The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’. They are short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and (especially) the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States, causing outrage.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos on each other and the Americans, to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were policed more effectively because of the strength of the Royal Navy – the 1811 bans on the export of American salted fish hit the Yanks particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost America

There were other reasons too.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them to repel American incomers. A key moment was when American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811. War felt inevitable to both sides.

Manifest Destiny Many Americans thought that their nation had God-given destiny to control the entire North American continent. This vision and policy were named Manifest Destiny. Hawkish American expansionists hoped that another war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought that only God himself could set natural bounds to America, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently been president (1801-1809), declared that, if there was war, the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax (on the Canadian coast) in year two, and soon afterwards clear the Brits out of the continent altogether. Hooray.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation of West Florida in 1810. But the war party thought that they could use any conflict with Britain to consolidate their control in the region. In the event, the Florida theatre of the war was to be most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British did manage to take some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819, well after the war had ended, America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election President Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain in the preceding years, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He had served one term as president and was up for re-election in 1812. Declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event, Madison received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November of 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

And nobody expected the Americans to quite so useless. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated by the Brits.

But the Americans didn’t give up and there followed a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. British territory lining the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, and that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this ended up being handed back at the 1815 peace treaty. Hardly driving the British from the continent.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that:

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further American losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) did win the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit.

American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. He was killed in the Battle of the Thames and with his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many Indians had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

The war followed the same pattern in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels. This causes both sides inconvenience, the seizures sometimes escalating to combat and associated deaths of merchant mariners.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire American seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted from $114 million in 1811 to just $20 million in 1814.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Advancing up the River Potomac, Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into the young nation’s capital city, Washington D.C., where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the nearby port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

The British then tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised for these attacks by the opposition in Parliament, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for:

a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground
b) the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813
c) the Americans started the war

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans but the city was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president, 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British had made concessions on the trade embargos before America even declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon which delayed things, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this respect the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border between America and Canada, a border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914, and then in 1939, Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of press-ganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a Great Victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it – ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry – on September 14, 1814.

The poem was quickly set to the pre-existing tune of a popular British song of the day, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.

Summary

The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t enough space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them include several 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – this one has a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto), John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (and it is a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts – in the case of the War of 1812 a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

‘Very tall, heavily built, like a real brawler. He’s in his late thirties or early forties. Short fair hair, blue eyes.’ (Patti Joseph’s description of Reacher, p.91)

You remember the way episodes of Friends were titled ‘The one with…’ and then specified the core element of that week’s show. You can do the same with the 22 Jack Reacher novels. This is the one where Jack is hired to solve a kidnapping, which turns out to be much more complicated than it seems, and takes him from the streets of New York to a farm in Norfolk.

The café He is sitting in a café in New York when he sees a guy cross the street, get into a Merc and drive off. Nothing special in that. Next morning he’s at the same café when he’s approached by a tough-looking man and persuaded to come with him to meet his boss, Mr Lane. Turns out Mr Lane’s wife has been kidnapped, the kidnappers demanded a million in cash to be left in a car at that location. Lane agreed, had one of his people fill a bag with a million, put it in the boot of the car and drive it to the arranged drop zone. This was the car which Reacher had watched the kidnapper cross the street, get into and drive away. Without knowing it or intending to be, Reacher is a key witness.

The mercenaries Reacher tells them what he knows. ‘Them’? Yes, Lane runs a group of mercenaries (‘a private military corporation’, p.450) tough ex-Army, ex-Marines, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS etc. In fact, Reacher analyses their plight so logically and compellingly that Lane hires him on the spot to be a consultant to help manage the situation.

But there is, of course, more to the situation than meets the eye. It takes about 450 pages for Reacher to nail the real story, pages during which he, as usual:

  • acquires a small circle of helpers and supporters
  • who just happen to have privileged access to FBI/Army/Homeland Security sources
  • and manages to wangle financial backing to pay for the endless taxis and trains and planes he needs to take

Not the first time Firstly, it turns out this is the second time a Lane wife has been kidnapped. His first wife, Anne, was kidnapped five years earlier and, although Lane paid the ransom, was found shot dead in New Jersey.

The Dakota Building Reacher quickly discovers that some people suspect the first kidnap was a front, a put-up job. Lane’s base is the famous Dakota Building, next to Central Park, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot (Yoko Ono and her bodyguards make a small appearance in the book, walking past Reacher in the lobby).

Patti Joseph Outside the building he is approached by the first wife’s sister, Patti. She is convinced the first kidnap was a sham, and that Lane had her sister murdered. As the book progresses Reacher uncovers the evidence to prove this is true. He discovers that Lane had instructed a member of his inner circle, Knight, who usually drove his wife around, to return to base and tell everyone he’d dropped her off shopping as usual – but in fact to take her out to New Jersey and shoot her. Then paid someone to fake the ransom calls.

Lane had his first wife murdered Why? The first Mrs Lane had come to realise that Lane was a psychopath, and had told him she wanted to leave him. Which hurt his ego so much he had her eliminated. Although Knight – who knew all this – was loyal to his boss, on the mercenaries’ next job – to defend the government of Burkina Faso in Africa, from rebels – Lane contrived a situation whereby he ordered Knight and his best friend among the mercenaries, Hobart, to hold a forward post against the advancing army. Lane then ordered his main force to retreat, abandoning Knight and Hobart to the African rebel soldiers. The aim was to ensure that Knight was killed and along with him the evidence of his wife’s murder. Hobart was just collateral damage.

Detective Brewer The first wife’s sister, Patti Joseph, tells Reacher all this. She has been keeping a close watch on the Dakota Building for years, photographing who goes in and out, keeping a log of the movements of all of Lane’s central circle of mercs, for years. Is that obsessive or is she onto something? She phones in her results to a NYPD detective named Brewer. When Reacher meets Brewer the latter admits that he humours Patti, partly because something might come of her efforts, mostly because she’s a pretty chick.

FBI agent Pauling Turns out that Brewer passes on Patti’s observations to a third party, Lauren Pauling, an ex-FBI agent who was part of the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed. She is still interested in the case because she hopes evidence will surface to prove that it was Lane who killed the first wife, and not the kidnappers who did it, because that would get the FBI and the cops off the hook for bungling the case.

So who is carrying out the current kidnapping, five years later, of the second Mrs Lane, Kate Lane, a tall, slender, blonde, beautiful model, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Jade (also ‘a truly beautiful child’, p.424)?

Pauling becomes Reacher’s sidekick Reacher develops a close working relationship with Pauling, now a freelance investigator. She has a useful contact in the Homeland Security administration (they always do). Pauling becomes the person Reacher bounces his theories and ideas off, and who accompanies him on his investigations around New York.

Investigations They investigate the house where the kidnapper insisted the keys to each of the cars containing ransom money be dropped through the letterbox. It turns out to be empty. After clever detective work the pair track down the apartment the kidnapper used to oversee the dropping off place for the ransoms. They then manage to locate the apartment where Kate and Jade were kept hostage – though it’s now empty.

The man who doesn’t speak For a long middle stretch of the book, based on eye-witness accounts of neighbours and people who sold the kidnapper bits of furniture, they establish his appearance (non-descript white male) but the standout fact is that he never talks. From several hints they develop the theory that the kidnapper can’t talk and from descriptions of what’s happened to other white mercenaries captures in Africa, they speculate this may be because his tongue was cut out by the rebels.

Africa They think the kidnapper was one of the two men Lane abandoned in Burkina Faso – Hobart or Knight. Using Pauling’s contacts in Homeland Security to identify people who’ve flown back from Africa recently, and then another contact with access to all kinds of security databases, they track down the apartment of Hobart’s sister, which turns out to be conveniently close to the café and to the ransom-money-dropping-off point in Downtown Manhattan.

