Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations.
(First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page-long, mid-size art book consists of a series of key Surrealist art works, prefaced by a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

As this list shows, Salvador Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had themselves led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In the Surrealists’ opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought that we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell-shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (not in any of the books I’ve read, anyway).

Compare and contrast with the traumatic war art of the Surrealists’ German contemporaries, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’.

It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s difficult to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point, but you can see how after a certain number of these you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking-together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art.

(The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone of 1936.)

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there also developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. The Second Manifesto notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

To no artist is this more applicable than Magritte. What could be more normal than his apples and clouds? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I expected sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, but they were all at it – bosoms and fannies as images of ‘liberation’.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration.

Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues into avant-garde circles, but it was certainly present by around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well-established taste, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie.

Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient, respectable-looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists and 70 years after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

1. The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

2. In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

3. I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home message from all these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely.

Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

And, having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


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The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn (2004)

The war in the wilderness of North America was a nasty, brutal, vicious war, fought without quarter on both sides. (p.352)

The basic idea is simple. The Seven Years War (1756-63) was a major European conflict which was of critical importance in world history. It had two components:

The European War – Six years of fighting on the continent of Europe which involved the armies of France, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Poland and Russia responding to the tortuous diplomatic manoeuvres of those nations’ rulers – Louis XIV (France), Czarina Elizabeth (Russia), Frederick the Great (Prussia), the Empress Maria Theresa (Austria) and so on. In many ways the conflict was a continuation of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and to really understand what was at stake you would have to read hundreds of pages about each of the different combatant countries and the complexity of their territorial ambitions.

The World War – by contrast the global dimension was much simpler: during these years France and Britain battled for world domination in two major cockpits, East India and North America – with additional conflict in the Caribbean and the Philippines when, towards the end (in 1762), Spain got dragged into the fighting.

Although British armies fought on the continent – not least because King George II of England was also king of Hanover, one of the many minor states in Germany – British historians have been less interested in the bewilderingly complex diplomatic manoeuvring of the Europeans than in the life-or-death struggles for control of India and North America which we fought with the French. The European situation established by the Peace of Paris in 1863 was to go on changing through another 150 years of warfare i.e. is only part of a continuous and complicated narrative – whereas it was this war which saw the decisive emergence of Britain as the dominant global power.

Louis XV, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748)

King Louis XV of France painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748) ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)

Pocock and McLynn

This explains why Tom Pocock’s popular account, Battle for Empire, which I read recently, barely even mentions Europe or its numerous bloody battles, instead giving vivid accounts of the campaigns in Bengal, Canada, the Caribbean (the British siege of Havana) and the Philippines (the British siege of Manila).

This book, by popular historian and biographer Frank McLynn, focuses on just one year of the war, arguably the key year, of 1759 – the year the British won decisive victories in India and Canada, expelling the French from both and opening the way to the dominance of the British Empire. Hence the blurb on the back which claims that 1759 ought to be as well-known a date in British history as 1066 or 1588 or 1815.

Between this and the Pocock, I prefer Pocock. McLynn is a lot longer – some 400 pages of small print versus Pocock’s 300 of larger print. But the Pocock is very tightly focused. At first I was put off by the way he opens each section with thumbnail sketches of leading personalities, generally admirals and key naval officers. But as the book progressed, this approach helped me to grasp the connections between the relatively small number of senior military and naval personnel involved and who pop up i different theatres of the war. Pocock’s method allows the reader to follow careers, promotions, demotions, deaths and injuries in battle – to get a flavour of the jostling for power, ambition and often quite crass stupidity, which determined the outcome of key battles.

Pocock also describes the fights in quite bloodthirsty detail – I am still reeling from the appalling butchery at the Battle of Ticonderoga on 8 July 1758 where, misled by faulty intelligence and his own apparent stupidity, General James Abercromby ordered British forces to charge uphill towards a powerfully built timber stockade manned by French and Indian forces who cut down the Brits like wheat, turning the hillside into an abattoir (Battle For Empire pages 100-112). McLynn only mentions this harrowing disaster in a passing sentence:

His [Pitt]’s 1758 strategy had worked in the Ohio Valley and on Lake Ontario but came to grief at Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) when General Abercromby foolishly sent his much larger army on a frontal assault on Montcalm’s entrenchments, where it was shot to pieces. (p.138)

Portrait of a year

But then McLynn is aiming for something quite different. He is not aiming for a military or diplomatic history, but for a ‘portrait’ of the whole year in all its cultural, literary, artistic and philosophical aspects as well as battles – to give you a feel of everything that was going on in this fateful year.

Which explains why McLynn’s book is massively and deliberately digressive. There is more about Dr Johnson and David Hume, about Casanova’s love life, the plays of Goldoni, Madame de Pompadour’s early years, about the alcoholic Bonny Prince Charlie or the brutal Duke of Cumberland – than there is about some of the crucial military encounters earlier in the war. McLynn is setting out to give the broadest possible social, cultural and biographical context for the whole year.

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher (1756)

Madame de Pompadour painted by François Boucher (1756) ‘a multi-talented woman with many different gifts and charms’ (p.72)

It is an immensely gossipy book, wandering off to give us a five-page description of Venice in the 1750s, complete with profiles of the city’s leading composers and painters and playwrights, or a pen portrait of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (56), and his (surprisingly) unhappy marriage. 1759, we learn, is the year that Arthur Guinness (34) bought a brewery in Dublin, James Watt (23) opened a shop in Glasgow, the Duke of Bridgewater (23) got the first Canal Act through Parliament, John Smeaton (35) built the Eddystone Lighthouse, Kew Bridge – designed by John Barnard – was opened and the British Museum opened to the public. You get the picture. George Washington (27) got married. So did Tom Paine (22). Thomas Arne (composer of ‘Rule Britannia’, 49) received an honorary degree. As did Benjamin Franklin (53). And so on.

Even when we come to the actual history being described, it is pre-eminently history seen through the personalities and biographies of powerful people – with all their quirks and oddities, their feuds and obsessions, their endless scheming, bickering, gossiping and bitching behind each other’s backs.

Thus the ultimate failure of the French to keep New France (or Canada, as ‘we’ called it) is seen as a failure of the indecisive French King Louis XV, his former mistress and primary adviser Madame de Pompadour, and his bickering Conseil d’en Haut, to realise Canada’s importance and keep it properly supplied or armed.

This strategic failure was exacerbated by the bitter rivalry of the two men on the ground, head of the army Louis-Joseph Montcalm and the Governor General of the colony, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial. Montcalm despatched an ambassador to Versailles to plead his case. (This was the noted mathematician, Antoine Comte de Bougainville, who had joined the army and risen to be Montcalm’s aide-de-camp. In a typically diverting aside McLynn describes his later career as a noted explorer, in fact the first french officer to circumnavigate the globe, claiming Tahiti for France and getting plants and part of Papua New Guinea named after him). But Vaudreuil sent his own representative and the two gave conflicting accounts and lobbied rival camps of supporters back in France. It was a viper’s nest of intrigue.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Louis Antoine de Bougainville, award-winning mathematician who became aide-de-camp to Montcalm and was sent by him to lobby Versailles for more resources in Canada. In the 1760s Bougainville undertook the first voyage round the world by a French officer, claiming Tahiti for France, getting an island off Papua New Guinea and the genus of plant named after him.

Why the French were doomed

Amid the lengthy descriptions of the Canadian landscape and the potted biographies of all the key players, there emerges some analysis of the challenges the French faced and which, set down in black and white, seem insuperable. They were:

  • outnumbered by British forces five to one
  • poorly supplied and paid by France, which was erratic in its support compared to Britain’s commitment of large resources, arms and men to its colonies
  • hampered by France’s chaotic and failing finances which was administered by nobles who themselves refused to pay taxes, compared with Britain’s much more effective tax system backed up by the lending capacity of the Bank of England
  • crippled by the vast ‘pyramid of corruption and defalcation’ created in New France by world-class embezzler and swindler, the Finance Minister, François Bigot – McLynn’s account of his swindles and scams is breath-taking
  • restricted by the British navy’s control of the Atlantic which amounted to a blockade of French traffic
  • daunted by the British ability to recruit American colonists from the densely populated Thirteen Colonies with their settled farming communities and towns (total population maybe 1 million), compared to the very thin, scattered nature of French settlers, often itinerant trappers (population maybe 70,000)

The more you read about the situation in Canada the more inevitable the French defeat and expulsion seems. The French commander in the field, Montcalm, knew it, writing to the Minister of War, Belle-Isle, that Canada would inevitably fall to the British in the next fighting season because:

  • The British have 60,000 men, the French have only 11,000
  • The British are well organised, the French government of Canada was ‘worthless’
  • The British had food and supplies; the French had none (p.135)

But it is characteristic of McLynn’s book that the first few pages of his Canada section are devoted not to an analysis of the economic, social or military situation – but to an exposition of Edmund Burke’s landmark treatise on ‘the Sublime’, which distinguished between Beauty (symmetrical, pleasurable) and the Sublime (huge, overpowering and containing elements of fear and/or pain). McLynn goes on to relate this idea of the Sublime to the grandeur of the North American landscape as described by 18th century travellers and tourists, quoting diaries and letters which describe the mountains, the Great Lakes and, of course, Niagara Falls, in term of their size and majesty.

This leads naturally to a consideration of the Canadian climate – especially the biting cold endured by both sides in the conflict, stories of frostbite and amputated toes among both armies – before leading on to the structure of the Indian nations, with profiles of the various Indian leaders and their complex treaties and alliances with either the French or British. All very interesting, often fascinating & thought provoking – but if you don’t already have quite a good grasp of the key political and military events, eventually quite confusing.

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761 – apparently ‘a compulsive and frenzied womaniser’

In defence of McLynn’s personality-based approach, it does seem to have been an age where the quirks and characters of leading figures were hugely important. In Europe the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa pulled off a diplomatic coup by making flattering overtures to Madame de Pompadour who in turn persuaded Louis XV to completely reverse French policy – and astonish Europe – by making a pact with France’s traditional enemy, Austria. Direct personal contact between rulers could change the course of history – in this case, badly for France, since I’ve read that French soldiers were dragged into Austria’s continental campaign which would have been much more effectively deployed in either India or Canada. Another example of the importance of personality is the rivalry between Montcalm and Vaudreuil which does seem to have been particularly poisonous and helped weaken New France.

Pitt & Newcastle

Compare and contrast the disunity in the French camp with McLynn’s account of the famously close and effective partnership between Britain’s Prime Minister, the master strategist William Pitt (Pitt the Elder), and his one-time political opponent and temperamental opposite, Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, ‘an amoral, cowardly, unprincipled, vacuous man’ (p.96) who ended up becoming one of the great ‘odd couples’ of political history.

So in some ways, McLynn’s chatty, gossipy approach is appropriate for a chatty, gossipy age which was dominated by powerful personalities, their alliances, feuds, friendships and enmities. But some of his digressions stray so far beyond the political and military sphere, off into remote regions of culture and art and topography that, interesting though they all are, these excursions ultimately, I think, rather muddle the central thesis. In among the welter of general knowledge and historical trivia, it’s easy to lose track of which events directly impacted the war – and therefore of the book’s central thesis i.e. just why 1759 was so important.

India

Thus (relatively brief) chapter on the Anglo-French conflict in India (the majority of the book is about Canada) is introduced by a long excursus into the work of Samuel Johnson whose popular short novel, Rasselas, was published in 1759, part of the fashion for tales and accounts of exotic far-off countries (Persia, Canada, India). This leads into the role played by exotic animals in the popular imaginary of India, specifically elephants and tigers; of the role of the elephant in classical Hinduism; the efforts of the famous horse painter, George Stubbs, to paint exotic animals; and the way later British imperialists took over the Mughal tradition of hunting tigers on elephant-back. All very interesting, but quite a while before we arrive at the political and military situation in India.

The India chapter highlights the other, fairly obvious, drawback with concentrating so much on one year, which is that, no matter how momentous it is, key geopolitical and military events happen either side of it. Thus the decisive battle which secured Bengal for the British East India Company was fought at Plassey in 1757. Pocock’s account of the build-up and the battle itself are a revelation to someone like me, who didn’t know much about it beforehand. Whereas in McLynn’s account it is briefly mentioned in order – fair enough, according to his own prospectus – to concentrate on the events of his magic year 1759. Here we are given detailed (and withering) portraits of the two key French military figures –

  • Thomas Arthur Lally, comte de Lally-Tollendal, in charge of the French army in India, failed to capture Madras, lost the Battle of Wandiwash, then surrendered the remaining French post at Pondicherry. After time as a prisoner of war in Britain, Lally voluntarily returned to France to face treason charges for which he was eventually beheaded. McLynn accuses him of ‘stupidity and incompetence’ (p.178)
  • Anne Antoine, Comte d’Aché, in charge of the French fleet, a timid and indecisive man who fought a series of inconclusive battles with his aggressive British counterpart Admiral Sir George Pocock, failed to provide adequate naval support to French troops trying to capture Madras in 1759 and failed to support the French forces defending Pondicherry, the French capital in India, which was subsequently surrendered to the British. ‘A prickly, difficult individual’ (p.179)

It was more complex than this, as McLynn explains how Lally’s high-handed approach to Indian princes lost him alliances and territory in the interior and alienated all his subordinates and colleagues, before ending in complete failure. He gives a gossipy profile of Lally the (very flawed) man – ‘imperious, short-tempered and despotic’ (p.167) – as well as a detailed account of the plans and marches and sieges and retreats and battles and skirmishes which took place throughout the year. But ultimately, this account of the Anglo-French conflict in India suffers rather than benefits for concentrating so much on one year, without placing the events of 1759 in the continuum of what came before or after, a drawback for which no amount of entertaining digressions about Johnson or Voltaire can really compensate.

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) by Thomas Hudson

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) though never winning a decisive sea battle, his aggressive tactics eventually forced his French rival, Admiral D’Aché, to abandon the East Coast of India to British control.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham 13 September 1759

On 13 September 1759 General James Wolfe won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This was high ground to the west of Quebec, the capital of New France i.e. Canada. He had been sent there by Pitt with a large naval force and plenty of soldiers, irregulars and Indians. The problem he faced was breaking through the French defences to the east of the city and McLynn shows in detail how he failed to do this, with many casualties, in a frontal assault and then resorted to terrorising the neighbourhood of the city, systematically burning remote settlements to the ground in order to demoralise the French. His own officers objected to this policy and, predictably, it stiffened French resolve.

