of the performance – and so the crusty old dons lament Harold Wilson’s honours list and Mrs Thatcher’s ennoblement of businessmen, the need for hospitals to treat high-spending foreigners in order to subsidise operations for long-suffering Brits, and other iniquities of the kind to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail.

More striking is the strong vein of anti-Americanism which runs through the book. Hartang and his various trusties express themselves in a harsh barely literate mafia-speak, and evince a brutal amorality, ready at a second’s notice to ring up hitmen and assassins to eliminate anyone who stands in their way. This crude criminality is combined with, especially in Kudzuvine’s case, a repellently gung-ho American chauvinism – ‘USA! USA!’. The combination provides endless opportunities for the fuddy-duddy English college officials to tut about American ‘culture’, American violence, and then wander off to discuss recent American foreign policy foul-ups, which, it is implied, arise out of its domestic violence and criminality.

Since the book was written in the early to mid-1990s, these now seem very dated, but include:

  • the Gulf War, during which US ‘friendly fire’ shot up some of our tanks and killed some of our troops
  • the US air strikes on Libya – codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon – on 15 April 1986, which resulted in 40 Libyan civilians killed (p.208)

Sharpe punishes this crudity in the person of Kudzuvine, who starts off brashly yelling at everyone that he’s a ‘free-born citizen of the Greatest Nation on Earth’ etc etc – but is systematically reduced to a quivering wreck, at his nadir kneeling before the gibbering wheelchair bound figure of Skullion, and ending up hacking dead horses to pieces in a cat food factory. It is a deliberate humiliation of him and all he stands for – amoral billionaire American criminality.

This dislike of insufferable American chauvinism combined with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy reminds me of John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels with their growing hatred of America. Although it’s interesting, none of this is really very funny.

Sharpe died only recently, in 2013. I wonder what he made of this century’s turn of events – 9/11, the American invasion of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy triumphs. I wonder what his cast of comedy dons and duffers from Porterhouse would have made of it. I wonder whether these topics crop up in his final novels…


Credit

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch by 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

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