There’s a very tense moment when they break into the shabby apartment building where Hobart’s sister lives, and climb the squeaking stairs, at pains to be silent in case the kidnapper they’re seeking hears them, and has time to harm or shoot his hostages, Kate and Jade.

Hobart So the reader is surprised and shocked when they kick open the apartment door and find …. a washed-out shabby woman, Hobart’s sister, making soup, and that Hobart himself is a limbless cripple propped up on the sofa.

It is Hobart, he was a member of Lane’s mercenary gang, he was abandoned by Lane, he was captured by the rebel African soldiers. He was held captive for five long years during which he barely survived the starvation and disease and, once a year, they brought him and other prisoners out of their cells into an arena of baying warriors, and asked whether they wanted their left hand, right hand, left foot, or right foot to be hacked off with a machete – and whether they then wanted the stump seared in boiling tar, or left to bleed out.

Which explains why Hobart is in his pitiful state, without feet or hands, a wretched withered stump of a man. Hobart is clearly not the kidnapper, or the man who rented the apartments or who Reacher saw drive away the ransom car right at the start.

But he does confirm that his fellow merc and prisoner, Knight, did carry out the execution of Lane’s first wife, under Lane’s instructions, then helped the fiction that it was a kidnap. So that part of Patti’s story is correct.

Reacher and Pauling have sex Later that night, Pauling expresses to Reacher what a vast relief it is to her, to have confirmed that it was not her professional screw-up which had led to the first wife’s death. The wife was dead before the FBI was even contacted. To celebrate, she and Reacher have his usual athletic, fighting-with-a-bear, championship sex.

She is now his lover, as well as his close associate in the investigation.

The Taylor theory The book sprinkles more dead ends and deliberate false trails for Reacher (and the reader) to work through -, but the main focus of their investigation now shifts to Taylor. This man was in Lane’s inner circle of mercenaries, and was the guy who drove Kate Lane to Bloomingdale’s on the day of the kidnapping. The assumption had been that he was killed almost immediately by someone who got into the stationary car and pointed a gun at the women, forced Taylor to drive wherever they wanted him to go and then killed him.

Child has planted this false version of events in our minds by having Reacher ask not one but two of Lane’s mercs to speculate how they think the kidnapping went down, and both think it happened like that. This version of events had also been confirmed when Pauling’s cop contact, Brewer, told her that the body of a white man had been found floating off a dock in mid-town Manhattan.

Now Pauling and Reacher revisit this story and the first thing they establish is that the ‘floater’ is not Taylor. Wrong height to begin with. Taylor is still alive.

So now Pauling and Reacher develop the theory that Kate and Jade were kidnapped by a disgruntled member of Lane’s inner circle, Taylor, the very driver entrusted with their safety. He pulled out a gun, told her and Jade to shut up, drove them to a safe house, tied them up, made the ransom phone calls and picked up the money. Taylor will have needed an associate, so Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time thinking through who that could be.

Reacher and Lane In case I haven’t made it clear, all this time – throughout this entire process – Reacher is still nominally under contract to Lane to find the kidnappers. At that first meeting in the Dakota Building, Lane offered Reacher a payment of $25,000 to find Kate and the kidnapper. Reacher is free to go off and roam the city, make his own investigations, contact whoever he likes – but periodically he has to go back to Lane’s apartment, filled with half a dozen surly mercs, and update the boss on progress.

Thus Reacher is sitting with the others when the ransom demand phone calls come through to Len’s apartment. He sits with the others when the second call comes through asking for confirmation that Lane has the cash, and then giving details of the pickup. And then he sits in suspense with the others waiting for a confirmation call that the money has been received, and – hopefully – that Kate is going to be released.

The character of Lane and the mercs Since the kidnapper ends up calling for three separate payments, there are three of these very tense scenes. They also gives Reacher plenty of time to get to know Lane, to witness his psychotic rages, and to see the hold he has over the other mercs. These are strong, well-trained men but each of them, in fact, was a failure in the military, in various ways in need of being led, and prepared to do anything for The Boss.

When there is no call-back after the third and final payment is made, Reacher along with the others begins to fear the worst. That the kidnapper has killed the girls and fled. Child reiterates this idea again and again, having Reacher emphasise that, in his experience, the majority of kidnappings end in the murder of the victims, and that the first 24 hours are key. Every hour after that increases the likelihood of failure.

A bounty on Taylor As the truth sinks in that the girls are probably dead, Lane increases the bounty he will pay Reacher to $1 million. Since he has kept Lane informed of his investigations up to the dismissal of Knight and Hobart as suspects, Lane, Reacher, Pauling and the reader all now think the kidnapping was carried out by Taylor the driver, who faked his own death, held the women hostage in Downtown Manhattan, collected the money three times, killed them, and has now absconded.

Reacher now clicks into Revenge Mode. He knows Lane is a louse, a psychopath who probably had his first wife murdered and abandoned his men to terrible fates in Africa. So he’s not doing it for Lane. He vows to track down Taylor for the sake of the women, for Kate and Jade. In the apartment they have now identified as Taylor’s, which they found empty and abandoned, Reacher noticed one of the speed dial phone numbers was to a number in Britain. He guesses it’s of a close relative.

The novel moves to England

All this has taken about 350 pages. For the last 150 pages of the novel the setting switches to England, for 20 or so pages to London, but then on to rural Norfolk, where Pauling and Reacher track Taylor down to his sister’s farm.

We know that Child – real name James Grant – is himself English. We know that he lives in New York, so we can guess that the extremely detailed descriptions of Reacher and Pauling’s investigative walks around Downtown Manhattan reflect Child’s own detailed knowledge of the area.

It adds a different, not exactly literary but psychological element – maybe a hint of tongue-in-cheek – to the English section of the book, to know that Child is himself English, but pretending to write as an American. So every description in this section is written by an Englishman masquerading as an American writing about a fictional American trying to pretend to fit in with the local Brits.

Thus Child’s description of Reacher walking into a rural pub in Norfolk is layered with ironies, as the Englishman Child imagines what it would be like for an American like Reacher to walk into a pub, and then to try and remember his own (Reacher’s own) days in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in England. All this results in Reacher ordering ‘a pint of best’ while his New York colleague and lover, Pauling, is made to point out all the quaint quirks and oddities of English life.

(The two most notable of these are that a) all the streets are absolutely festooned with signs and painted symbols giving instructions about every element of your driving, ‘the nanny state in action’ and b) London is a vast octopus extending its tendrils into the country for miles and miles, making it impossible to get into or out of at any speed. Both true enough.)

Reacher has been promised $1 million if he can deliver Taylor to Lane. Through British police contacts Reacher and Pauling track down Taylor, confirming he took a flight from New York JFK, arrived at Heathrow and then – using a different line of investigation – establish the whereabouts of his sister.

How? Using the speed dial phone number Reacher had noticed in Taylor’s New York apartment. This locates Taylor’s sister to a farm in Norfolk. Reacher and Pauling hire a car and drive there, locate the village, and the farm, and park in the early morning with binoculars, waiting for Taylor, his sister, her husband and little girl to exit the farmhouse, which they conveniently do a few hours later.

Reacher had already alerted Lane that he has confirmed that Taylor is in England, and so Lane and his crew are en route on a transatlantic flight. Sighting and identity confirmed, Reacher and Pauling drive back to London to meet Lane and his goons in the Park Lane hotel.

Lane doesn’t just want to kill Taylor. He explains how he is going to torture him slowly to death. Reacher is revolted by the psychopath, as ever. A few seats away in the lobby of the hotel, a mother is trying to quiet down her restless squabbling kids. One of them throws an old doll at her brother, which misses and skids across the floor, hitting Reacher’s foot. He looks down at it and has a blinding revelation.