It was only after months of stalemate that he acted on what some historians take to be more or less impulse – and there is a great deal of controversy about who gave him the idea – a renegade Indian, a deserting Frenchman, a Brit who had been held prisoner in Quebec and escaped; but someone suggested landing on the narrow shingly beach upstream of Quebec and that there was a path up the 300 foot cliffs to the plain above. Wolfe had good luck all the way, with the flood tide being just right to carry his ships upstream but not too much to cover the beach; the French sentries had been told to expect a flotilla of supplies going upstream and so mistook the British for that; French sentries on the heights were palmed off by a Scot who happened to speak fluent French – until enough British forces had scrambled up the track to the top, overpowered the scanty French forces and to allow Wolfe’s army to come up, bringing artillery with them.

Thus the commander of the French forces awoke to discover to his horror that a full British Army was drawn up in battle ranks on the sloping plain above the city. He transferred his troops from the eastern approaches which they’d been defending for months and battle commenced. Even now it was a close run thing, with British forces mauled on the east and west flanks by Indian and irregular forces, until the British eventually broke the French army and forced them to retreat beyond the city to the east. At the height of the battle Wolfe was shot in the wrist and groin and bled to death. Coincidentally, the leader of the French forces, Montcalm, was also killed. Their deputies acted according to the book, Townshend lining up his guns above the town ready to blast it to pieces, the French withdrawing the remainder of their forces to a distance to regroup and await reinforcements from the north.

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe's aide-de-camp

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe’s aide-de-camp

What I didn’t know is that the actual surrender hung by a thread. A relief force under Major-General François de Gaston (aka the Chevalier de Lévis) was appalled at the cowardly Governor de Vaudreuil’s decision to withdraw. Lévis regrouped all his forces and marched back towards the city. But delay in assembling all the logistics for the march allowed the governor of Quebec, Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Roch de Ramezay, to believe the army had abandoned him. Stuck in charge of a large number of sick and wounded, his already heavily bombarded town thronged with women and children and seeing the British lining their guns up to pound the city to oblivion, Ramezay took the decision to hand over the city. Thus on 18 September British forces entered Quebec and took control. There was, as McLynn emphasises, no looting or pillage, the French were guaranteed security, freedom of religion etc; all comparatively civilised. But Lévis’ force arrived one day later. If Ramezay had held out for one more day the history of North America might have been completely different.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part one

The seizure of Quebec wasn’t decisive in itself. A French army remained in the field and, as McLynn points out, in some ways it was a relief for the French not to be responsible for feeding the civilian population, including all the sick and wounded, during the harsh Canadian winter. In fact the British forces in Quebec suffered badly during the winter, not least from scurvy caused by their poor diet, and were considerably weakened when the French returned to give fight in the spring.

But although fighting continued up until the end of the war in 1763, the British never relinquished the city and the strategic advantage it gave them. An important reason they could hang on was the Royal Navy’s great victory at Quiberon Bay off the French coast on 20 November 1759. All through the year the French had been planning to mount an ambitious amphibious invasion of Britain, landing some 100,000 troops, defeating the Brits and marching on London.

This theme threads throughout the book and McLynn is good on the continual vacillations among the French high command for this huge project, which saw the site of the invasion being switched from the South Coast of England to Ireland or Scotland. At one point the French tried to persuade the Swedes to lend them ships to ferry troops to the east coast of England. It is against the backdrop of this ambitious if ever-changing plan that McLynn threads his descriptions of Bonny Prince Charlie.

Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellions

Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of King James II of Britain. In 1688 James was expelled by a coup of leading British aristocrats, because he was a Catholic and had had his baby son christened as a Catholic. The coup leaders invited the Protestant William, Prince of Orange (part of Holland) to come and be Britain’s king, because he was married to James II’s (Protestant) daughter, Mary. Mary died comparatively young in 1694. When William died in 1702 he was succeeded by Mary’s sister i.e. another daughter of James II, Anne. She reigned until 1714 and died without children. Parliament had planned for this contingency and decreed that the crown should then go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, the granddaughter of James VI and I through his daughter Elizabeth. As it happened, Sophia had died earlier the same year, and so the law decreed the British throne should then pass to her son, George, Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of Great Britain. His son would be George II, his grandson George III, his son George IV, collectively giving their name to the Georgian era, Georgian architecture etc.

These elaborate machinations obviously made a mockery of any notion of the ‘divine right of kings, and there were many in England who pined for the ‘true’ line of descent to be followed, and for King James (and later on his son) to be restored to their ‘rightful’ throne. This feeling was even stronger in Scotland, where many felt that the English could do what they wanted, but Scotland deserved to have her ‘rightful’ Stuart dynasty restored, instead of some preposterous German prince.

Collectively the cause of restoring the Stuart king was called Jacobitism (from Jacobus, the Latin for James, the name of the deposed king, and his heirs) and its followers were Jacobites. In 1715 there was a major Jacobite rising beginning in Scotland, in which armed forces captured a lot of the country, and coinciding with a rising of English Jacobites in Northumberland and the West Country. The Hanoverian government (as it had become known) successfully quashed this, only after months of manouevring and several major battles, in 1716. James (the Old Pretender) returned to France a disappointed man.

In 1745 his son, Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender also known as Bonny Prince Charlie) led a much more substantial rising. The collective Jacobite forces took the Hanoverian army by surprise and marched as far south as Derby, only 120 miles from London, before losing their nerve, halting and then withdrawing. This turned into an increasingly desperate retreat all the way back into Scotland and then into the Highlands where, at the notorious Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, the Jacobite forces were decimated, survivors being hunted down and killed. The rising led to a brutal backlash in which vast areas of the Highlands were cleared of their suspected treacherous inhabitants, the kilt and other signs of the clan system were banned, all the ringleaders were arrested and many hanged, drawn and quartered.

It was this smouldering resentful Jacobite cause which the French government hoped to revive in 1759. Hence repeated bad-tempered meetings between the Young Pretender and Louis XV’s exasperated ministers: they wanted him to land in Scotland and spark a Highland rebellion to distract Hanoverian forces from the south of England, where the invasion would then take place. Charlie knew from bitter experience where that led (Culloden), suspected most of the surviving Highland chiefs would be reluctant to support him, and realised he was, in any case, only being used as a pawn. He insisted on significant French forces to support him and that he lead an assault on England. London or nothing. Repeated suggestions that he lead an assault on Scotland, Ireland or (bizarrely) Canada, were swept aside.

In the event, Charlie played no part in the decisive events of 1759, but McLynn is fascinating about his character (he had become a grumpy alcoholic), the collapse of the Jacobite cause in England and Scotland (when Charlie took a mistress he lost many of his Puritanical followers), and the intense and frustrating negotiations, as seen from both sides.

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) known as The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) also known as ‘The Young Pretender’ and ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. By 1759 an embittered alcoholic.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part two

Preliminary to the victory at Quiberon Bay, was the Battle of Lagos Bay on 18 and 19 August 1759. McLynn devotes a chapter to this battle where the Royal Navy defeated the French Mediterranean fleet in a running fight coming out around the south coast of Spain, which ended with the French survivors limping into Lagos Bay, Portugal. This ended all hopes of a Grand Invasion plan (which required multiple French naval forces to fend off the Royal Navy in the English Channel) and forced the French to lower their ambitions. Still, they had built hundreds of flat-bottomed barges in the Channel ports and just needed the Atlantic fleet to protect them. Pitt and his cabinet knew there was a plan to invade and the location of the barges, and so he ordered the Navy to enforce a blockade on the key Atlantic port of Brest.

McLynn is full of admiration for Admiral Edward Hawke, who spent months itching for a fight, compared to his timid opposite number, the Comte de Conflans. Finally the French were sighted exiting the port, word got back to Hawke in Torbay and he gathered as many ships as possible to sail south. Both fleets struggled to manage stormy Atlantic weather, but Hawke chased the French back towards their port in the Gulf of Morbihan, attacking the stragglers first then engaging with the main fleet.

24 British ships of the line engaged a fleet of 21 French ships of the line under Marshal de Conflans. McLynn gives a vivid and terrifying account of the battle, which amounted to huge ships firing at virtually point blank range into other huge ships, destroying rigging, obliterating human bodies, turning the decks into bloody slaughterhouses. Result: the British fleet sank or ran aground six ships, captured one and scattered the rest, giving the Royal Navy one of its greatest ever victories.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay a) led the French to abandon any plans for an invasion, b) established the Royal Navy as the most powerful in the world c) meant the French were from that point onwards hampered in trying to send provisions and troops to the other theatres of war, namely Canada. Although French forces fought on in Canada for another few years, they were never able to receive the reinforcements of troops or provisions which they British did, which was weakening in itself but also demoralising. The Peace of Paris in 1763 falls outside McLynn’s remit, and was a complex deal in itself, whereby various territories seized by one side or the other were returned or exchanged. But the key element was French ceding of almost all their North American territory to the British. And in many ways the treaty merely reflected the reality on the ground: the Royal Navy ruled the seas and so made much easier, or maybe inevitable, British overlordship of America and India.

Britain won

So we won and, as the Wikipedia entry on Madame de Pompadour puts it, ‘France emerged from the war diminished and virtually bankrupt.’ Weakening the prestige of the monarchy, allowing the revival of the great and reactionary aristocrats, and crippling France’s finances, the Seven Years War in many ways sowed the seeds for the French Revolution of 1789.

But, paradoxically, it also sowed the seeds of the American War of Independence and the loss of Britain’s American colonies, as is made clear in Tom Pocock’s account. The weakening of the American armies which the British used in the Caribbean, where they were decimated by disease, was one of the reasons the Pontiac Indian rebellion of 1763 was able to take hold, causing many colonists to complain about the lack of protection from ‘their’ government. The British beat Pontiac and his forces after a long struggle and proceeded to build forts to protect the frontier with the Indians, but then made the fateful decision of taxing the colonists to pay for their own defence. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the seed around which all kinds of grievances and complaints against the mother country crystallised, leading to riots alongside the formation of corresponding societies to co-ordinate the new demands for ‘independence’.

These events occur well past McLynn’s set year of 1759, but they – as well as the decisive victory of the British on the world stage – are its important legacy.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, the strategic genius who led Britain to victory in the Seven Years War. The American town of Pittsburgh is named after him. ‘He could not understand friendship and had no real friends’ (p.282)

Punishing profiles

McLynn has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholar’s concern for references and theories, and his prose often slips into gushing novelette style. This is particularly noticeable in his enthusiastic criticisms of almost all the main characters:

  • Choiseul was a ‘compulsive and frenzied womaniser’ (p.60)
  • Benedict XIV was ‘undoubtedly one of the great popes of the ages’ (p.61)
  • Louis XV was ‘a great ditherer and prevaricator’ (p.61) as well as being ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)
  • King Ferdinand of Spain was ‘under the thumb of his termagant queen’ (p.65)
  • In the 1750s the high aristocracy began to reassert the powers they’d lost under Louis XIV, with the result that ‘patronage-hungry great families crowded to the trough, snouts a-quivering’ (p.70)
  • ‘The classic bull in a china shop, Lally was a hopeless politician’ (p.167)
  • D’Aché ‘was a stickler for protocol and paranoid about imaginary slights…a malcontent who groused eternally about the lack of support given him by the Ministry of Marine’ (p.173)
  • Georges Duval de Leyrit, Governor General of Pondicherry between 1754 and 1758 was’ cold, bureaucratic and venal’ (p.176)
  • ‘One of the most striking things about Wolfe was his physical ugliness.’ (p.201)
  • Townshend, one of Wolfe’s three brigadiers, was ‘aloof, quarrelsome, malicious, pompous and generally dislikeable’ (p.207)
  • The Duc de Richelieu, ‘hero of a thousand bedroom conquests’ was a ‘lazy, sybaritic commander’ (p.260)

And so on… After a while I looked forward to the introduction of new characters to the narrative purely in order to enjoy McLynn’s ‘acidulous’ (a favourite word of his) character assassinations of them. The parade of backstabbing buffoons threatens to turn into Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year, 1759 edition.

  • The 3rd Duke of Marlborough was ‘ignorant, careless and insouciant’ (p.262)
  • Lord George Sackville, commander of British forces on the Continent, was ‘sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hyper-sensitive to criticism.’ (p.262) After his disgraceful behaviour at the Battle of Minden he was court-martialled and expelled from the army. ‘Probably more stupid and incompetent than cowardly in the normal sense.’ (p.283)
  • Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, was ‘a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent’ (p.263)
  • General Freiherr von Spörcken was ‘an unspectacular plodder’ (p.274)
  • The Comte de Conflans ‘vain and self-regarding’ (p.357), ‘a true prima donna’ (p.358)

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry - guilty of 'egregious stupidity'

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry – ‘pigheaded’ (p.181), ‘a martinet and petty disciplinarian… [guilty of] egregious stupidity’ (p.176)

When he’s not being wonderfully bitchy about these long dead heroes and villains, much of McLynn’s phraseology slips into thriller-ese or cliché:

  • Native Indians ‘presented an awesome military spectacle, armed with musket or rifle, tomahawk, powder-horn, shot-pouch and scalping knife, seemingly the perfect killing machine’ (p.133)
  • The umpteen forts which are besieged by one side or the other are generally ‘tough nuts to crack’
  • Embattled forces fight ‘tigerishly’
  • ‘Morale in Lally’s forces plummeted alarmingly; confidence was at rock-bottom… [Lally is] not a white abashed…The French were now in a parlous state…’ (pp.182-183)

His long descriptions of landscape often read like adventure fiction. There are several extended descriptions of the Canadian landscape, lush and verdant in summer, turning to a white inferno of snowdrifts and frostbite in winter.

After leaving the northern end of Missisquoi Lake, the Rangers entered a spruce bog, with water at least a foot deep and sometimes deeper, where the current had carved brook-like channels. For nine days they splashed through mud and icy water, often stumbling and sometimes falling full-length into the noisome tarn. There was no firm ground anywhere, and the entire area was plashy marsh, with water everywhere between the trees, concealing irregularities in the ground. Young and choked trees of every height provided invisible tripwires; huge trunks lay rotting in the water with small spruces sprouting thickly along them; there were dead branches sharp as razors concealed in the water and if a man trod on them, he would be raked from ankle to thigh on jagged points. It seemed as if living malevolent branches clutched and tore at their clothes, gored them through the holes, plucked the caps from their heads and tried to scratch their eyes out. (p.339)

In many places this long work feels more like a novel than a work of history, and certainly has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholarly, historical one. Compared with the tremendous intelligence, the sheer force of ideas and analysis present on every page of John Darwin’s brilliant book Unfinished Empire, McLynn’s work reads like a series of entertaining magazine articles.

An enjoyable symptom of his writerly approach is McLynn’s attraction to out of-the-way vocabulary, his fondness for rarely-used words:

  • adipose – fat
  • contumacity – wilfully and obstinately disobedient
  • defalcation – misappropriation of funds by a person trusted with its charge
  • escalade – the scaling of fortified walls using ladders, as a form of military attack
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fetch – the length of water over which a given wind has blown (part of a long explanation of the origin of monster waves in the North Atlantic)
  • gallimaufry – a confused jumble or medley of things
  • hellion – a rowdy or mischievous person, especially a child
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • Manitou – the spiritual and fundamental life force understood by Algonquian groups of Native Americans
  • persiflage – light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter
  • phratry – a descent group or kinship group in some tribal societies
  • sept – a division of a family or clan
  • tourbillion – a vortex especially of a whirlwind or whirlpool

The book is not only an interesting conspectus of the 18th century as seen through the prism of one year, but an entertaining tour of the English language as well.

The death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. Wolfe is not such a hero to McLynn, who sees him as ‘impetuous, headstrong and brave to the point of folly’ (p.202) and, incidentally, guilty of war crimes.

Further reading

In the sections about Quebec and Wolfe, McLynn often disagrees with someone he refers to as ‘Parkman’, accusing him of naivety and propaganda. It took a bit of research to find out he’s referring to Francis Parkman, a Harvard-educated American historian, who published a seven-volume history of France and England in North America in 1884, the sixth volume of which is titled Montcalm and Wolfe. The whole thing is available online at Project Gutenberg, and just reading through the chapter headings and summary of contents gives you a good sense of the story and issues.

Both McLynn and Pocock’s accounts, though long, are deliberately narrow in scope. For a comprehensive scholarly account I’ll need to read something like The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest by Daniel Baugh. Even this only focuses on the global Anglo-French rivalry i.e ignores the European conflict, but still manages to be a whopping 750 pages long!

The book Amazon pairs it with, The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756-1763 by Franz A.J. Szabo, which does focus on the European theatre of war, is over 500 pages long. Just this one war feels like it could easily become a lifetime’s study.


Credit

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn was published by Jonathan Cape in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Pimlico paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe (2004)

This is the fourth in the series of novels about hapless polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his wife Eva, and their incorrigible four little girls, now aged 14, at convent school and bubbling over with an unhealthy interest in all things sexual.

The plot gets going when Eva receives an invitation for her and the girls to go visit her Aunt Joanie who lives in the US of A, in the town of Wilma, Tennessee, with husband Uncle Wally, head of Immelmann Enterprises. They own a big town house and an even vaster mansion out by the lake.

On the flight over to America a nice man who introduces himself as Sol Campito stealthily stashes a capsule in Eva’s hand luggage. It contains a super-powerful and super-addictive new narcotic manufactured in Eastern Europe. The US Drug Enforcement Agency, tipped off in advance, stop and search Sol at US Customs, but to their disappointment he is clean, so their suspicions shift to the fat woman and four unruly kids who were sitting next to him on the plane. Their suspicions are confirmed when they contact the cops in Wilt’s home town and examine Eva Wilt’s impressive record of shenanigans, as chronicled in the previous three Wilt novels.

Soon the DEA have staked out and bugged Uncle Wally’s mansion – nicknamed ‘the Starfighter Mansion’ (to the chagrin of the local cops who don’t like being treated like hicks). And since Sol himself had carefully taken down the name and address where Eva would be staying, we can expect him and his colleagues to make a visit. It all promises much mayhem and chaos.

Wilt in Nowhere

Where’s Wilt? Well, our Henry had successfully managed to extricate himself from the invitation and from going to America at all, by pretending he’d been tasked with mugging up revolutionary communist movements in order to teach a new course on it at the Technical College – something they both know would be a red rag to Uncle Wally’s good ‘ole boy, Republican beliefs.

On this flimsy excuse Wilt is left behind and puts into action a much-longed-for fantasy – of putting on walking boots and walking clothes and donning a light backpack, catching a bus to somewhere on the Welsh border and then setting off, without even a map, to follow his instincts and discover the beauties of the English countryside.

At first this goes well, tramping the open country by day and sleeping in village b&bs by night – but on the fourth day he finds himself in an exposed heath just as storm clouds gather and the heavens open. By the time he’s made it to shelter under a copse of trees he is soaked to the skin, so he pulls out the bottle of scotch which he brought along for medicinal purposes and drinks some to warm up. Then some more. Then just another nip. Staggering to his feet as darkness falls, Wilt blunders through the gloom, trips over some roots and falls down into a deep lane, in fact straight into the back of Bert Addle’s pickup truck, where he is knocked unconscious.

Bert Addle, Bob Battleby and Ruth Rottecombe

Bert Addle? Yes, because now The Farce Begins. Bert is the nephew of old Martha Meadows, who was cook and housekeeper to nice General and Mrs Battleby who loved at Meldrum Manor. But when they were killed in a collision with a lorry, the old manor went to their nephew, Bob Battleby, an offensive drunk. Not only that, Bob is having an affair with the wife, Ruth Rottecombe, of a local politician, the Shadow Minister for Social Enhancement, Harold Rottecombe. Not only that, she and ‘Beat-me’ Bob indulge in bondage sessions where Ruth is transformed into ‘Ruth the Ruthless’, ties him up and whips the drunk, sobbing Bob.

What sets the plot going is that Bob has got roaring drunk one too many times and insulted good old Martha to her face and sacked her, leaving her without an income to look after her husband, incapacitated by a stroke. (Although in a different tone and setting, this trope reminds me of the worthy Madge Walker, devoted to looking after her bedridden husband, in Kingsley Amis’s final novel, The Biographer’s Moustache.) Martha tells her sorrows to nephew Bert Addle, recently laid off at a shipyard, and together they cook up a fiendish plan for revenge.

Bert drives over to the Manor one night when they know the Bob’n’Ruth will be out at the Country Club, drinking and playing cards. Bert assembles flammable items in the kitchen bin, and sets fire to it. But he hadn’t reckoned on a bunch of aerosol air fresheners the couple had thrown away, lurking at the bottom of the bin, which explode rather noisily, blowing out the windows with a boom and alerting the neighbourhood to the fire.

When the fire brigade arrive they find Ruth’s car – which Bert has thoughtfully stolen and parked to deliberately block the drive to the house. When the firemen break into it to move it they discover a pile of the vilest S&M magazines, cuffs, whips and equipment on prominent display. (Martha, being their housekeeper, knew all about these and had told Bert where to find the couple’s porn stash in the nearby barn.) But farce in Sharpe must be savage, and so thrown in among the adult porn are photos and magazines about paedophilia – with some particularly grim examples of children being violently raped and abused which Bob kept in his most secret hidey-hole. But now his secret is out.

When the police arrive they conclude that the fire is deliberate arson and, when shown the magazines, arrest Bob – who’s arrived drunk and abusive from his club – along with Ruthless Ruth, who has quickly seized up the situation and – stone cold sober – realises she has to separate herself from her doomed partner-in-lust.

Where’s Wilt?

Where is Henry Wilt in all this? When Bert discovered Wilt unconscious in the back of his pick-up as he was nicking Ruth’s car, he unceremoniously dumped our man in the Rottecombe garage. When Ruth finally gets back from the all-night interrogation of herself and Bob Battleby at the police station to her home, Leyline Lodge, it is to discover her politician husband Harold incandescent with anger at the shitstorm she’s stirred up – the phone is ringing off the hook from journalists following up the story about ‘Shadow Minister’s Wife In Kinky Sex and Arson Scandal’ – but also demanding an explanation for the body of a man he has discovered in their garage: just another one of her and Bob’s pick-ups’, is he? For once Ruth is totally innocent and knows she has to do something drastic!

Comic developments

Having created two pots bubbling over with comic potential and a ripe collection of grotesque characters, Sharpe spends the second half of the book stirring them and adding extra farcical ingredients to maximum comic effect.

1. American grotesque

The most Sharpe-esque is in America, where Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan take Eva and the quads up to their place in the country, a big ‘cabin’ by Lake Sassaquassee, in grounds cleared of trees so no grizzly bears can sneak up on Joanie.

Uncle Wally guilelessly shows the quads his various types of US can-do technology, including an old fashioned reel-to-reel tape tape recorder he has hooked up to a mega sound system which can deafen the neighbourhood with Abba or Frank Sinatra or machine gun fire, depending on his mood.

That evening the quads, with a wickedness nice Uncle Wally couldn’t begin to suspect, hide the tape recorder under his and Joanie’s bed and set the timer to go off after dinner. It starts recording just in time to perfectly capture a prolonged argument the couple have, with drunk Wally insisting he wants to make love to Auntie Joan, who refuses and then heaps all sorts of abuse on Wally, with scornful references to his tiny member and his inability to get it up, before, in a rage, he forcibly mounts her but appears to be prodding the wrong hole – whereat she screams even louder at him, in a diatribe which manages to bring in references to the Bible and even to their lawyer, who happens to be Jewish.

Next day the quads sneak the tape recorder back, stick a label claiming it’s Abba’s Greatest Hits onto the tape which recorded last night’s fight, and carefully put the machine back in place, hooked up to the cabin’s vast loudspeakers system. And set the timer on the whole thing.

A bad-tempered Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads get in the car and drive back to town. It is only hours after they’ve arrived that the tape automatically starts playing and projects over Wally’s 1,000 decibel sound system his argument about wanting to fuck his wife and her refusal to take it up the back passage, so loudly it can be heard for a distance of over ten miles all around.

The local police are called and drive out to the cabin can’t even get near because the volume shatters their windscreens and deafens them. An Army assault unit tries to clamber over the barbed wire fences into the grounds, but here a typical bit of Sharpe takes place. Earlier we had learned that the country cabin sits amid Uncle Wally’s huge collection of instruments of death, including Sherman tanks, various armoured combat vehicles, even a B-52 – all hideous reminders of America’s ability to hand out mega-death to all and sundry. What the Army assault squad don’t know is that these things are primed to react to intruders. So as they climb over the perimeter fence, deafened by Auntie Joanie’s shrieks of pain as she receives Uncle Wally’s penis in an unnatural place, the machine guns on all the tanks and armoured cars swivel towards them and start firing.

Now this is more like the Tom Sharpe we know and love. This is like the hysterically improbable and wildly violent climax of so many of his other farces. However, oddly, this scene comes half way through the book and, after the troops have backed off, a squad of Army bomb disposal experts, deafened in the Iraq War, manage to make it through the defences and finally turn off the tape. I was expecting something more apocalyptic – at the very least a fleet of helicopters strafing the cabin like in Apolcalypse Now, preferably with Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads still inside.

Thereafter the narrative switches between America and Britain, but the US storyline winds down after this not-quite-mad-enough climax. Despite bugging his town house, searching his swimming pool and raiding his country cabin, neither the FBI nor DEA find anything to do with Sol’s drugs on Uncle Wally.

Admittedly the broadcasting of the most humiliating drunk sex conversation possible over a radius of 15 miles hits Wally so hard that he has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Where he has barely recovered, before he discovers that the quads had, in another quiet moment, hacked into his computer and sent foul-mouthed rants and obscene requests to everyone on his email address list – thus pretty much destroying  his company. Which gives him another heart attack.

So it comes as no surprise that by this time Wally and Joanie have had enough of their English visitors, kick them out and pay for the taxi to the airport and the air fare home.

Harry Rottecombe’s death

Back in England, with the nation’s press moving in on their house, Leyline Lodge, to follow up on her relationship with the disgraced Bob Bartleby, Ruth had set her two Rottweilers (wittily named Wilfred and Pickles) on the most foolhardy pressmen, the so-called Butch Cassidy and the Flashbulb Kid who had been snuck into the garden and were planning to get photos through the windows. They are severely mauled, their screams for help successfully deterring the rest of the pack.

But when she goes back inside the house, Ruth realises that husband Harold has done a bunk. Wise move, she thinks, and gets on with things. While Ruth was supervising the savaging of the journalists, Harold had snuck out the back of the house and down to the local river which runs at the bottom of their garden. But the river is too high and fast-moving to row on (partly due to the very storm which had prompted Wilt to take shelter and get drunk a few days before).

So Harold sets off walking along the river heading for the nearest town and then on to some safe haven for a while. But after a few miles walking he is shattered, his shoes pinching and chafing but, when he stops to examine his feet, one shoe rolls into the river, he scrabbles to retrieve it, the tree stump he’s leaning on snaps, he tumbles into the river and bangs his head on the pier of a nearby bridge. Then drowns. And his supine body is washed out into the Bristol Channel.

Where it is eventually found by the police, who identify it and open a murder case.

All this feeds into the Wilt plotline adding another layer of confusion and complication. The narrative certainly becomes complex but is ultimately disappointing. In fact as you read on you realise the whole book has suffered from having its climax – the armed assault on Wally’s country fortress – in the middle.

Ruthless Ruth loads the still unconscious Wilt into her Volvo estate and drives to a run-down part of the nearest town, Oston, and dumps him there half-naked. A little later some skinheads come by and give his unconscious body a good kicking for no particular reason, then stroll on. Eventually an old lady in the nearby high rise flats – a testament to local authority greed and corruption – phones an ambulance which collects Wilt and takes him to Oston hospital.