The twist

In a flash Reacher realises what has been wrong with the investigation all along. In a blinding moment he realises he has made a seismic error of judgement and that his entire understanding of the case is not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Why? What vital clues have he and Pauling (and the reader) missed in the last 400 pages? What can it be which totally transforms the situation? Why does he excuse himself from Lane for a moment, walk as if to the toilets, but instead hurtle down into the underground car park, call Pauling to meet him, jump into the hire car, and then drive like a maniac all the way back to Norfolk?

What is the real secret behind the kidnapping of Kate and Jade Lane?

That would be telling. It’s an expertly constructed book with many twists and false trails, tense moments, and sudden surprises. I read it in a day. Take it on your next long train or plane trip or to read by a pool. It is gripping, intelligent and – in much of its factual research (about mercenaries, about the coup in Africa) informative.


Credit

All quotes from the 2011 paperback edition of The Hard Way by Lee Child, first published in 2006 by Bantam Press.

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable tour through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. At this first exhibition, thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that first mentioned the word ‘impressionist’, a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to how and why the scandal was caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds after the generally harsh reviews, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed by the press to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down.

When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the Albert Wolff (himself an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels). Roe quotes it at magnificently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said, I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book describes how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s own troubled household in 1877. What a household it must have been!

And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, would end up falling in love with Monet. It appears to have taken all parties several years to realise what was happening, and caused Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to leave Ernest and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891, whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone was wary of surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of ‘the blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised by the energy and commitment of Degas to the cause. He made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues about thier content or timing. It was news to me that he took a five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses over there. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists whose ambitions were blocked or stymied by an all-male establishment.

In relation to point a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art which tends to foreground heroic men, to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, but they all show her as fully clothed, deploying a very imperious, commanding gaze of her own. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

As to point b), it’s a relief to read how generally pro-women artists the Impressionists were. Degas went out of his way to make sure that Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows and gave them the opportunity to hang their own works. Indeed, Cassatt and Morisot (both independently well-off women) played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, for example the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the risqué bathing suits (p.134). I noticed the boobs thing on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead, very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of gossip about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history – the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks (which seemed to drag on for decades) sharply contrasted with the bohemian atmosphere around the hill of Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes, its slum shacks packed with vagrants, poor workers, circus performers and impecunious artists.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics.

Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (mentioned above), although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled. He managed to father seven children by his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid, who he had married in 1871. Roe quotes from her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

Through all these woes, it really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and the book is littered with quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return.

It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctively narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the fifth Impressionist exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit. Wow.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studded with good anecdotes. Here are a few sample:

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

One afternoon Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops, along which lie the villages where the Impressionists rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenery. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere, and their relationship with the ever-changing street map of Hausmann’s Paris.

I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. This book would be a handy resource if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement.

American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters. Looking these up on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early, wonderful depiction of Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves (and many of their critics agreed) as painting the (often pretty rough and lowlife) reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light, lost age of innocence.


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The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006)

Franco did not so much win the war: the republican commanders, with the odds already stacked heavily against them, squandered the courage and sacrifice of their troops and lost it. (p.476)

This is a wonderfully sensible, thorough, intelligent and powerful history of the Spanish Civil War.

The war started on 17 July 1936 when the Spanish Army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected Republican government. The coup, although carefully planned and co-ordinated between units of the Spanish Army in Spain’s colony in Morocco and on the mainland, managed to seize key towns and areas across western Spain but failed in its bid to swiftly overthrow the government. Instead republican forces, spearheaded by socialist and anarchist trade unions, seized villages, towns and cities in central and eastern Spain, including the capital Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s second city, and capital of the separatist region of Catalonia.

Both parts of divided Spain then undertook a quick holocaust of enemy supporters, the nationalist army executing large numbers of ‘reds’ and trade unionists in their territory, the ‘republicans’ doing the same in their parts. Beevor analyses these numbers in some detail and hesitantly concludes that the nationalists ending up killing as many as ten times the number as the republicans, especially when you factor in that the execution of ‘reds’, trade unionists and anyone who opposed them continued long after the war finished on 1 April 1939, continued through the Second World War (in which Spain was neutral) and right up to the death of General Franco in 1975. Possibly as many as 200,000 Spaniards were killed by Franco’s forces in non-military executions, suicides, tortures to death and so on (p.450).

Meanwhile nationalist propaganda exaggerated and invented republican atrocities, quickly putting out stories about churches being burned to the ground (often true since the Catholic church was seen as the number one defender of the entrenched, exploitative, landowning aristocracy), priests being murdered (true in some numbers, apparently) and nuns systematically raped (this story, though salaciously retailed across the world’s media, appears never to have happened).

By the winter of 1936 battle lines had hardened across a divided Spain (the book has plenty of maps showing the general battle lines and detailed maps of specific battles) and both sides settled in for what looked like becoming a protracted war.

At this point Beevor’s account tends to alternate between detailed accounts of specific (bloody) battles, analyses of the complicated internal politics on both the nationalist and republican sides, and explanations of how the war was internationalised.

1. International war

Immediately the two Fascist dictators in Europe, Hitler and Mussolini, grasped the significance of the war and saw ways to exploit it. Mussolini sent airplanes and pilots and his fleet patrolled the Mediterranean coast of Spain to prevent arms getting to the republican east of the country. He wanted to crush communism in Spain, establish a western ally, and assert the Italian navy’s power in the Mediterranean. Hitler shared the same motives and was in addition delighted at the opportunity to give his Luftwaffe and army real war experience, in advance of his plans for conquest in Europe. German military advisors, and especially the notorious Condor Legion of planes and pilots, gave the nationalist invaluable help. It was the Condor Legion which carpet bombed Guernica, capital of the Basque country in the north, on 26 April 1937, and machine gunned men, women and children fleeing from the burning city.

The legitimate republican government appealed to the western democracies, namely Britain, France and America but – and this makes shameful reading – Britain, terrified of both Hitler and Stalin, led the way in creating the spurious and one-sided ‘Non-Intervention Committee’, arranging with the French and Americans not to supply arms or support to either side, so long as the Axis powers didn’t either. This deprived the republican government of much needed weapons and material, and the British stuck to their non-intervention, even when documentary proof was presented showing without doubt the huge amounts of aid the nationalists were receiving from Germany and Italy.

Worse, Beevor shows (in chapter 13 ‘Arms and the diplomats’) that there were many active fascist-sympathisers at the highest levels of the American and British governments and that, although the majority of the populations of both countries supported the republicans, key leaders in business and politics were both mortally afraid of a socialist/communist victory and actively sympathised with the nationalists’ aims of re-establishing order and religion. Credit, oil and business facilities were made available to the nationalists. In fact, Beevor quotes a Spanish diplomat who claimed, after the war, that

‘without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the civil war.’ (quoted page 155)

Worst of all, the hypocritical refusal of the democracies to help a fellow democracy, forced the Spanish government into total reliance on aid from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which certainly sent tanks and airplanes, along with drivers, pilots and military advisors – but the price of this aid was submission to the communist way of doing things, planting commissars and secret police into every unit of the ramshackle popular army and the anarchist and socialist militias.

2. The battles

In the entire war the republicans only won one major engagement. In every other military engagement they were hamstrung by lack of arms, ammunition, lack of experience and training, lack of discipline and coherence across a hodge-podge of different forces but probably, as Beevor shows in harrowing detail, appalling military incompetence and terrible decision-making. In the second half of the war republican military decisions tended to be made on the basis of what would provide big, propaganda-friendly victories, largely at the command of the Soviet Union and its military advisors.