And eventually word gets through both to Eva and to Wilt’s old sparring partner, Inspector Flint of Ipford police, that Wilt is somewhere in Oston hospital. There is then a lot of satire about the bureaucracy and incompetence of the National Health Service with Wilt being moved from one department to another faster than Eva and Flint can track him down, hampered by unfriendly or gormless secretaries, receptionists and nurses.

When Wilt finally regains consciousness, he complicates things further by deciding to pretend he’s lost his memory, in order to provoke the shrinks who are treating him. Which also has the effect of winding up his old nemesis, Inspector Flint – who’s finally tracked him down through the vast labyrinthine hospital.

After some initial fencing and sparring between the old foes, Wilt eventually comes clean about the events leading up to his drunkenly tripping over a tree root. But as for the rest, including the mysterious disappearance of a member of the shadow cabinet, he genuinely has no knowledge.

Meanwhile, Ruth has been subjected to days and days of questioning without sleep or a lawyer, both about the fire and the death of her husband. The cloud of suspicion hanging over her is not helped when it is revealed that she is in fact a former prostitute who specialised in bondage, who fled her patch when a client died from a little too much whipping years earlier, adopted a fake identity and then cosied up to the repellent but well-connected Bob Battleby as ‘cover’.

Finally she cracks and tells the cops everything she knows – she was involved in S&M with Battleby but knows nothing about the arson, she found Wilt in her garage with no idea who he was or how he got there, it’s true that she took his body to a nasty council estate and dumped him there but that’s the sum total of her activities regarding him, and she has no idea where her husband the Shadow Minister is or – when his body turns up drowned – how on earth it happened.

A shadow of guilt covers her for a while – after all, Wilt is suffering from a blow to the head very similar to the one on dead Harry’s corpse – but eventually this nexus of circumstantiality unwinds and dissolves. Forensics show Harry probably drowned in an accident (as we know happened). All the evidence (including the empty whisky bottle where he said it would be) exonerates Wilt of any wrongdoing, notably the arson of Meldrum Manor.

Although Wilt and Eva and Flint and various policemen, doctors and nurses all get their knickers in a twist, shouting and insulting and abusing each other at the drop of a hat, in the event the plot fizzles out, all charges are dropped (the true arsonist, Bert Addle, covered his tracks well and gets away scot-free) and the last pages find Wilt happily ensconced back in the family home at 45 Oakhurst Avenue and determined never to leave it again.

From the way it was set up I expected at the very least that Sol and his mafia colleagues would lay siege to Uncle Wally’s house; I expected someone to accidentally consume the vial of new super-powerful narcotic (Auntie Joanie? Eva Wilt?) and go on a demented spree; I expected the DEA and FBI and the local cops – who all resent each other – to break out into fisticuffs if not armed conflict. Disappointingly, none of this happens.

And the climax of the English section is really only caused by Wilt’s stubborn refusal to come clean and give his story to the cops. It is only him faking amnesia and giving deliberately confusing replies to the psychiatrists and police which causes even a whit of farce, and this is limited to him being put into a mental home for a bit – and as soon as he decides to come clean and tell what he knows, he simply walks out.

Author’s message

In this final section, when Wilt has been transferred to a mental home while the psychiatrists try to sort out his amnesia and other confusions, we the readers know that he’s faking, so there’s no risk or charge involved.

When he decides to leave he pretty much simply walks out the door with Eva at his side. The best Sharpe can come up with by way of comic climax is to have one of the quads, Emmeline, do her party trick of slipping her pet rat Freddy under her jumper and encouraging him to move around, thus giving anyone she encounters the impression that she has a mobile breast moving around her chest.

This is all it takes, in this fictional world, to spark an outbreak of panic and hysteria at the mental hospital. Eva and Wilt have only just made it to the car when a crowd of demented patients runs screaming out of the main door, trampling the unfortunate Inspector Flint underfoot.

It is at this point that Flint has in insight into the ways of the universe:

Tripping on the gravel and then being trampled over by a herd of maddened lunatics had given him fresh insight into Wilt’s inconsequential view of life. Things just happened to people for no good reason and, while Flint had previously believed that every effect had to have a rational cause, he now realised that the purely accidental was the norm. In short, nothing made sense. The world was as mad as the inmates of the hospital he had just left. (p.269)

This is a useful, if rather pedestrian, summary of the worldview of Sharpe’s books.

But how much better when an author’s worldview is embodied in the narrative and text, rather than pinned at the end like a post-it note. At his best Sharpe’s novels are full of a genuinely outrageous comic madness, violence, obscenity. This one has moments and ideas which hint at the true Sharpean madness, but nowhere really achieves it.

Contemporary references

As with The Midden, Sharpe sprinkles the text with topical references – to 9/11 and al-Qaeda or to Harold Shipman (the GP who was found guilty of 15 murders in January 2000) and these certainly add to Sharpe’s anger and ferocity, but they don’t really improve the design or effectiveness of the plot. They just show that he reads the papers and is appalled at the same kinds of things the rest of us are.


Credit

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books by 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Arrow 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.

Author, Author by David Lodge (2004)

Lodge (b.1935) taught English literature at university level from 1960 to his retirement in 1987, specialising in classic novels of the 19th century, from Jane Austen to Henry James, explaining and theorising about them in his many works of literary criticism.

Coming towards the end of his writing career, this novel can perhaps be taken as a labour of love – a long (382 densely-printed pages in the Penguin paperback), lovingly detailed account of the life and career of the writer many regard as the novelist, Henry James. The novel focuses on the years during which James tried – and embarrassingly failed – to write for the stage, writing half a dozen plays (The American, Mrs Jasper’s Way, Summersoft) most of which weren’t even staged or were flops, leading up to the public disaster of Guy Domville where James himself, going to take a bow after the first night performance – to cries of ‘author, author’ from the audience – was heartily booed and jeered, a public humiliation which his biographer, Leon Edel, claims he never recovered from.

Lodge the pedagogue

Lodge always writes clearly and logically. He knows where the interest lies for sure – but quite often it is a factual or historical or literary interest. An academic interest. Dry, unemotional. This ability to write clearly, to demystify literary terminology and ideas, explains the success of the articles he wrote for the Independent newspaper in the early 1990s, which were brought together in the book The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts. He is/was a great teacher.

And this urge to teach and inform explains why, from the beginning, his novels have included plenty of factual information along with the plot:

  • In the early ones, there’s lots of patient explication of Roman Catholic theology and the changes to it brought about by the Second Vatican Council.
  • In his mid-70s comedy classics he uses his in-depth knowledge of literature as the background for hilarious high jinks, stuffed with witty references to Eng Lit classics.
  • The novel before this one, Thinks… (2001), similarly tries – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – to insert a lot of current scientific theory about Artificial Intelligence and the nature of human consciousness into an all-too-predictable story about a randy married university lecturer seducing the new, dim writer-in-residence.

So he’s always been a fact-based novelist.

A historical novel

This is Lodge’s first historical novel, not set during a period he’s lived through and not, to some extent, based on his own life experiences.

The novel starts with Henry James’s final months (he died in February 1916) then flashes back to the mid-1880s and gives a slow patient description of his attempts to write for the stage over the next decade, interspersed with a wealth of detail about James’s densely packed social life and professional activities.

It is all very readable and interesting, very enjoyable, very easy to dip in and out of – but in a completely factual way. I don’t know that much about James and so was interested to learn about his family background, about the two brothers who fought in the American Civil War and were ruined by it, while he and brother William James escaped conscription as students and went on to have eminent careers – as well as about his invalid sister, Alice, her final decline and death, tended to the end by a loyal lady friend in that claustrophobic Victorian style.

Most of all I enjoyed Lodge’s weaving of the lives and biographies of all the men of letters, musicians, artists, actors and theatrical people who the hugely sociable James knew, met, dined and corresponded with. Being unmarried and celibate gave James the time to have an enormous circle of friends and to be invited everywhere. He seems to have known everyone who was anyone during the period and the novel therefore amounts to a panoramic overview of many of the most interesting literary and artistic events of the period.

Interesting anecdotes

For example, we get an interesting account of his long friendship with Punch cartoonist-turned novelist, George du Maurier (nickname ‘Kiki’), whose failing sight leads him to diversify into writing novels and eventually to the popular success of Trilby, the book which gave the world the phrase ‘Svengali’ (meaning ‘a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or sinister motives’) as well as the trilby hat. Trilby‘s phenomenal world-wide success and the wealth it brought du Maurier stand as a permanent ironic reproach to James’s own failing fortunes: in the year du Maurier’s novel sells 250,000 copies, some of James’s books barely sell 20.

Another long-term friendship is with the novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson, who he took to referring to as ‘Fenimore’ and whose meetings of mind and imagination, but slight reticences and hesitations, are delicately depicted. It comes as all the more of a shock when, half way through the book, we learn that she committed suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony in Venice. James feels unbearable guilt at the things left unsaid and unfelt in their relationship.

Then there are numerous references to the wider world of letters, particularly to his encounters with contemporary writers such as Oscar Wilde (who he found vulgar and preening), the young Rudyard Kipling (whose bride Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier he found himself giving away at their wedding) but who he found beastly and vulgar, accounts of his good friend Robert Louis Stevenson who has travelled to the other side of the world to live in the South Seas – and so on and so on.

We meet the French in the shape of the ageing novelist Alphonse Daudet whose incontinence means he has to keep slipping away from his chair at the banquet called in his honour to take a pee into a chamber pot behind a carefully positioned screen (the toilet is too far away); and Guy de Maupassant who shocks James by asking him to approach a lone woman in a restaurant, because Maupassant ‘needs’ a woman’, hasn’t had a woman for a whole week! In fact the atmosphere of moral turpitude i.e. free love i.e lots of sex, in the French literary world, is the single factor which had decided James not to live in Paris but to settle in more philistine, but more restrained, London.

Thus Author, Author has the feel of a leisurely literary biography, full of interesting grace notes and biographical asides.

The theatrical impresario who takes on James’s first play and puts up with his endless emendations before it flops in London, Edward Compton, is shown being father to a promising little boy, who the alert reader realises will grow up to be Sir Compton Mackenzie, OBE the ‘Scottish writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist’, most famous for his comic novels Whiskey Galore and Monarch of the Glen.

When James hears that John Addington Symonds has died (April 1893) it gives rise to a couple of pages telling us about Symonds’ privately published pamphlet calling for society to accept sexual love between Uranists (who were, as Lodge helpfully points out, just starting to be described by the new term ‘homo-sexuals’) and James’s own opinion on the matter.

When du Maurier confides that he doesn’t believe in God he is careful to use the newish word ‘agnostic’ and Lodge is careful to let us know it was a neologism recently coined by the Darwin apologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1869.

When James and du Maurier ponder the amazing popularity of Henry Rider Haggard’s debut adventure novel, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), du Maurier is made to remind us how this success was partly due to the blizzard of posters put up all over London the morning the book was published by Haggard’s enterprising publishers, Cassells, in an early example of a mass advertising campaign.

One of James’s young men friends, Henry Harland, is planning to set up a new literary and artistic journal, The Yellow Book, and Lodge (through James) contrasts the style of its main illustrator, the young Aubrey Beardsley, with that of du Maurier’s more traditional Victorian illustrations for Punch magazine.

The historical novelist as tour guide

Fenimore and James happen to be walking through the Place Vendôme in Paris where James takes the opportunity to tell her that the column at its centre is made from 1200 cannon captured at the Battle of Austerlitz, and Fenimore replies that he sounds like a guide book (p.178). In fact the whole text often sounds like a guide book. The hero is strolling across Piccadilly Circus? An opportunity to share with us that the statue of Eros (erected 1893) is made of aluminium so as not to tarnish in the smoggy London atmosphere (p.244). Walking past Buckingham Palace? An opportunity to tell us that Queen Victoria had recently opened some of the royal apartments to visitors. And so on.

Same with people, with the famous personalities of the day. Who is this in the stalls at the first night of Guy Domville, reviewing it for the Saturday Review? Could it be the red-haired figure of George Bernard Shaw, the up-and-coming music critic, rumoured to have written a few plays of his own? And over there, surely that’s the Pall Mall magazine’s new drama critic, Herbert Wells, been in his job all of four days since the PM’s editor Harry Cust promised the thrusting young freelance journalist the first vacancy which came up at the magazine and this turned out to be it. So wet behind the ears he had to rush out to buy a set of evening dress made for him in just 24 hours. When Shaw and Wells get chatting Herbert boasts about the short story he’s just sold to the Pall Mall Gazette for £100, entitled The Time Machine. And so on.

There is a kind of innocence about the exchanges like this which pepper the book, as if a teacher had set his 6th formers a piece of homework to imagine a conversation between the young H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. The book evinces a kind of simple-minded excitement at the sheer existence of these writers, a wonderment that Wells and Shaw and, in fact, the young Arnold Bennett, were alive and bumping into each other in the same town, along with Oscar Wilde and Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, not to mention artists like Singer Sargent, Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton and so on. What bubbles up off the page is Lodge’s sheer enjoyment of this star-studded era.

A guide not a novel?

There are scores and scores of other examples of interesting and beguiling facts, stories and anecdotes throughout the book, as well as countless titbits about Paris and London, Rome and Venice. Taken together they probably make up the majority of the actual text. Author, Author has plenty of biography of the great man and lots of stories about his (fascinating) life and times, and the world of literature and art as it swirled around him. All very interesting, and Lodge has gathered much be interested and informed about.

But not in the teeniest bit moving or emotional. I didn’t feel anything at all at any part of the book – even at the climax where James takes the stage after the first performance of Guy Domville (5 January 1895) to be publicly booed and humiliated. Well, what of it? We know that James will survive and go on to write the late masterpieces which have secured him a high place in the history of English Literature. Even the scenes where he is called to Venice to help the distraught family of Fenimore dispose of her vast collection of belongings, I found interesting rather than moving. And the final pages which revert to James on his death-bed in 1916 are done very factually and so, I’m afraid, didn’t move me at all. I was more interested in the way the James family nobly offered his loyal servants continued employment after his death.

This is a very enjoyable book but for long stretches it doesn’t feel like a novel at all, more like an old-fashioned literary biography with made-up scenes and conversation added to enliven the basic narrative of events, and plenty of fascinating facts thrown in. It could have been called ‘Henry James and His World’.