But Beevor shows how the war coincided with the height of Stalin’s paranoia, which was finding expression in the series of show trials taking place in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, in which hundreds of old Bolsheviks, having been tortured into submission, were forced to admit that they were anti-Soviet spies, tools of international imperialism, or Trotskyite saboteurs and so on. Partly these were a way of focusing the attention of the Soviet public away from the very obvious failures of Soviet economic policy such as the disastrous famine in the Ukraine in 1933 and the ongoing food shortages and lack of goods. Partly it was an almost medieval response to the failure of the Soviet experiment which had an almost medieval aspect – if there’s a famine, blame the witches or the Jews, and burn them. Partly Stalin was clinically paranoid and believed there were endless conspiracies against him.

A vital element of the general madness was that the Red Army had in the 1930s under the innovatory General Mikhail Tukhachevsky been developing a new modern way of fighting which integrated fast-moving tank forces, supported by airplane attacks and accompanied by well-organised infantry. As part of his mad purges of the Red Army Stalin had Tukhachevsky and everyone who propounded these new theories executed, and labelled the whole approach Trotskyist deviationism etc.

In fact Tukhachevsky was developing the same Blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving co-ordinated attacks which Hitler was to use to such effect in the Second World War. But his execution led to all thinking in that direction being banned, and Soviet military advisors fell back on the old, tried and completely discredited tactics of the Great War – big set piece battles where 19th century artillery barrages softened up the enemy before floods of infantry advanced over no man’s land to be slaughtered in their thousands.

Tragically, because the Western democracies effectively abandoned republican Spain, these discredited tactics along with the paranoia, the universal presence of the secret police who arrested huge numbers and carted them off for interrogation, torture and execution, were imported lock, stock and two smoking barrels into the republican forces.

The result was that the Soviet advisors again and again bullied the republicans into launching unnecessary and grandiose set-piece battles (in a bid to win glory and curry favour with Moscow) using out-of-date tactics, which the hodge-podge of republican forces were badly-suited to carrying out (because they required immaculate military precision) and in which they were invariably slaughtered in wave after wave of futile head-on attacks. Thus the massive defeats at the battles of Brunete and the Ebro.

And when wretched defeat and withdrawal (often simple routs when the bloodied survivors turned tail and ran) inevitably occurred, the commissars and Soviet advisors and NKVD secret police all blamed the defeat on Trotskyite traitors, fifth columnists, saboteurs etc and intensified their persecution of their own side.

Beevor gives scores of examples of the political commissars just lining up surviving troops and shooting a set number (in the back of the head) in punishment for their ‘cowardice’ i.e. their refusal to follow obviously incompetent and suicidal orders.

Beevor points out several times that the best way to use the scattered, less organised and badly equipped republican army would have been to mount an organised defence of existing republican territory while despatching large numbers of guerrilla fighters to harass and wear down nationalist forces from the sides and rear. This more unconventional approach might have kept the situation in a stalemate until the general European war – which everyone was expecting – broke out and the republican side could have hoped for a change in the position of Britain, France and America to open support.

3. Internal politics

Alongside the lack of international support, probably the key factor for the republican side was how splintered it was. Beevor spends a lot of time clearly explaining the nature and aims of the different factions. In fact the first fifty or so pages give a history of Spain from the Napoleonic Wars onwards which show how the fundamental divide between Catholic, landowning, aristocratic Spain grew apart from urban, working class, often atheist Spain, increasingly influenced by new socialist ideals crossing the Pyrenees from France and then, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, from Russia. The three years from 1918 to 1920 saw a wave of political strife in the Asturias and Catalonia which became known as the ‘three years of bolshevism’ (p.17) In 1932 the army in the form of General Sanjurjo tried to stage a coup against the republican government, but it was poorly planned, led to massive strikes by the left and was easily quashed.

A strike of Asturian miners in October 1934 quickly spread across northern Spain, turning into a general strike and then an attempt at the revolutionary government. The most intense political mobilisation took place in Catalonia and its capital Barcelona and led to street fighting, before being crushed by 19 October.

The nationalists, the army, the upper classes and the small fascist groups all feared that another attempt at revolution was just a question of time and it was this fear which lay behind the army coup of August 1936.

But in fact the republican side was hopelessly divided. There were regional differences, with both Catalonia and the Basque country thinking that the war would lead to their independence, while conservative socialist groupings in the central government wanted to resist any such independence.

And then the left was amazingly divided, between socialists, who had their own trade unionists, anarchists ditto, an initially small communist party, the larger liberal parties representing the middle classes, and a wide variety of colourful splinter groups, as well as various parties in the would-be independent nations of Basque and Catalonia.

Trying to reconcile the widely divergent aspirations of all these groups was probably impossible right from the start, but it was fatally injured by something which George Orwell and other foreign visitors realised straightaway: which is that the army coup didn’t just prompt the socialists and anarchists to rise up to defend the essentially bourgeois government; it triggered the very social revolution they feared. The anarchists of Catalonia were the fiercest revolutionaries and they burned down churches, abolished bourgeois forms and terminology in the towns (no more senor and senorita, no more ties and posh hats) and in the countryside instituted a wide-ranging policy of forming workers’ collectives. All this had been tried and planned for some time and happened very quickly.

But meanwhile the central government contained bourgeois liberal elements who were terrified of this revolution and sought in countless ways to undermine and defeat it.

The situation would have been complicated enough, without the heavy-handed intervention of the Soviet Union. The main thrust of George Orwell’s classic account of his time spent as a volunteer fighting on the republican side was that he saw at close quarters the surprising fact that Stalin’s communist party formed a reactionary element in this mix. This is easily enough to explain but devastating in its implications:

The struggle between two of the founding Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Trotsky in the late 1920s, was that Stalin was convinced the new communist state must consolidate its existence and pursue ‘socialism in one country’. Trotsky, in contrast, advocated permanent and global revolution, arguing that one communist nation just couldn’t exist when surrounded by a sea of capitalist opponents. Trotsky lost the argument, he and his followers fled Russia, in Trotsky’s case to Mexico, where he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin became (justifiably) concerned about the spread of overtly anti-communist Fascism in Europe, with Fascist governments in Germany and Italy and authoritarian government in East European countries like Romania and Poland. Given this line-up of ideologically opposed and militarily strong enemies, Stalin realised he needed to cultivate friends wherever he could find them and so pursued a policy of friendship with France and as much friendship as he could muster with Britain. If it came to war, he would need them as allies (as indeed happened). Therefore Stalin did NOT want there to be a successful communist revolution in Spain; that’s the last thing he wanted, as it would terrify France and Britain to have a revolution on their doorstep, push them away from Russia and towards the Axis powers. Therefore Stalin used his centralised organs of state, the Communist International (the Comintern), his military advisors, the political commissars, his ambassadors and the NKVD secret police, to all promulgate the Party line that Spain was NOT ready for a proletarian revolution but must work unite in a ‘Popular Front’, a broad alliance of all left-of-centre parties to oppose Fascism. (The same line being peddled by the Stalin-controlled communist party in France.)

It took some time for the idealistic workers and peasants of Spain, for the anarchist and socialist politicians, activists and trade unions, and for the tens of thousands of volunteers who came from across Europe and America to fight for liberty and revolution etc, to grasp the fact that the full weight of Stalin’s communist machine was aligned against them. Sure, the party kept on spouting communist slogans but, on the ground, it worked tirelessly to seize control of the key ministries, to outflank Spanish politicians, taking every opportunity to suppress the genuinely revolutionary anarchist movement.