On this basis I’m looking forward to reading Lodge’s last novel, A Man Of Parts, which hopefully does much the same thing for H.G. Wells, another pivotal and well-connected figure from a slightly later period.

Credit

Author, Author by David Lodge was published by Secker and Warburg in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a text rich with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst (2004)

Furst has written 14 historical espionage novels, generally set in Eastern Europe, Russia or the Balkans, set towards the end of the 1930s and going on into the early years of the Second World War.

This, the eighth in the series, marks a notable change of location by being set, not in the hotels, cafés and bars of continental Europe, but aboard an old tramp steamer chuntering along the coast of North Africa. Although it is frequently in port, with cafés and intrigue, the predominantly maritime setting is unique in Furst’s oeuvre, and makes for an interesting and stimulating change.

The plot

Eric DeHaan is 41, the weathered captain of the tramp freighter Noordendam, of the Netherlands Hyperion Line, plying its trade around the Mediterranean. While docked in Tangiers in April 1941, he is called to a meeting in a local restaurant, to find the owner of the Line – Wim Terhouven – along with Marius Hoek, the woman artist Juffrouw Wilhelm, and Commander Hendryck Leiden of the Royal Dutch navy all waiting for him. Without much in the way of choice he is drafted into the Royal Dutch Navy (based in London since the Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940) with the rank of Lieutenant Commander (p.15).

So now he is working for the Allied cause. His contact for missions will be Wilhelm who, as an artist, is given more freedom than many men. Back on board ship we begin to get to know the large and varied crew (of about 40):

  • Johannes Ratter, patch over the eye he lost in an accident (p.24)
  • Stas Kovacz the Polish engineer, stooped and bearlike (p.62)
  • Mr Ali, the gentlemanly wireless operator
  • ‘Patapouf’, the plump assistant cook (p.63)
  • Van Dyck, the bosun, in charge of loading the cargo, strongest man DeHaan’s ever met (p.102)
  • Able Seaman Amado
  • Kees
  • Ruysdal
  • Vandermeer

DeHaan is ordered to repaint the ship and reflag it to impersonate a Spanish steamer of the same size, the Santa Rosa. Safer for cruising round the Spanish end of the Med. Able Seaman Amado will, when necessary, pretend to be captain. (This is the cue for a fascinating account of how the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War caused fights on Spanish ships around the world, including the one Amado was lucky to escape from, pp.39-40.)

Wilhelm passes on instructions for the ship to sail to Rio de Oro bay, where they pick up a detachment of British commandos, commanded by one Major Sims, trim and tense (p.43). The mission is to ferry the commandos to Cape Bon, where they will go ashore and attack the ship-spotting base there, which seems to be using some kind of new technology which can track and monitor passing ships, even in the thickest fog. Something to do with infra-red, which DeHaan has never heard of.

They drop the commandos, return to the ship and some time later hear bangs and bullets. Obviously a firefight. When they see a flashing torch from the shore DeHaan and his crew go back in small boats to pick up the survivors. He has to trek quite a way through desert, stony gulches and wadis to find the battered survivor of the firefight – Major Sims is missing presumed dead, and there are several badly wounded. There’s another confused firefight on the trek back to the shore in which the plump cook ‘Patapouf’ is killed. But the commandos have captured some of the German equipment, are gotten safely back aboard ship, and it steams to the safety of British-held Alexandria.

2. In Admiralty Service

In Alexandria DeHaan is ordered to report to a caricature British officer, all red face and handlebar moustache, who insists on being called ‘Dickie’ (p.92). Then on to another Brit officer who shows him a cable from the Hyperion Line. From now on he is under direct British control. They are loaded to the brim with munitions, with two Hurricane fighter planes on deck and provided with a (Jewish) doctor, Dr Shtern (p.103), before being lined up in a small convoy of freighters escorted by a destroyer, HMS Covington, off towards Crete, which has just been attacked by the Germans in a daring airborne invasion (started 20 May 1941).

The Noordendam experiences engine trouble – fixed by the tough Polish engineer – but meaning they are left behind by the others. When they join them and dock in the only port not in German hands, Sphakia, they’ve barely begun unloading when they’re attacked by German Ju87s, Stukas. The first three planes are destroyed by the destroyer’s heavy cannon, but then DeHaan finds himself on his knees in the ruined bridge, bleeding, covered in glass and half deaf. There was a direct hit on the freighter next to them which has wrecked the bridge of the Noordendam.

Cut to five days later and DeHaan, still alive, is back in Alexandria. They unloaded at Crete and sailed back, wrecked but still seaworthy. Next thing we know DeHaan is in Algeciras, Spain, where he’s been ordered to meet another British officer, Commander Hallowes. The next mission is to sail to the Baltic with a cargo of radio antennas, masts and equipment, designed to help set up a listening station up there. Precise details will be sent him by courier.

June 1. Back in Tangier DeHaan hooks up with Hoek, who is his local contact. Then with Yacoub, a local fixer, an Arab nationalist. And finally the courier, a young nervous Brit who hands over typed instructions on the mission: sail to Lisbon, collect cargo, sail to coast of Sweden, rendezvous with Allied ship.

3. Ports of call

Maria Bromen is a Russian journalist (like several previous Furst characters). She’d interviewed DeHaan years earlier in Rotterdam. Now she learns he’s in Tangier and arranges a meeting where she begs him to take her on board ship to freedom. She has travelled this far south incognito, on the run from Russian agents, presumably the NKVD, because she refused to play ball with them. Because DeHaan has a heart of gold, he agrees, getting Van Dyck to navigate the ship’s cutter into the more derelict docks of Tangier and then tracking her down to a set of sheds in a horrible wasteland, to collect her.

The voyage from Tangier to Lisbon is uneventful, livened up by the screening of a knackered version of a Jimmy Cagney movie the first mate picked up in the souk. At Lisbon, DeHaan gives Maria money and watches her walk down the gangplank, regretfully, and out of his life. Good luck. Then he goes to see the ship’s agent, a nervous Portuguese who is fronting for the mission and not happy about it. The agent hands over the fake papers which officially claim the ship is carrying sardines, and then scuttles off.

On the way back to the ship, DeHaan is called over by a Brit in a car, calling himself Mr Brown. Now, throughout the previous 200 pages we have periodically caught up with the movements of one S. Kolb and learned that he is a British agent who has been spirited at great trouble out of Germany and down here to Lisbon. Now Brown informs DeHaan that the British want him to take Kolb on the trip to the Baltic. It is hinted that DeHaan has no choice, so he agrees.

The crew load the crates, full of aerials, as well as guns and Lord knows what, and off they steam north along the coast of Portugal and France. Two incidents: a fire starts in one of the holds, oily rags apparently igniting the cab of one of the lorries. DeHaan spots it and he and the crew manage to put it out before the whole thing explodes, but the officers angrily discuss the possibility of sabotage and many suspect the odd little man Kolb. Throw him overboard, they say. And, close to the coast of Sweden, they witness a full blown air raid with searchlights, ack ack guns and swooping dive bombers attacking a naval base. But sail by it unscathed.

4. Baltic harbours

The last 70 pages of the novel. Will they make it to the rendezvous safely? Will they manage to get rid of the contraband cargo? Is Kolb some kind of spy who’ll sabotage everything? Will the ship make it safely to Ireland, its next destination? What will become of DeHaan and Broman’s love affair? It’s all set up quite nicely to keep the reader hooked. The sea. The black night. The suspense:

The Noordendam ran dark now. And silent – bell system turned off, crew ordered to be quiet, engine rumbling at dead-slow speed on a flat sea. A mile off the port beam, one fishing village, a few dim lights in the haze, then nothing, only night on a deserted coast. (p.240)

They do rendezvous successfully, with a smelly old fishing boat, the Ulla, its skipper co-operating with a Scottish commando and a man DeHaan chats to, a British scientist, the one who is going to erect the aerials and create an Allied listening post, here on the barren, deserted south Sweden coast. After repeat trips back and forth, all the cargo is unloaded and the empty Noordendam turns and sets sail for Malmö, there to pick up a legitimate cargo.

Until they are intercepted by a German patrol boat, M-56, searchlight and heavy duty cannon. The efficient keen Nazi captain, sub-Lieutenant Schumpel (p.256) insists on coming aboard and quickly sees through all their subterfuges, realising the terrified Amado is not the captain, that the ship is not the Spanish Santa Anna, not believing DeHaan’s story about smuggling booze, suspecting something much more incriminating. So he orders them to sail towards the nearest German port, closely shadowed by the gunship, and with himself and 6 or 7 Nazi soldiers distributed through the crew room, radio room and engine room to supervise.

These closing forty pages rise to the tension of a genuine action thriller. Without DeHaan’s prompting, his crew take on the Nazis – the cabin boy and a sailor jumping the Nazi commander and stabbing him to death, while the bosun knocks another goon out. In the radio room they capture the terrified stripling put in charge of the radio. In the engine room they find the chief engineer has already killed one German and tied up the other.

After reviewing the options (ram the German boat? – No, it would dodge and fire enough shells to sink them) DeHaan and his officers decide to ‘make smoke’, closing the air flaps on the furnaces to generate clouds of thick black smoke. At the same time they begin to veer away from the German-ordered course, and radio garbled messages to the Germans that they have engine trouble – the ship is on fire – going to fetch the commandant – abandon ship – and almost make it out of range of the gunboat when it finally starts firing shells.

The third one hits the stern, but above the water line. Impossible to steam West, that’s what the M-56 and cruising spotter planes will expect. Has to be East, towards Latvia and Russia. In the early hours of 22 June 1941 they approach the port of Liepaja. They are ushered in by Russian patrol boats, then met by a harassed official, partly expecting to be arrested, maybe spend the war in a camp.

What they don’t know is that at midnight Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Now a tramp steamer which has been helping the British is a heroic ally of the Soviet people. Relieved, DeHaan and crew then learn they are being dragooned into a convoy of all available shipping evacuating people from the port. A ramshackle collection including a ballet company, various police officers, soldiers and so on, along with a grand piano and miscellaneous military equipment, cram the Noordendam‘s decks.

The accompanying destroyers blow their hooters and, as they hear and can even see fighting erupting around the harbour, the convoy steams out to sea, heading north past the Gulf of Riga, then East towards Kronstandt. Through mine fields where they lose some boats. Then are attacked by German bombers, strings of them. Finally a chain of bombs explodes aboard the Noordendam, crippling the engines and severing the steering equipment. As the rest of the convoy steers East, the ragbag of soldiers and civilians packed into the Noordendam collect the dead and cover them, treat the wounded, and watch the ship drift helplessly north towards the shore of Finland. Eventually it crashes gently into rocks on a low, unmarked island off the coast.

And here, eerily and mysteriously and abruptly, the novel ends. By this stage I think we are meant to find the ship itself has become a legend. Furst has subtly built up the picture of it as a floating world, a universe to itself, with a crew gathered from all the nations – Arabs, Greeks, German communists, Spanish survivors, Polish anti-fascists, the sturdy DeHaan himself.

Like these later Furst novels it doesn’t end tragically, as the harsh WW2 milieu suggests – it ends dreamily, vaguely, romantically. It ends like a Shakespeare romance, on a note of wistful mystery, confirming the way in which – despite the occasional shootouts and deaths, these novels are essentially romances.

They searched for her, some time later, once the war in that part of the world had quietened down…They asked the people who lived along that rockbound coast, fishermen mostly, if they’d seen her, and some said they had, while others just shook their heads or shrugged. But, in the end, they found nothing, and she was never seen again. (Last sentences, p.309)


Sensual sex

I associate these later Furst novels with slinky, sensual, stockings-slipping-off sex as much as clandestine meetings in exotic capitals and intense firefights. The last two novels in particular seem to have acquired a formulaic rhythm: puzzling encounters with ‘agents’ and/or violent action > comfortingly sensual sex.

Throughout the text are sprinkled DeHaan’s memories of his brief affair with Arlette in Paris. Smelling hashish in a Tangier back street transports reminds him of the time he and Arletta tried the drug and ended up making passionate love, ‘ferocious and wildly chaotic’ (p.6).

On the way to drop the commandos, DeHaan remembers more Arlette:

At a crucial moment on their first night together, what his hand found pulsed, and the heat of it surprised, then inspired him. (p.49)

Immediately following the hair-raising raid on Cap Bon, the text jumps to DeHaan in bed with Demetria, a woman he picks up at a party back at Alexandria:

Freed of her daily life, and a stiff linen suit, her underwear buried somewhere in the rumpled sheets of the hotel bed, she lay back in her flesh, luxuriant, legs comfortably apart – the colour the French called rose de dessous casually revealed, and smoked with great pleasure. (p.85)

The odd character, Kolb, whose narrative periodically intersperses the main, ship-board one, spends his first few sections hanging round in a safe room in Hamburg, waiting for news of how he’s going to be exfiltrated. His only contact with the outside world is a large German woman, Fräulein Lena. He imagines her big body only held in place by an elaborate arrangement of corsets and stays. Finally he makes his move, on her next visit plying her with sticky apricot brandy, and discovering that:

God, she was as lonely as he was, soon enough strutting round the room in those very corsets – pink, however, not black – that had set his imagination alight. And, he did not have to dismantle them, as he’d feared, she did that herself while he watched with hungry eyes. And soon enough, he was to learn that secret depravities did lurk – the same ones shared by humanity the world over but never mind, they were new and pink that night, and slowly and thoroughly explored. (p.125)

From the moment DeHaan takes the Russian journalist Maria Bromen on board (she sleeps in the first mate’s cabin, while the latter doubles up with another officer) he lusts after her. When he says goodbye at Lisbon part of him is torn. So when she returns at Lisbon and is taken back on board, it isn’t long until she asks to borrow a book to read, and they find themselves standing very close together in his tiny cabin.

For a time they stood apart, arms by their sides, then he settled his hands on her hips and she moved towards him, just enough so that he could feel the tips of her breasts beneath the sweater. (p.222)

She asks him to turn off the light. He turns to find her stripped down to her panties. They both jump into bed. Etc. After that there are many scenes with one of them in bed and the other looking soulfully out the porthole at the grey ocean, worrying about the future in these troubled times; exactly as Marie-Galante or Serebin stood at windows looking out over Paris or Istanbul or Bucharest worrying about the troubled future.

This scene, emblematic of wistful regrets, recurs again and again, giving the novels their special mood of sensual nostalgia.

Datestamps, telegraphese and subtitles

Many of the sections start with the date, like a journal entry, sometimes with the exact time, like a ship’s log – a standard thriller procedure. More specific to Furst is the habit of omitting verbs from sentences or clauses, to make them feel more punchy and immediate – a kind of telegraphese. And, where the narrative voice or dialogue is often clipped and elliptical, Furst will often give the interpretive thoughts of one of the characters – generally the main protagonist, in this case Captain DeHaan – in italics. All three habits are exemplified in this clip:

6 June, 0820. Hotel Alhadar.
Hard to find, in an alley off an alley, grim and dirty and cheap. The desk clerk sat behind a wire cage, worry beads in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and beneath his tasseled fez, a mean eye – who the hell are you? (p.173)

Repeats

Furst enjoys repeating the same characters or settings over different novels.

  • The Café Heininger is the setting for a famous shootout in the first book and is mentioned in every one of the succeeding novels. Here DeHaan remembers it as the setting for  his last night in Paris with his beloved Arlette (pp.137-139)
  • When Maria Sambon tells DeHaan some of her backstory, she mentions trying to write short stories, in the manner of Babel, no, more like Serebin (p.224). Ilya Serebin is the fictional hero of the previous novel in the series, Blood of Victory.

The recurrence of some characters in the early, genuinely scary and threatening novels about the KGB and its murderous activities in Eastern Europe (and Civil War Spain) added to the sense of menace, the sense of a web of spies and assassins across Europe who the characters couldn’t escape.

But as the series has become softer and more sensual, with a lot more descriptions of fine food and ladies in stockings, the recurrence of minor characters has begun to have the opposite effect, and made the series seem more cartoony, somehow profoundly unserious. The recurrence of the Café Heininger has become an in-joke, like something in an episode of The Simpsons.


Credit

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Phoenix 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. (390 pages)
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 – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
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

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

Fifth in the addictive series of novels about former Soviet (and now plain Russian) homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, who we first met in Cruz Smith’s 1981 international bestseller, Gorky Park. It’s 23 years later and a lot has happened in that time, namely the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bewilderingly quick transformation of Russia into a criminal society, dominated by billionaire oligarchs and a ferocious mafia, just about held in place by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state.

Cruz Smith/Renko’s unique selling point is the way he uses routine police procedurals to delve into this murky society. (In fact, its two predecessors had varied the scene by being set in Germany and Cuba, respectively.) This one marks a return to Mother Russia for its beginning, before shifting scene to become a wonderfully haunting evocation of the devastated towns and villages around the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine.

The corpse

Millionaire Pasha Ivanov has apparently killed himself by jumping out the tenth floor of his luxury apartment block. He was the president of a typical new Russian enterprise, NoviRus. The novel opens like a scene from Colombo or a thousand other American cop dramas with all the dead man’s business partners, mistresses etc gathered tearfully in the apartment as Arkady assesses them and asks the time-honoured question: Did he jump or was he pushed?

Assembled are Arkady’s boss, angry prosecutor Zurin; Arkady’s assistant, the burly alcoholic Victor; the dead man’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer Rina Shevchenko; a NoviRus vice-president Lev Timofeyev; and Ivanov’s fat American fixer, Bobby Hoffman. Not physically present, but looming in the background is the head of NoviRus security, the feared Colonel Ozhogin.

Arkady and co had in fact already been investigating Ivanov’s affairs but, with his death, Zurin is keen to get a quick decision that it was suicide and so close the case. The official reason is that we Zurin and his superiors don’t want to do anything which will spook foreign investors any more than necessary, Moscow has a bad enough reputation anyway, etc.

But Arkady, as is his way, refuses to move quickly. He ponders. Does Zurin has darker motives for his hurry to shut it down? Did their investigation prompt the suicide? Why, though – they hadn’t turned up anything incriminating – or were they on the verge of doing so… questions, questions.

The milieu the dead man moved in, the circle of Russia’s new super-rich, is vividly depicted when Arkady, in a later scene, crashes a party of the New Rich and is quietly appalled:

They saw themselves as the robber barons of the American Wild West, and didn’t someone say that every great fortune started with a crime? Russia already had over thirty billionaires, more than any other country. That was a lot of crime. (p.81)

A search of Ivanov’s apartment had turned up one standout peculiarity: his wardrobe was found to be full of salt, there was salt in several drawers and cupboards, there turns out to be salt in his gut and he was clutching a salt shaker when he jumped. Why?

Zhenya

In a separate strand, Arkady has been inveigled by a lady friend into visiting an orphanage and cheering up the kids, so that they end up taking one of them out for the day, the silent, traumatised 11-year-old Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’.

Next time Arkady turns up at the orphanage to discover the lady journalist hasn’t, and so Arkady finds himself, reluctantly, taking the totally silent boy out for another outing and then, despite himself, drawn into taking him on regular Sunday outings, the boy permanently silent and clutching his chess set and book of fairy tales while Arkady, as so often, questions himself, his action and his motives.

Moscow

The first hundred pages of this 400-page novel are set in Moscow, as Arkady pursues various leads in the Ivanov case, viewing and reviewing the CCTV footage from the dead man’s apartment building, meeting a notorious Mafia hardman, Anton Obodovsky, who phoned Ivanov in his last hours (Arkady has the ‘lucky’ break of finding the dead man’s phone kicked under his bed), wondering if there’s some underworld connection…

These scenes emphasise the thing about Arkady’s character which makes him so appealing. He is not stupid – he is honest, thorough, diligent. But most of the time he doesn’t know what is going on and is as puzzled as the reader. Which is what makes him so likeable.

Towards the end of this section he is searching Ivanov’s apartment for the umpteenth time when he comes across, right at the back of some drawers, more salt and then a dosimeter wrapped in a hankie. Arkady recognises it from his military training a long time ago, as the device you measure radiation with. ‘100’ is about a normal background measure. Arkady turns it on and pokes round the flat and in the wardrobe covered with salt, the reading is 50,000. Arkady’s mouth turns dry, his heart races. Someone was poisoning Ivanov with radioactivity – God, has he, Arkady, also received a fatal dose? (p.106)

Chernobyl

With no warning, without even the opening of a new ‘part’, the next chapter cuts to the abandoned towns and villages around the gutted Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. What? Why did that happen? And it turns out the rest of the novel is devoted to describing the scenery, atmosphere and mood of this strange abandoned place, while Arkady gets to know the handful of locals who still live there and the scientists who are studying the disaster’s impact. How? Why?

Because NoviRus vice-president, Lev Timofeyev, who we met in the opening scene, has been found dead, murdered, in a graveyard in a village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Arkady’s boss, the prosecutor Zurov, angry at Arkady’s obstinate refusal to confirm Ivanov’s death as suicide, uses the mysterious death to get Arkady out of Moscow and far away from the Ivanov case.

Once again (as in the stunningly good Polar Star) Cruz Smith has come up with a brilliantly imaginative setting for his roaming, endlessly inquisitive hero to explore and investigate, and for his wonderfully evocative prose to paint.

Arkady is shown round the Zone by head of the local militia, Captain Marchenko, upset that his unblemished record has now been blotted with a murder. He introduces Arkady to denizens of the Dead Zone, including environmental scientists led by Alex Gerasimov and his estranged, intense, wife, Eva Kazka. It takes Arkady a long time to realise the odd love-hate relationship between them and only at the end is Alex revealed as a psychopath. Initially he had been courtesy itself, showing Arkady round the zone, introducing him to his fellow research scientists, and in one hair-raising scene, giving his own detailed account of the sequence of events which led to the nuclear disaster (p.214).

In fact Cruz Smith gives Alex a speech conveying a messianic vision of nature returning to claim its own, at a little party given by two old peasants who refuse to leave their village home, Roman and Maria Panasenko (p.219). Alex drunkenly shouts that it’s ‘normal human life’ which is killing nature – if only we could create Zones excluding human beings around the world – maybe every country should have a nuclear catastrophe! (p.164)

Arkady slowly pieces bits of a very confusing jigsaw together, tangling several times with the psychotic Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras, who patrol the streets of the ghost city, Pripyat, on roller skates armed with ice hockey bats and night vision goggles (!)

The novel raises and explores numerous dead-ends:

  • A shadowy figure, Hulak, phones Arkady requesting a rendezvous at the vast and eerie cooling lake in the shadow of the abandoned reactor. But when Arkady arrives it is to find locals pulling  his body out of the water, where they found it, shot through the head.
  • Lev Timofeyev’s body was found by a certain officer Karel Katamay, who has since gone missing. Arkady goes to visit Katamay’s father, a tough old construction worker in the city which was built to house evacuees from irradiated Pripyat after the disaster, Slavutych. Confined to a wheelchair by an accident, the angry old man stuffs wild animals and has taught his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato to hunt and shoot them for him.
  • Arkady is surprised to discover his ‘assistant’ Victor Orlov, is in Kiev (capital of the Ukraine, 140 km due south). He has been sent by Prosecutor Zurin to tail Anton Obodovsky – the hard man Arkady spoke to early on in the book – who now appears to be creating a new identity – new teeth, clothes and haircut, as if about to flee the country. Did he have something to do with Ivanov’s death? Why is he fleeing?
  • Arkady sees a hooded motorcyclist riding out of one of the abandoned villages with a sidecar stuffed with icons from the peasants’ houses. Next time he disturbs the motorcyclist in mid-theft and gives chase on his own motorbike, in an exciting ride through overgrown fields, across streams and swamps.
  • In the event, the phantom thief turns out to be Eva Kazka, Alex’s neurotic, chain-smoking ex-wife, a doctor who spent some time in Chechnya so has seen a lot of brutality, and hides the scar of an operation on her thyroid gland under the scarf. Arkady finds himself lured into an uncomfortable love triangle, not least as Eva tends to make love with a loaded gun either pointed at or alongside her lover. Alex ambushes Arkady and beats him up, a fight which also ends with Arkady having a loaded gun pointed at him. Tough loving.

As mentioned, what makes the Arkady character so attractive is the way he is caught up in situations he only partly understands. He is a sort of everyman figure, wandering through the chaos of post-communist Russia, clever, fit enough, curious, but endlessly on the back foot.

There is a powerful, random scene where Arkady is driving somewhere in Moscow and suddenly comes across rival gangs of skinheads and neo-fascists (supporting Spartak and Dynamo football clubs, respectively) having a riot at a traffic jam on the highway. Tattooed thugs are simply smashing the windscreens of stationary cars, dragging out their terrified occupants, and kicking seven bells out of anyone foreign-looking. Arkady weighs in to save a Vietnamese couple (who it turns out he knows), waving his police badge and pistol around. Only when he’s well into the melee of thugs does Arkady realise that he has in fact removed the bullets from the gun to make it safe for the occasions when he takes young Zhenya out. At which point he feels the sweat breaking on his skin, continuing to threaten the hordes of tattooed hooligans, but knowing any of them could call his bluff at any moment.

It’s a very Arkady scene, our hero a) well-intentioned but b) somehow cocking things up and c) beneath his personal plight, a deeper insight into, a snapshot of, the violent car crash which is contemporary Russian society.

The Jewish connection

Arkady is very surprised when the dead Ivanov’s fat American fixer Hoffman arrives in Chernobly, especially as he is accompanied by a short, but very tough Jewish security man, Yakov, ‘the oldest Jew in the Ukraine’ (p.230), who remembers the famine in the Ukraine, the Red Army and the Nazis – and survived them all.

There emerges a strong Jewish thread to the novel, which brings out the disastrous fate of the Jews of the region. When the Germans invaded in 1942 the people of Pripyat enthusiastically rounded up all their Jews, forced them into boats on the river and shot them up, picking off anyone who tried to swim to safety. (All this reminds me sickeningly of Tom Snyder’s horrifying history book, The Bloodlands.)

In Moscow Hoffman had tried to buy Arkady’s support. Now he has followed him to Chernobyl – but why? As the formal investigation dwindles down to a trickle and then sputters out amid the haunted scenery and strange post-apocalyptic characters of the Zone, Arkady finds himself drawn to Hoffman and Yakov. There are several weird evocative scenes at their camp out by the abandoned Chernobyl Yacht Club, a rusting quay with abandoned boats lining the muddy river.

When Arkady hears that hard-man Colonel Ozhogin is on his way south, he goes out of his way to persuade one of the Zone characters – Bela, a crook who owns a vast boneyard of radioactive cars, trucks, military vehicles and cuts them up and flogs them in the markets of Kiev and Moscow to unsuspecting punters – to smuggle the two Jews out of the dead lands.

It is entirely in keeping with the weird, static, trapped feel of the place and the novel that Arkady then discovers the two Jews changed his instructions and bribed Bela to drive in completely the wrong direction, right to the gates of the nuclear reactor, where Arkady discovers them bobbing their heads as they repeat the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Only now does it emerge that Ivanov, himself a Jew, had sent Hoffman down here the previous year to pray for him, to seek forgiveness, to beg God’s mercy on his soul, but Hoffman was too sceptical, shy, too American and resistant, to do it. But after the poisoning and suicide of his boss he is at last prepared to make his small supplication in front of the looming concrete ‘sarcophagus’ built over the fatal reactor.

It doesn’t quite make sense as a storyline – like a lot of the plot – but its slight implausibility is dwarfed by the poetry and the imaginative power of the scenes it leads to.

Officer Katamay

Finally Arkady tracks down the security guard who found the body of Timofeyev at the remote graveyard, one Officer Karol Katamay (p.177). He had, suspiciously, gone missing immediately afterwards. Through a sequence of contacts Arkady tracks him down to the baroque setting of the abandoned theatre in the empty ghost town of Pripyat (p.309). Here, Katamay is revealed lying on a divan on the empty stage, his hair carefully beaded and tended, a blanket over him supported by comfy pillows but guarded and patrolled by the two psychotic ice skating twins. Like Pavov and Timofeyev before him, he is obviously stricken by severe radiation sickness, almost continuously bleeding from the nose. Arkady finds out that Alex the research scientist got to know Katamay and asked him to do a job in Moscow.