The repression of genuine revolutionary spirit took a step forward when the nine or so security and counter-intelligence agencies on the republican side were consolidated into the Servicio de Investigacion Militar or S.I.M. which quickly came under the control of the communists and carried out the latest Soviet tactics i.e. setting up secret prisons in Madrid and Barcelona, arbitrary late-night arrests of suspects who were then tortured using beatings, mock executions, disorientation and sensory-deprivation techniques. (p.340)

From this perspective, the history of the war is the story of the relentless rise to power, on the back of threats, violence, torture, secret police and also thanks to the being the only viable source of invaluable planes, tanks and munitions – of the anti-revolutionary communist party.

But although he was good at gaining power, Stalin was far from being all-wise, as his track record in the USSR showed. Just as his policy of forced collectivisation led to mass starvation in the Ukraine and elsewhere across the one-time bread baskets of Russia, so the implementation of anti-revolutionary repression in Spain had counter-productive effects. Not only did communist advisors force the republican army into wrong-headed tactics (as explained above), but the stranglehold of communist policy and terror had the effect of demoralising the huge numbers of socialists and anarchists who formed the backbone of the militias which originally formed so enthusiastically to combat the coup back in August 1936.

Thus morale plummeted as military defeat was followed by communist witch hunts, tortures, imprisonments and executions. Scattered mutinies were put down with mass executions. Volunteers from abroad found they couldn’t return to their home countries, anyone who tried was executed. In fact, the Soviets implemented far and wide the only way they knew how to run anything which was to execute anyone who opposed them or might oppose them or gave voice to any criticism of them. Or just anyone they didn’t like.

This parlous plight was well established by late 1937 and only got worse as the war lumbered into 1938, via the catastrophic battle of Teruel (December 15, 1937 – February 22, 1938) a strategically unimportant town which saw ferocious street fighting in sub-zero temperatures during which the place changed hands several times. The eventual loss of Teruel, with the loss of over 60,000 men, permanently undermined republican morale.

There was still a lot more fighting to go but, psychologically, many republicans of all stripes had given up; many leftists were horrified and disillusioned at witnessing Stalinist lies, violence, torture and pointless executions from close up. Beevor describes how this loss of morale led to defeatism even at the highest levels – from the spring of 1938 the republican minister of war Indalecio Prieto began telling all his colleagues the war was lost; and Beevor details the futile attempts of the Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, to formulate negotiating positions for a peace settlement. None of the republicans realised that Franco didn’t want peace. He wanted complete, unconditional, crushing victory.

After the terrible Battle of Teruel over Christmas 1937-8, the next main military event was the nationalists’ storming campaign through Aragon which brought them to the Mediterranean sea, cutting Catalonia off from the rest of republican Spain, in March-April 1938. Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona, was now isolated.

Beevor then hangs his head and describes the republican effort to score a big propaganda victory by launching the Battle of the Ebro, which lasted 113 days from July to November 1938, a mad folly which led to the virtual obliteration of the popular army amid the usual round of recriminations.

To attack a sector so close to the bulk of the Army of Manoeuvre meant that the enemy could counter-attack rapidly; to choose to fight with a large river behind your front line when the enemy had a crushing air superiority to smash your supply lines was idiotic; and to refuse to pull back after a week when it was clear that you had no chance of achieving your objectives was bound to lead to the useless sacrifice of an army which could not be replaced. It was beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda. (p.400)

Long before this bitter battle was over, republicans of all stripes realised that they had lost.

4. The nationalists

This summary has tended to ignore the nationalist side, partly because the republican story is more complex and fraught. Suffice to say that the nationalists were also divided among various parties. Supported by the Catholic Church (and with the express blessing of the Pope), the big landowners, all business owners and hugely helped by the backing of Italy and Germany, nonetheless there were still complex rival factions among the nationalists which Beevor explains with clarity and persuasiveness.

I was particularly struck by the ferocity of the Carlists, a party loyal to a very old vision of a Catholic monarchist Spain, originally founded to support the royal line descended from Don Carlos, Count of Molina (1788–1855), after disputes over the succession laws and widespread dissatisfaction with the Alfonsine line of the House of Bourbon. The Alfonsine line had in fact come to an end with the forced abdication of king Alfonso XIII in 1931, the abdication which created the Spanish republic and gave the Carlists hope that their man would one day be restored. (In the event this wasn’t to be and Alfonso XIII’s son, Prince Juan met Franco after the war, when Franco needed to broaden support for his regime, and they agreed that Juan’s ten-year-old son, Juan Carlos, should become Franco’s ward and heir. Indeed the little boy would become King Juan Carlos upon Franco’s death, in 1975.)

Beevor also explains the origin of the Falange – Spanish for Phalanx – a frighteningly violent, extreme right-wing party, founded in 1934 and led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. These and other right-wing parties had their own leaders, rivalries and differing ideologies. Beevor describes them in careful detail and then explains how Franco cleverly played them all.

Beevor shows how cautious, canny and ruthless General Francisco Franco was. Franco had seen action in the 1934 revolution, but the main thing about him was he had been in charge of the Spanish Army in Morocco, and the important thing about this was that the Moroccan force was the only part of the Spanish army which had any kind of battle experience. The army in mainland Spain had never fought a battle, never fired a shot in anger, for Spain did not take part in the First World War. Only the African Army had experience of maintaining discipline under fire and of close-quarters fighting. This gave rise to a mystique surrounding the africanistas, something Franco exploited militarily and politically (p.16).

Beevor shows how Franco never moved until he was completely confident of victory. This goes for his political manoeuvres as much as his military campaigns. Essentially the war was won because the nationalist chain of command was centralised and efficient, and worked smoothly with its German and Italian supporters. But Franco still had to wait patiently until the time was right for him to assert his authority as the leading general among all the others who had staged the coup. This he did by ensuring it was his forces who led the liberation of Toledo. Toledo contained the Alcázar fortress, held by nationalist but besieged by republican forces since the start of the coup. Like Mafeking during the Boer War, its eventual liberation led to widespread rejoicing. And enthusiastic hailing of Franco as its saviour.

On 21 September 1936, at a meeting of his fellow generals at Salamanca airport, Franco, with preparatory work done by his devoted brother-in-law and other supporters, managed to get himself appointed chief military commander with the title Generalísimo.

On 29 September, after the final relief of the Alcázar, Franco proclaimed himself Caudillo (meaning ‘chieftain’, the Spanish equivalent of the Italian Duce and the German Führer). At the same time the disparate nationalist forces – falangist, Carlist, Alfonsist – were amalgamated into one governing nationalist party.

A few days later, on October 1, 1936 Franco’s title of Caudillo was confirmed at a big parade of army and state in the nationalist capital of Burgos. Although some nationalist parties demurred at this rapid consolidation of Franco’s power, their leaders were quickly dealt with, and the entire nationalist mind-set in any case valued strong central authority, so most of the officers and soldiers on the nationalist side were predisposed to accept one strong central command. From now on, that command was Franco’s.

5. Defeat and aftermath

The last 100 pages of this large-format, 470-page book make hard reading because it is so depressing to watch the republican side slowly being ground down, losing territory, pushed back, fighting among themselves, with Stalin’s SIM arresting, torturing and executing anyone who queried what turned out to be the hopeless Russian tactics.

The nationalists regrouped and re-equipped after victory in the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938. Then launched a swift campaign to seize Catalonia in January and February 1939. Nationalist forces entered one-time revolutionary Barcelona on 26 January, and by the end of February all Catalonia was in their hands. (It is interesting to learn that Franco hesitated before attacking Catalonia, convinced right to the end that the French were planning to invade and seize it, against all the advice of his own generals and to the frustration of the hard-headed Richtofen. Of course, the terrified French never had any such plan.) This left only Madrid and the area to the south-east still in republican hands.

In March, what was left of the republican army in Madrid staged a coup against prime minister Juan Negrín, who fled to France. But communist forces around Madrid staged a counter-coup against the army, so, once again, the republicans were fighting among themselves when the nationalists launched their final military assault, capturing Madrid on 28 March. By 31 March the nationalists controlled all Spanish territory. Franco proclaimed victory in a radio speech aired on 1 April 1939, as the final republican forces surrendered, and it is that day which goes down in history as marking the end of the war.

What began as a military coup designed to quickly seize power ended up lasting two years and 254 days, with as many as a million deaths, if you combine civilian with military casualties.

General Franco was installed as dictator of Spain and immediately began issuing laws rolling back all the reforms of the republican regime and brutally centralising all aspects of Spanish life. The Basque and Spanish languages were banned. All media became state controlled, as did all industry, railways and other infrastructure. Secret police were everywhere. Even a few unwise words of criticism in conversation could land you in prison or worse.

Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Beevor’s book follows the aftermath of the war, with sections on the wretched conditions refugees to France endured in miserable transit camps.

I thought Franco cannily kept Spain out of the Second World War so was surprised to learn here that he in fact made repeated overtures to join the war on the Axis side. However, he made such extortionate demands for weaponry from Germany, and also demanded to be given France’s colonies in Africa i.e. the rest of Morocco as well as west African colonies – that the Nazi regime was put off and repeatedly refused the offer.

Once the Axis powers began to lose, in 1943, Franco shifted his official position back from Axis support to neutrality (much to Hitler’s disgust).

At the end of the war his regime, so clearly authoritarian and militaristic and with all kinds of ties to the defeated Axis, might have struggled to survive, had it not been for the start of the Cold War between America and Russia. Ironically, it was (the threat from) communist Russia which led the West (i.e. America) to consider an authoritarian but stable Spain better than a chaotic and possibly communist one.

Thus Spain remained in a state of suspended animation until the old dictator’s death in 1975. The country took a generation to recover from the devastation of total war, with cities, towns and villages laid waste, its people, infrastructure and culture scarred for decades. Arguably, many these scars last to this day.

Footnotes

Spanish boasting Criticism of the overweening and unfounded arrogance of the Spanish on both sides crops up in several places. Beevor more than once quotes foreign military experts as well as Spanish officers, who all agree that the Spanish were too proud to dig trenches i.e. holes in the ground. Having not experienced the Great War, most Spanish thought war consisted of valiant charges and heroic stands and refused to hide in holes. The result, especially on the republican side, was that they were mown down or strafed to pieces in their tens of thousands.

The Germans, with their emphasis on efficiency, were particularly appalled at the discrepancy between Spanish vainglory and their chaotic practice. Beevor goes right back to the Duke of Wellington who led the British forces in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon (1807-1814) and who remarked of the preening Spanish officers assigned to his staff, that ‘the national weakness was boasting of Spain’s greatness’ (quoted page 158). For Richtofen, writing in his war diary, nothing at all had changed in 130 years.

New version, new sources Beevor wrote and published an earlier version of this book in 1982. This new longer version benefits from the opening of archives across Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Thus accounts of battles and political struggles are backed up by extensive quotations especially from newly accessible Soviet sources.

Still, the most gripping single source is Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen who was sent as an air force adviser to the nationalists and wrote a daily diary commenting on all aspects of the war. He is scathing about the incompetence of the Spanish and Italians and exults in the destructiveness of the German forces, especially his beloved Condor Legion.

Beevor points out that Richtofen pioneered the close co-ordination of armoured forces, infantry and air planes, and developed a new technique of close ground-to-air communications which proved vital in Nazi victories of the Second World War. He was a great destroyer of cities. In Spain his Condor Legion destroyed Durango and Guernica. He went on to be responsible for the destruction of Rotterdam, Belgrade, and Heraklion in Crete, before co-ordinating the bombing of Stalingrad in which some 40,000 civilians died (p.212).

The twentieth century was the great era of mass murderers. It is like looking out over a limitless expanse of burned and bleeding bodies. How can anyone possibly claim that human beings are a rational species?

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

War art The war saw an outburst of art and propaganda on both sides. Beevor points out it was the first war in which control of telegraph, telephone and radio were important. The republican side produced many stirring posters, poems and songs. But no amount of art could make up for a) the lack of foreign backing b) the consequent lack of guns, artillery and planes c) the lack of military training and experience d) the vicious, self-destructive in-fighting led by the communists and e) the idiotic military decisions which led to defeat after defeat.

Related links

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Strange Tales by Rudyard Kipling (2006)

One of several repackagings of Kipling short stories by the bargain reprint house, Wordsworth Editions, this one is a selection of horror or ghost stories, with a brisk introduction by David Stuart Davies, and containing:

The Mark of the Beast (1890) In India, some chaps get drunk on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Fleete, blind drunk, rushes into a temple they’re passing and stubs out his cigar on the forehead of a statue of Hanuman the Monkey God. A leprous priest of the god appears from nowhere and grapples with the drunk, biting him on the breast. Almost immediately Fleete falls ill with a fever. The following day he asks for raw chops as the mark on his chest grows. The narrator and his friend, the policeman Strickland, become concerned. They keep Fleete at Strickland’s house and within days he is howling like a wolf and grovelling in the dirt. At this stage I was speculating that they’d either find a cure for the way Fleete appears to be becoming a werewolf, or that Fleete turns completely wolf and has to be hunted down and shot with a silver bullet!

Neither. Instead, Strickland and the narrator hear the leper priest (in a horrible detail, the leper is incapable of speaking – he has only a ‘slab’ for a face – and can only make a horrible mewing noise) prowling round outside the house. So they nip out and grab him, bring him inside and then – in a sequence that is actually far worse than the werewolf/possession description – they torture the leper priest by tying him to a bedstead and applying red-hot gun barrels heated in a fire.

Eventually, unable to bear the torture any longer, the priest is released, staggers over the feverish Fleete and simply touches him on the chest and the curse is lifted – simple as that. Strickland and the narrator release the priest, who goes off without a sound, not even mewing. Within a few hours Fleete has had a bath and is restored to jolly good humour, imagining he’s been on a long drunk. Only Strickland and the narrator know – not only what was happening to Fleete but, what they both know is worse, that they have behaved immorally enough to be dismissed from the Service.

This is a harsh initiation into the sadism and cruelty which lurks beneath the surface and sometimes is just on the surface, of so much of Kipling’s early writing.

The Return of Imray (1891) Another story collected in Plain Tales From the Hills, told by the same narrator and also featuring Strickland from the Police, as above. A man called Imray disappears and, after a while, Strickland rents his bungalow. The narrator comes to stay. It rains and Kipling describes India in the casually knowledgeable way he did in scores of stories and poems, making the place his imaginative fiefdom for generations of readers.

The heat of the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges.

But Strickland’s dog, Tietjens, refuses to enter the bedroom, preferring to be outside in the rain. Our chaps ponder this odd behaviour. Then they notice some snakes’ tails dangling through the gap between the fabric ceiling and the rafters in the bedroom. Strickland pulls that part of the ceiling away to reach the snakes and discovers – the mummified of Imray carefully hidden among the rafters! It emerges that Imray’s servant, who Strickland has inherited – Bahadur Khan – murdered and hid his master because Imray patted his son on the head and soon after his son sickened and died.

There is a harshness in the story itself – but even in details it is repellent. Here, as in so many other places, Kipling goes out of his way to be offensive to women.

If a mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal.

Maybe he thought this was funny, maybe he was trying to fit in with the boys, maybe he thought this was ‘manly’ talk. But this kind of throwaway insult damages his stories not because it’s offensive (though it is offensive) as that it’s just crude, and it tends to bring out the crudeness of the rest of the narrative with it.