He was paid to sneak into Ivanov’s apartment, when Alex created a little outage in the security system, with lead-lined boxes, and to wear gloves as he scattered radioactive salt through the apartment. But it seems he wasn’t careful enough and himself became contaminated.

Shootout in Pripyat

The narrative takes Arkady away for further meetings with Eva, phone calls to Victor and so on, before being called back to visit Katamay again. This time he finds the sofa and the recumbent Katamay in the surreal setting of Pripyat’s abandoned funfair. But to Arkady’s disappointment, he has only very recently been stifled with a pillow which, as a result, is soaked in arterial blood. Arkady is holding the murder weapon looking down at the freshly dead man when a swishing sound announces the return of his friends and protectors, the Woropay brothers. They cry out in anguish at the death of their friend and Arkady can only run run run through the deserted streets and into a derelict building, up the stairs, throwing himself out the first floor window onto detritus below and running running running for his life until the brothers catch him, pummeling him to the ground and telling him they’re going to enjoy this as they start to hit him. Bang! One brother falls dead. The other turns to look around and bang! He is dead, too.

Groggily, Arkady looks up to see the blazing-eyed Alex, the visionary scientist who wants the whole world to be irradiated to save it for nature. He makes Arkady pick up one twin while he shoulders the other and they stagger back to the body of Katamay on the sofa. Here Alex turns and finally reveals the whole story.

Ivanov and Timofeyev were assistants at the Institute of Physics in Moscow, assisting Alex’s father, esteemed academician Felix Gerasimov (p.139). On the night of the disaster (26 April 1986) Gerasimov senior had drunk himself unconscious and so when the call came through to the Institute from the Chernobyl reactor, and then from the local authorities, asking what to do – it was Ivanov and Timofeyev who advised them to hush it up and do nothing. Thus poisoning maybe millions of local inhabitants unnecessarily, including the hundreds of thousands who turned out for the May Day parades in all the nearby towns and cities five days later. Including Eva, who had patiently explained to Arkady that her bitterness and anger stem from being irradiated as a teenager, by the stupidity of the authorities. All caused by the craven cowardice of Ivanov and Timofeyev.

On a personal level, when Gerasimov sobered up and realised the bad advice his underlings had given, he immediately ordered an evacuation, but it was this chopping and changing of scientific advice which fatally added to the administrative delays, exposing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to contamination. Gerasimov had been haunted for years and years by his personal failure, until he finally shot himself.

And his son, Alex, was consumed by bitterness at the whole shambles – the drunken father who eventually kills himself, the irradiated lover, the poisoned population. No wonder he had such edge and nerviness in him from the moment Arkady met him, no wonder he was ready to explode into a fierce fist fight when he found Arkady at Eva’s cottage (see above). No wonder he turns out to be an embittered killer.

The big reveal

Now, as he and Arkady drop the bodies of the Woropay twins by the body of the dead security guard Katamay, Alex does what all baddies do in standard crime and thriller novels – he explains the mystery. It was he, Alex, who began to persecute Ivanov and Timofeyev as punishment for that awful night. It was he who secured supplies of difficult-to-access radioactive Cesium 137, indistinguishable from the common or garden salt which he mixed it with and which he had delivered to Ivanov’s apartment, along with the dosimeter, so that Ivanov would realise what had been done to him, and why. By the time Ivanov figured out what was going on it was too late, he’d been too exposed and even eaten some of the radioactive salt.

Alex had arranged for the delivery to be made by a gullible security guard, Katamay, who he’d befriended in the Exclusion Zone and paid to go to Moscow – but the fool was careless and contaminated himself as much as the victims. Alex realised that the dying Katamay was on the verge of revealing everything to Arkady and so, just half an hour earlier, smothered him with his pillow. And now has killed the only other people who Katamay might have told, the Woropay twins.

All through this explanation Alex has been pointing his gun at Arkady. He explains that he’s going to arrange the bodies in just such a layout that it looks like they’ve all shot each other – and shot the intrusive Moscow investigator, too.

The local investigators are not up to Moscow standards (as the way they botched the investigation into Timofeyev’s death demonstrated) so it will be easy enough to fake the scene and make it look like they all shot each other. So he asks Arkady to move just a bit to his left, yes, this should be about the right angle, just about – BANG!

Arkady barely hears the shot before he realises Alex is crumpling to the ground. Out of the shadows emerges Katamay’s sister, Oksana, who we met in the apartment of her overbearing father in Slavutych, and who we now remember was taught how to use a hunting rifle since she was a little girl. She had come to see her brother. She found him dead. Then she overheard Alex’s admission of his murder. Now the rather simple girl asks, ‘Did I do right?’ Arkady, his heart barely pumping at his sudden reprieve, reassures her that yes she did, then tiptoes away from the scene of these multiple crimes, leaving her cradling the head of her dead brother…

Epilogue

It is some months later. Eva is living with Arkady in Moscow and they both now regularly take the silent orphan Zhenya for outings.

They get a post card from the ancient peasants Eva had introduced him to in the Exclusion Zone, Roman and Maria, inviting them back for a small village feast and and decide to drive back to the blighted land for a visit.

Here, in an unexpectedly moving conclusion, Eva and Arkady assist with the ritual slaughter of the village pig and – to everyone’s amazement – Zhenya talks, enthusiastically throwing himself into this gross, pagan, primitive action, something in it releasing his spring.

After the butchering and the ritual feast for the small number of locals, Zhenya, Eva and Arkady motor back to Moscow with hope in their hearts for the future.

While some of the plot devices are hackneyed or convenient, over-riding them is the attractiveness of the Arkady character, the inventiveness of the situations he finds himself, the sheer imaginative otherness which Cruz Smith captures so brilliantly. This is a fabulous marvellous book.


Wonderful prose style

Cruz Smith is a pleasure to read, not only because of the intelligent plots, and the winning character of Renko himself, but also because of his magic turns of phrase. Admittedly not on every page, rationed to a handful per chapter – but when they come they set the language alight.

The marble lobby was so brightly lit that everyone wore halos. (p.38)

Of the suicide’s body, as captured on CCTV:

Upper and lower body collapsed into a ring of dust that exploded from the pavement. (p.40)

Colonel Ozhogin menaces Arkady at NoviRus HQ:

Ozhogin leaned closer, a hammer taking aim on a nail. (p.56)

And generally, he has a way of making the language dance.

Evgeny Lysenko, nickname Zhenya, age eleven, looked like an old man waiting at a bus stop. (p.17)

There was something smug and miserly about Victor when he drove, as if he had figured out one bare-bones sexual position. (p.63)

The Chernobyl militia station was a brick building with a linden tree sprouting from a corner like a feather in a cap. (p.145)

Black smoke poured out of the tailpipe of the Moskvich like a bad temper. (p.154)

Bela picked a hair off his shoulder. In his dirty white suit he looked like a lily beginning to rot. (p.305)

When Eva and Arkady finally make love, it is described in spare clipped sentences and then an extraordinary image.

They were two starving people feeding from the same spoon. (p.279)

Cruz Smith is one of the best poets in prose I know of writing today.


Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – Tall, skinny hangdog Russian homicide detective, who starts out investigating the mysterious death of multi-millionaire Pasha Ivanov, but ends up exploring the eerily devastated landscape around Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
Prosecutor Zurin – Arkady’s boss who gets cross with him – like all his bosses do – for persisting with his questioning even after being told to stop.
Victor Orlov – Arkady’s alcoholic assistant detective.
Pasha Ivanov – New Russian multi-millionaire CEO of NoviRus whose apparent suicide kick starts the plot. Turns out he was dying of radiation poisoning, sent him in revenge for the role he played in the Chernobyl disaster.
Rina Shevchenko – Ivanov’s girlfriend-cum-interior designer.
Lev Timofeyev – NoviRus vice-president, also poisoned with radiation.
Colonel Ozhogi – head of NoviRus security, who comes gunning for Arkady in Chernobyl.
Bobby Hoffman – Ivanov’s fat Jewish assistant.
Yakov – The tough Jewish hired gun Hoffman picks up to protect him when he comes to the Ukraine.
Evgeny Lysenko aka ‘Zhenya’ – 11-year-old orphan who Arkady finds himself looking after.
Anton Obodovsky – Mafia hardman who phoned Ivanov hours before his death but has the excuse that he was in prison at the time. But when Victor reports seeing him in Kiev, apparently undergoing a change of identity, Arkady wonders if he somehow killed the millionaire and is now about to flee.

Chernobyl

Captain Marchenko – head of the local militia in the Excluded Zone around the abandoned Chernobyl power station, initially friendly to Arkady who manages to alienate him by disobeying advice and accumulating dead bodies wherever he goes, as usual.
Alex Gerasimov – chief environmental scientist in the Exclusion Zone, starts off courteous and considerate, but reveals his nutty side when he explains that there should be more nuclear accidents so that nature can return to the devastated zones, and beats Arkady up when the latter begins an affair with Eva, his ex-wife, before finally emerging as the murderer.
Eva Kazka – Alex’s estranged wife, a doctor, bitter at being unnecessarily irradiated because the authorities didn’t evacuate local inhabitants in time, she has served in Chechnya ie seen many horrors. She and Arkady end up having an edgy affair during which she more than once threatens him with a gun.
Felix Gerasimov – Alex’s father and one-time head of the Institute of Physics in Moscow, who was drunk and unconscious when news came through of the Chernobyl disaster, thus allowing his two subordinates Ivanov and Timofeyev to give the bad advice to the authorities to do nothing.
Roman and Maria Panasenko – two ancient peasants who’ve refused to leave the Zone and live in in their one-bedroom hovel, raising vegetables and livestock. It’s at a small party at their house that Alex makes his big speech about how nature would benefit from more nuclear disasters. And the novel closes with a moving account of Eva, Zhenya and Arkady invited back to their house to take part in the slaughter of their pig and accompanying fiesta.
Officer Karol Katamay – of the Chernobyl militia, Katamay finds the body of Timofeyev in the cemetery in the Excluded Zone with his throat cut. Turns out he was persuaded by Alex to deliver radioactive cesium mixed in with salt to Ivanov’s luxury apartment to poison him, but in the process Katamay contaminated himself and is now close to death.
Katamay senior – Katamay’s father, an overbearing construction worker, injured in an accident and now wheelchair-bound, assisted by his daughter, Katamay’s sister, Oksanato, who he has taught to hunt and shoot wild animals from an early age.
Oksanato Katamay – Karel Katamay’s sister, a rather simple-minded young woman, totally bald from radiation poisoning, who turns out to be the deus ex machina when she shoots and kills Alex Gerasimov just as he was about to murder Arkady. Phew.
The Woropay twins, Dymtrus and Taras – simple, stupid and very violent young men, good friends of the dying Katamay, they like skating round the empty streets of the ghost city of Pripyat brandishing ice hockey sticks and wearing night vision goggles. When the twins discover Arkady apparently red-handed in the act of smothering their friend at the climax of the novel, the twins chase him through the empty streets of the ghost town, catch and are about to finish him off, when they are both expertly shot by the psycho Alex Gerasimov.
Bela – Dodgy businessman who runs a huge scrapyard full of the vehicles abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster, who makes money by breaking them up for parts which he sells in Kiev and Moscow. Arkady persuades him to pack up and leave, taking Bobby and Yakov with him before the fearsome Colonel Ozhogin arrives to wreak havoc on anybody he thinks is threatening NoviRus. Bobby in fact pays Bela to drive them to the very gates of Chernobyl where Arkady finds him and Yakov, in a weirdly powerful scene, offering Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the dead, to the vast radioactive sarcophagus.


Credit

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. All quotes and references to the 2005 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

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

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

Absolute Friends John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, it turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like another channeling of le Carré’s own lifestory. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional iteration to Berlin (the author went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical, but the product of research – nonetheless, the feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of prolonged sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is a defining characteristic of these books). Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Of course they do – just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel. Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but – like all le Carré leading men – the happy ‘conqueror’ of numberless women, and the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

For the first time in five or six novels, there were scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary or what total rotters they are. These scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat, there’s sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments – and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons to be found in the early 1970s. Ted teaches at schools (he has affair with one of the other master’s wives, natch), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (has affair with a painter’s wife, natch), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council. He also lowers his sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role he is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha! Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he becomes a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

By the time of this backstage meeting Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as red fascists. He had begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. Then he is amazed to see his friend’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel when he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling upper class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to us. The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy two the British spy, Mundy three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves, very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a shaggy, tall, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent. Then one day he’s gone, without goodbye or anything. Amory explains that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (ie the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project. (Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, ie in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March-May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again. Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, he returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

As ‘the present’ opens this school has shut down, bankrupted by the possibly criminal activities of his business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She is victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes her protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the significance of having had Ted born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But the description of his childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving. And above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

This brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex to be heard, for alternative discourses and theories to flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion. It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them. I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha, but the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, to find it full of farm equipment, and on up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky! Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’; he’s been a freelance advising the big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end he gets Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall. Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Alright.  OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in leg and shoulder, and makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside, at which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst in after him followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out and is stifled.

It is given out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, goddamit) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasis spy and failed radical. We learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists – always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy. The American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood; the same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator is always an interloper in these secret worlds, the outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma: thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays the slick arms dealer Chief.

As part of his odd childhood, the young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever. From which he progressed to Oxford University – not backward in promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status – and then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (possibly the most famous school in the world) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars. The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero, the Old Etonian Justin Quayle from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which his fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced in with a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

  1. to be vastly patronising – ‘our dear old queen’, conveying a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148)
  2. appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)
  3. to pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’
  4. to dismiss serious characters and issues with mock affection – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.2550
  5. to conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany – ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)
  6. to puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’ ; one of the teenage actors is ‘Lexham our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)
  7. mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)
  8. normal standard ‘our’ – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)
  9. ‘our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – ‘our Kate’ is how Kate’s dad always refers to her (p.204)
  10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:
  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name the character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘the former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity?

Like boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • as he starts his career as a spy Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe, the breadth of the subject matter is fighting an often losing battle against the narrowing impact of the mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realise that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geo-political ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before quietly dropping it.)