The Phantom Rickshaw (1889) First person narrative (most of them are) told by Theobald Jack Pansay who had a ship-board romance with Agnes Keith-Wessington, wife of another officer in the service, but then breaks it off in order to concentrate on his fiancee, Kitty. Agnes, however, refuses to accept the end of the affair and plagues Pansay, following him everywhere, turning up at the most embarrassing junctures in her yellow-panelled rickshaw.

Pansay’s (emotional) brutality makes her pine away and die of a broken heart, not that he cares much. But as he squires pretty Kitty around Simla – the rest town for British officers in northern India – to his horror, the rickshaw and dead Agnes appear again and again, parked across the road, blocking his path when they’re out riding, and everywhere Pansay hears the ghost’s pitiful voice declaring it’s all some ‘hideous mistake’.

When he overcomes his horror enough to try talking to the ‘ghost’, his friends think he’s talking into empty air and is drunk or going mad. Kitty breaks off the engagement with a man who’s become the laughing stock of the town. Pansay’s life falls to pieces and the final section of the text is journal entries in which the narrator describes himself waiting resignedly for his own inevitable death.

Pity me, at least on the score of my ‘delusion’, for I know you will never believe what I have written here. Yet as surely as ever a man was done to death by the Powers of Darkness I am that man.
In justice, too, pity her. For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. And the last portion of my punishment is ever now upon me.

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes (1885) Another first-person narrative, this time told by a young officer in India who takes his horse, Pornic, for an impetuous ride and trips, stumbles and falls down a steep sandy slope into a bizarre village of the undead.

Out of the holes they have excavated into the side of the sandy slope shuffle the nightmareish inhabitants. They were all Hindus, who were thought to be dead, whose bodies were lovingly prepared by their relatives to be burned and cremated, but then (as sometimes happens) stirred with life and revived. Since their religion had ceremoniously moved them on beyond this world they were not allowed to return to normal life but consigned to this open air prison for the living dead, unable to escape up the high, almost vertical, sand sides of the enclave.

Jukes sees that the settlement is open to the river on one side but when he tries to wade out into it, rifle shots are fired from a boat which guards that exit. Even at night, when the boat goes away, the sandy spits in the river turn out to be treacherous quicksand, impossible to escape.

This is all bizarre enough, but the story turns on the relationship between Jukes and a ‘native’ who shows him the ropes, Gunga Dass. Dass is by turns abjectly servile, until his knowledge of the village of the undead reverses the tables and he lords it over Jukes – until the latter restores the good order of the Empire by giving him a good kicking.

He threw himself down on the ground and clasped my ankles. But I had my doubts about Gunga Dass’s benevolence, and kicked him off as he lay protesting… Brahmin or no Brahmin, by my soul and my father’s soul, in you go!” I said, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I crammed his head into the mouth of the burrow, kicked the rest of him in,  and, sitting down, covered my face with my hands.

Jukes discovers that another white man had fallen into the settlement and had been working out a route across the quicksand, a little every night, when Dass treacherously shot him dead with his own revolver. Jukes establishes that the white man had made a map of sorts, and is preparing to try it out that night, after the gun boat leaves, when Dass – knowing his plan – hits him over the head, knocking him unconscious. When Jukes comes to, he groggily hears his loyal servant, Dunnoo, his dog-boy, calling over the lip of the sand. Dunnoo had trailed Juke’s horse’s tracks to the Village of the Dead and now throws down a rope, allowing Juke to escape in a flash. Did Dass escape using the map? The narrator and reader never find out.

The strangeness of the subject should dominate but is tainted or even superseded by the casual brutality of the narrator and his assumption that it is fine for a white man to kick an Indian into obedience.

‘They’ (1904) The unnamed narrator is driving his car round Sussex when he comes across a mysteriously beautiful and quiet country house, where he spies children playing amid the landscaped gardens, before meeting the owner, an elegant beautiful woman who is quite blind. It takes several visits and repeated hints from the remote butler, before the penny drops, and the narrator realises the elusive children are ghosts – a realisation passed to him when one of the children kisses his palm in a way he realises, with a jolt, only his dead daughter did. A major feature of Kipling’s fiction is its tendency to be clipped and elliptical. Thus nowhere in the story does it say it was the kiss of the narrator’s child; I only learned this crucial fact from the Kipling Society website’s excellent notes on the story.

Atmosphere and description. Here is the narrator in his car:

As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and, looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter. A laden collier hugging the coast steered outward for deeper water and, across copper-coloured haze, I saw sails rise one by one on the anchored fishing-fleet. In a deep dene behind me an eddy of sudden wind drummed through sheltered oaks, and spun aloft the first day sample of autumn leaves. When I reached the beach road the sea-fog fumed over the brickfields, and the tide was telling all the groins of the gale beyond Ushant. In less than an hour summer England vanished in chill grey. We were again the shut island of the North, all the ships of the world bellowing at our perilous gates; and between their outcries ran the piping of bewildered gulls. My cap dripped moisture, the folds of the rug held it in pools or sluiced it away in runnels, and the salt-rime stuck to my lips.

In The Same Boat (1911) London in the Edwardian era. Conroy is addicted to najdolene pills to manage a recurring nightmare of being aboard ship and hearing men scream in the engine room and stark terror as a man screams in his face this ship is going down and all is lost. His suave specialist Dr Gilbert introduces him to a fellow patient, the statuesque beautiful Miss Henschil whose similar terror is a vision of men with faces covered in mildew pursuing her across a beach. Over a series of train excursions from London they discuss their symptoms and, by talking, manage to control them, slowly giving up the pills. The denouement comes when Miss Henschil’s nurse, dumpy freckly Miss Blabey, reveals that she spoke with Miss H’s mother who revealed that the faceless men incident actually happened – she visited a leper colony in India when pregnant with Miss H, and the leprous men followed her. This revelation makes the shadow pass from her mind, she is suddenly whole and restored. And when Conroy visits his mother in Hereford, she also confirms that his night terror – which he’d never told her about – was an actual incident which happened to her when she was pregnant and on board a ship returning from India in 1885, when two stokers were scalded by steam and a man thought he’d play a cruel joke on her by telling her the ship was going down. She quickly realised it was a ‘joke’ and forgot about it – but in both cases the fright was obviously so intense that, somehow, it penetrated the souls of the little foetuses in their mothers’ wombs.

Interesting as the premise for a horror story; and interesting insight into drug addiction in the Edwardian era.

The Dog Hervey (1914) Set in cosy, rural Sussex among middle-class families with big houses and servants, typified by Mrs Godfrey and her daughter Milly. The narrator’s friend, Attley, owns a dog who’s given birth to puppies, and so he invites his circle round to choose ones to adopt. A manky one with a squint is chosen by a ‘dark, sallow-skinned, slack-mouthed girl’, Miss Sichliffe. After a few weeks Attley turns up with the dog, saying it’s come down sick and Miss Sichcliffe doesn’t know how to look after it, so can the narrator look after it please? He does – but finds the dog eerie and uncanny. Now named Hervey, this clumsy squinting dog spends all its time looking at him, unnervingly.

A few weeks later, the narrator gets a call that his friends, Mrs Godfrey and Milly, have been taken sick on Madeira. He takes a ship there and a lot of time passes as he and Attley nurse the ladies back to health. On the island they fall in with a wealthy yacht-owner named Shend. Eventually they all ship back to Blighty on a commercial steamer. During the voyage Shend confesses to the narrator that he is an alcoholic, coming to him one night on the verge of delirium tremens. The narrator is sympathetic, listening to poor Shend’s account of his condition, keeping him talking, and eventually Shend confesses that one of his hallucinations is of a funny squint-eyed dog. Really? Can is be of Hervey? How?