  • The Night Manager – international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (here, Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower run riot (America)

The big issue this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex. ‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ he has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’ Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative. Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot – and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel. Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba). Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are on the whole right wing and ridicule lefty politics).

But it fails in this case because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes incandescent after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi et al I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes. But when a character has to explain the exact geo-political crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, alright, so you should, too.’ It’s also characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot.

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has key explanations of the big theme of each novel delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

So you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – and you don’t disagree with any of it.

Like most people I am aware of all this, read all about it in the papers at the time. I just don’t care very much because

a) There is nothing I can do about it .
b) It is the way of the world: which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry, which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to the over-mighty Superpower?
c) Things have moved on a lot since then.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris). But they are neither: too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should. The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make them look a bit childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony – In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character here doesn’t have a my-little-pony memory but the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210). So I’m still just about winning my bet…


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2004)

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden, once told Labour politician Denis Healey that, “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” (p.365)

Niall Ferguson is a bit of a rock star among historians – youngish, good looking in a rugged Scottish way, he’s been the presenter of a number of TV history series for Channel 4, writes combative articles for newspapers and magazines here and in the States, has been a contributing editor to Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, has actively helped US Presidential campaigns, appears regularly as a pundit on TV shows – all logged and available on his busy website.

Three things make him stand out:

1. He is an economic historian He has an impressive grasp of the economic and banking and business aspects of history. Most history books rely on government and administrative documents and interpret policy in terms of political parties or the individual psychology of a Disraeli or Churchill, with a smattering of culture (quoting poems) thrown in. For their part, most economic historians are dry specialists, working deep in the bowels of Treasury or corporate archives to produce very technical tracts.

But in the book which brought him to general attention, The Pity of War, Ferguson combined his economic perspective with a popular style and approach, taking a detailed look at defence budgets, steel production, armaments output and so on, to present the Great War from a purely economic point of view, resulting in a number of surprising insights & conclusions.

Ferguson’s unique selling point is his ability to cut through political discourse to show the economic realities – the profit and loss, the problems of issuing bonds, obtaining credit, securing loans, paying back interest, finding new markets, keeping down overheads – the sheer business of the Empire, and the challenges it threw up and the difficult decisions political and business leaders had to take as a result.

2. He is an unashamed capitalist He’s not a Marxist or a socialist or a liberal, he isn’t into cultural studies or feminism or post-colonial studies, as so many contemporary historians are. He is an unabashed Thatcherite capitalist. He has been employed by New York investment banks and has worked for Republican presidential candidates. Despite its obvious inequalities, he defends free market capitalism as the bringer of prosperity and freedom to all the countries which embrace it. After all – look at the alternatives.

3. He is a populist Three of his books are based on Channel 4 TV series which he wrote and presented – this history of the British Empire, another on the Rise of America, and the third on reasons why the West beat the Rest to world domination (all handily available to view on YouTube). He is not shy of tackling the Big Subjects.

Having worked for Channel 4 myself, I know that they value controversy above anything else, they like to encourage contrary and unexpected viewpoints, they like to feel they are stimulating debate. Ferguson, with his confidently conservative views, his brash way with economic statistics, and his Celtic good looks (it is a visual medium, after all) was perfectly placed to present the series and write the books on these epic subjects. He will have mapped out the overall approach or message – broken it down into hour-long episodes / chapters, which are built around key (ideally, controversial and ‘against received opinion’) propositions. Then teams of assistants will have been despatched to assemble the material required to fill them out. ‘We want striking locations, powerful stories, strong messages!’

This, the first of the three books-of-the-series, is hugely enjoyable, fluently written, full of deliberate provocations and journalistic summaries, pithy phrase-making and telling stories (I liked his quip that if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, Australia started out as a nation of shoplifters) – liberally studded with graphs and diagrams displaying impressive-looking arrays of figures for the economically illiterate. It is designed to impress and persuade a broad popular audience, of which I am one.

Empire is a solid-looking Penguin paperback of medium length for such a vast subject (380 pages) and divided into six chapters which summarise the narrative arc of the story – Why Britain?, White Plague, The Mission, Heaven’s Breed, Maxim Force, Empire For Sale.

The British Empire A Good Thing

The biographical background sketched above helps to explain why Ferguson’s history ruggedly and abrasively declares the British Empire was a Good Thing. It had its fair share of atrocities, terrible behaviour, oppression and subjugation. But overall, on balance, from a high-level perspective, Ferguson in his Introduction asserts the British Empire was a civilising, globalising influence, and then spends the rest of the book going into detail to back his assertions.

The Empire was a good thing because it:

  1. Imposed free market capitalism around the globe, encouraging the free movement of goods, capital and labour on a vast scale.
  2. Spread the rule of law, specifically English common law, fairer, quicker, more efficient than other systems.
  3. Spread English forms of land tenure, which encouraged investment and development.
  4. Spread representative democracy: this has survived in eg India, to the ex-colonies’ lasting benefit.
  5. Spread the idea of a small, incorrupt state: its critics may have criticised Imperial administrators for arrogance and sometimes criminal neglect; but they weren’t venal and corrupt, and the administration was astonishingly small: at its height, the Indian Empire of 250 million was administered by a civil service of 1,000.
  6. Spread the English language.
  7. Spread Anglican Protestantism.

British ideals

Lastly, he emphasises the way the Empire disseminated English ideas of personal liberty. Critics immediately reply, ‘How could an Empire devoted to freedom have made so much money out of slavery?’ Ferguson doesn’t underplay the cruelty or neglect of the Imperial authorities. There are strong passages about slavery, including his description of visiting the slave cells on the West coast of Africa. But the history of the Empire can be split into two parts, Slavery and post-Slavery. Anybody who condemns the British Empire for its use of slavery needs to be reminded that it was the British who were the first nation anywhere in the world to outlaw the slave trade (1808), to abolish slavery altogether (1833), and then to enforce that ban on other nations. The Americans, famously, fought to defend Slavery into the 1850s.

Ferguson makes the profound point that, no matter how rapacious, violent or unjust its activities abroad, there was always a strong party at home which tried to hold the Imperialists to account against the highest standards. Even if the ideal of liberty was betrayed again and again in practice, it was nonetheless an ideal that a significant number of Britons aspired to, and the anti-slavery movement is proof of its power. (After all, a generation earlier, the American colonists had rebelled against their king in the name of a higher ideal than monarchy, in the name of Freedom, and a lot of 18th century Englishmen sympathised with them.) Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, economic and political Liberals criticised the idea and the implementation of Empire, against a range of higher ideals about freedom and national independence.

It was the very power of this British notion of liberty, holding the Empire’s rulers to account against nobler ideals, which meant the Empire’s days were always numbered. By about 1900, as domestic discourse became divided between shrill Imperialists (Kipling, Rhodes) and even shriller opponents (Gladstone’s heirs like John Hobson, author of the stinging critique, Imperialism) the whole idea of Empire was becoming difficult to defend, when it was dealt a body blow by the stupidity of the Boer War.

The alternative empires

The grossest, the most obvious defence of the British Empire is – Look at the alternatives. Empire critics tend to base arguments on the notion that, if the British hadn’t arrived, the ‘native’ red Indians, or Indians or Africans or Maoris or Aborigenes would have continued living their environmentally-friendly, spiritual lives. But no they wouldn’t have. They would have been colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or God forbid, the Belgians or Germans. And, after the Great War, in the 1930s, the new empires were the totalitarian ones of the Japanese, the Russians and the Nazis. Without a shadow of a doubt, much much worse.

The Soviet Union, the Nazis, the fascist Japanese did not emphasise the rule of law, did not have powerful parties at home holding the Imperialists to account. Critics of their totalitarian policies were shot. Opponents in colonised countries were shot. Anyone complaining about British rule in the 1930s should spend a few minutes reading about the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the way Germany behaved in its new East European colonies after 1939.

The economic end of empire

Ferguson is perhaps deliberately controversial, when he asserts that what ended the British Empire wasn’t the various rag-tag nationalist movements which agitated in their countries (Sinn Fein, the Indian Congress, Mau Mau) it was that in a few short years Britain comprehensively bankrupted itself fighting off other empires which were significantly worse, undoubtedly evil.

He gives pages of figures showing the collapse of Britain’s economy in the 20th century, begun in the Great War and ruined in the second. We were only able to continue fighting after 1940 because of huge American loans. Whatever the military or diplomatic facade, the baton for policing the world and combating evil empires had been handed on to America, an America reluctant to take on the role.

How the British made the modern world

Despite listing the things the British Empire gave to the 25% of the world it governed, I thought the book didn’t really address its subtitle, ‘How the British made the modern world’. In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Ferguson repeats the roll call listed above, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as showing how Britain made the modern world. All kinds of other things made the modern world as well. Oil. Coffee. Cars. Airplanes. Computers. Some Brits might have had a hand in some of them, but so did Germans, French, Americans.

Instead, the lion’s share of the text is taken up with a fairly traditional narrative of the key events in the Empire’s history, with a kind of running economic commentary. Insofar as it is a chronological narrative, it covers an awful lot of familiar ground, albeit littered with entertaining stories and stunning stats. So we get:

  • The early years, the Elizabethan settlements in Ireland and America.
  • A history of the East India Company as it takes over pieces of India piecemeal, fights off the French, in the 1700s, develops its own army.
  • The Slave Trade: the triangle of trade taking slaves to Africa, sugar from the Caribbean to Britain, then gewgaws to buy more slaves back in West Africa, from the 1600s until  the rise of the Evangelical anti-Slavery movement in the 1790s.
  • As we move into the Victorian era, the narrative thickens, becomes slower and more detailed, as:
    • Britain invents loads of stuff, better maps, theodolites, the steamship, the steam engine, iron, coking coal, factories, the telegraph – and sends explorers deeper into Africa.
    • The Indian Mutiny (1856) transforms Imperial power in India from its old relaxed amateurish basis, onto a more formal, hierarchical affair.
  • And thickens further in the era of High Imperialism from the 1880s onwards, as we fought small wars all across Africa and northern India – the era of the Great Game, Kipling, Pomp and Circumstance etc etc.
  • Then the twin catastrophes of the Boer War which sowed the seeds of doubt about the morality of the whole thing, and then the catastrophe of the Great War.
  • The odd twilight between the wars when we still had an Empire, in fact it reached its widest geographical extent, but somehow nobody took it seriously any more, except pompous administrators collecting gongs.
  • And then the hurried decolonisation between 1947 and the 1960s, marred by last-minute crackdowns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Kenya.

An over-familiar story?

A lot if not all of this is familiar from other books I’ve read, like Robert Hughes’ harrowing history of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1986), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble For Africa (1991), Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), The Crisis of Imperialism by Richard Shannon (1974), Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–78), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987).

Like these predecessors Ferguson takes this well-worn story and tries to make it new by studding it with telling anecdotes or accounts of significant figures, garnished by sections on the economics of imperial trade or slavery or the East India Company etc. These economic sections, frequent though they are, somehow don’t have the same impact. A graph about, say, English net migration 1601-1801, while mildly interesting, has little or no impact compared to the 40 or more pages he devotes to a long biographical sketch of David Livingstone, from his impoverished childhood, through his training as a doctor and missionary, and then a thorough account of his adult explorations. Or the long account of Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon, seen as epitomising the cultural moment of high Imperial pomp in India.

Imperial legacy?

In this book and in the Tate Britain exhibition about Artist and Empire I went to recently, I read that the legacy of Empire is ‘all around us’. Hmm. I don’t really agree. My daily commute to Clapham Common, travelling by Tube to Old Street, walking through dirty streets to a 1970s concrete tower block where I work for part of the NHS – not much of that strikes me as a legacy of the British Empire. It all happens to take place in the capital city of the same country, but none of those things were created by or for the British Empire. (Indeed, Ferguson points out that the cost of the NHS and the new welfare state, created after the Second World War, was one of the reasons running an empire became unaffordable.)

To me the most obvious and by far the most important legacy of the British Empire is America. America is the world’s superpower. We founded it, gave it its language, religion and political ideals, and then it grew up and went its own way.

The next most important thing we gave the world was the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron and steam power, railways, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, preparing the way for the oil economy – cars, airplanes and computers. These are the real and immediate physical and technological presences in the life of me and most Londoners. The fact that Indians have parliamentary democracy or Ghana’s judges wear British wigs or Australians play cricket are nice aspects of the world, but as irrelevant to me as the statues of all the generals and viceroys who line Whitehall.

Grace notes

In such a densely researched account, packed with stories, quotes, biographical accounts, facts and figures about such a vast undertaking over such a long period, a number of thoughts stood out, things I never knew or had forgotten, twists or turns in the familiar story:

  • The composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, became a slaving captain after his born-again religious conversion.
  • Obviously I knew about David Livingstone: I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Livingstone’s explorations were based on an economic theory ie mid-Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Livingstone was a life-long opponent of slavery but he completely failed to make Christian converts among the Africans he visited or to persuade the African and Arab slavers to cease trading. Therefore, he switched his activities to a messianic mission to ‘open up’ Africa, to carve trade routes into deepest Africa, in the belief that, once British traders and businesses could be persuaded to set up trading posts, to start to grow coffee or cotton or whatever in the areas he opened up, free trade would kill off the slave trade. It would simply become more profitable to let Africans do honest labour in their own regions and rake in a profit, than to capture them and drag them down to Zanzibar in chains.
  • By the 1830s and 1840s 40% of the total value of Indian exports took the form of opium. The fact of the Opium Wars against China in which we stole Shanghai and Hong Kong never ceases to amaze me.
  • The very Evangelical Christians who powered the anti-slavery cause and successfully abolished the slave trade, then set their sights on converting the heathen in India, but the rapid growth of missionary societies and missionaries in the field trying to convert Hindus and Muslims was to have a disastrous result. Ferguson says that one of the main contributory factors of the Indian Mutiny was that the soldiers of the Indian Army felt their religion was under threat from the floods of missionaries.
  • The Indian Army was a vital support of the Empire. By the 1880s 62% of all the soldiers of the Queen were Indian. In autumn 1914 about a third of British forces in Flanders were from India. By the war’s end a million Indians had served, as much as the four white Dominions put together.

The Channel 4 TV series

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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