The ship docks and the narrator’s loyal chauffeur is there to collect him in his fine motor (Kipling loved motor cars). They drive back through Sussex and stop at the gate of Miss Sichcliffe’s house, where she happens to be outside gardening. Young Shend alights and goes to speak to her. They immediately get on well and turn towards the house together. The dog Hervey is there, skulking, and needs little encouragement to jump into the narrator’s car and be driven home, there to rejoin the narrator’s other dog, Malachi.

I read this story fairly carefully and still don’t understand what it was ‘about’.

The House Surgeon (1909) On an ocean voyage the narrator gets talking to L. Maxwell M’Leod who tells him his story. He recently bought a big old house – Holmescroft – in the Home Counties off the three Moultrie sisters through their lawyer, Baxter, but he has come to believe the house is cursed or haunted.

The narrator is sceptical so, once they’ve docked in England, M’Leod invites him over for a weekend. No sooner is the narrator inside the building than he experiences the extraordinary sense of depression, guilt and despair it throws over everyone who inhabits it.

Intrigued and disturbed, the narrator goes off to visit the lawyer, Baxter, who sold it to M’Leod. He inveigles his way into Baxter’s favour by taking up golf (which he detests) under Baxter’s tutelage and eventually being invited to a health spa, along with the spinster sisters in question, the Moultrie sisters.

What emerges is that only two of the three sisters are now alive – Miss Elizabeth and Miss Mary. The youngest, Miss Agnes, died when they owned Holmescroft. She was found on the path beneath an open first floor window. Now:

a) The narrator himself had stayed in that very room a few weeks earlier, and had noticed that the catch to the window was very close to the floor and stiff, so that in forcing it up and open he very nearly fell out.

b) At this spa there is a dramatic scene when Miss Mary shrieks for help and Baxter and the narrator burst into the sisters’ bedroom to find Miss Mary, her hand and throat covered with blood, wrestling with the open window while her sister grips her knees to stop her throwing herself to her death! Miss Elizabeth claims her sister had slashed her throat and was trying to throw herself out of the window. But after the hysterical women have been calmed down, it emerges that Miss Mary had done no such thing, but had been struggling with the stiff catchment of the window with such force that, when it finally gave, her wrist went through a pane and she accidentally cut herself.

Suddenly all four of them realise that this is what must have happened to their sister, Agnes, at Holmescroft. She had been struggling with the wretched window, yanked it open and fallen to her death by accident. Her spirit has been haunting the wretched house and trying to explain what really happened. This accounts for the terrible sense of foreboding, depression and above all, that something unspeakable is trying to tell you something, that afflicts M’Leod’s family and the narrator and anybody else who enters the building.

The narrator phones the M’Leod family and tells them to vacate the old house while he brings the two spinster sisters over, which they do. The sisters go up to the fatal bedroom (while the narrator and Baxter wait downstairs) and have some kind of mysterious communion with their dead sibling. When they return they have, somehow, spoken to the spirit of their sister, they have accepted that her death was an accident, the terrible secret the house needed to speak has been spoken, and now, magically, Holmescroft is a happy, well-lit, beautiful house again.

The M’Leod family are delighted, and romp through their beautiful and now-released home, and happy young Miss M’Leod sings an old English air.

The name of the story comes from the fact that on the night of the panic at the spa when they think Miss Elizabeth is trying to kill herself, the narrator is introduced as the hospital doctor (to spare the embarrassment of Baxter having to explain that he’s in fact just an acquaintance who he’s told the family secrets); and has another ironic meaning by the end of the story, when the narrator emerges as the hero of the hour who discovered the secret of Holmescroft’s haunting and managed to exorcise it. Early on the narrator says he is no Sherlock Holmes and this draws our attention to the Holmes in the name of the house, Holmescroft.

The Wish House (1924) Frame: Two old Sussex ladies, Mrs Ashcroft and Mrs Fettley meet to do some knitting in the sunshine, not much bothered by the packed charabancs motoring by down to the local football ground (the kind of framing detail which Kipling delights in). They fall to telling stories about men, men they’ve loved and lost. Mrs Fettley tells a story about a man she loved, who died recently, but Kipling is such a savage editor of his own works that the entire story has been cut.

Mrs. Fettley had spoken very precisely for some time without interruption, before she wiped her eyes. ‘And,’ she concluded, ‘they read ‘is death-notice to me, out o’ the paper last month.

Then Kipling adjusts himself, makes himself more comfortable, eases deeper into the atmosphere he’s created.

The light and air had changed a little with the sun’s descent, and the two elderly ladies closed the kitchen-door against chill. A couple of jays squealed and skirmished through the undraped apple-trees in the garden. This time, the word was with Mrs. Ashcroft, her elbows on the teatable, and her sick leg propped on a stool…

Story: Now Mrs Ashcroft reveals that she was desperately in love with Harry Mockler, Bert Mockler’s son. It was a fierce passion when she came down from London to the area to work. She went to the lengths of scalding her arm to delay her return. Then they arranged for Harry to get a job up Lunnon so they could be close. ‘‘Dere wadn’t much I didn’t do for him. ‘E was me master.’ But eventually he tired of her and took to other women.

Then a new element enters the text: their charwoman’s fiddle girl — Sophy Ellis. When Mrs Ashcroft has one of her severe headaches, the little slip of a girl goes off to a ‘wish house’, just a non-descript terraced house that’s been abandoned for some time, and says her wish through the letter box to the ‘token’, or demon, within. And – miraculously – Mrs Ashcroft’s headache disappears because Sophy has taken it for her. Stuff and nonsense, the older woman cries, when the girl tries to explain.

But when, later, Mrs Ashcroft bumps into Harry in the street, still besotted with him (though he shamefacedly avoids acknowledging her) she notices that he is looking very ill, and learns that he’s been in hospital having cut his foot badly with a spade and got infected.

So, after much soul-searching, Mrs Ashcroft nerves herself to go to the ‘wish house’, furtively and embarrassed. She knocks and hears an eerie shuffling sound coming closer, then pokes open the letter box.

I stooped me to the letter-box slit, an’ I says: “Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ‘Arry Mockler, for love’s sake.” Then, whatever it was ‘tother side de door let its breath out, like, as if it ‘ad been holdin’ it for to ‘ear better.’
‘Nothin’ was said to ye?’ Mrs. Fettley demanded.
‘Na’un. She just breathed out — a sort of A-ah, like. Then the steps went back an’ downstairs to the kitchen — all draggy — an’ I heard the cheer drawed up again.’

She learns soon afterwards that Harry is healed and getting on with his womanising while she, for her part, develops a nasty ulcer on her shin which she’s had ever since. And that’s it. As so often in Kipling the eerie, ghostly, supernatural element is strangely downbeat, undramatic, almost mundane.

Now, as she talks to her friend, Mrs Ashcroft knows she is dying. And Mrs Fettley, for her part, confesses that she’s going blind. It is a picture of two afflicted old women at the end of their lives. In the final paragraphs, Mrs Ashcroft needs reassuring by her friend that her sacrifice has been worth it, that by taking Harry’s pain she will guarantee his love… in another place.

‘But the pain do count, don’t ye think, Liz? The pain do count to keep ‘Arry where I want ’im. Say it can’t be wasted, like.’

This is a stunning story and a tremendous advance in Kipling’s art from the heartless casual misogyny of his early tales. He shows a moving imaginative sympathy with physical pain and with a certain kind of muted, dignified psychological suffering. And this is just one of many late tales which reach out and depict older women with a tremendous vividness and sympathy.

A Matter of Fact (1892) Three journalists – Keller, Zuyland and the narrator – on a steamer from South Africa to England, the Rathmines, witness a wonder at sea – first a tsunami sends a vast wave of water past them, immediately they are caught in a fog and narrowly miss other boats sent hurtling by the wave but then – the fog clears and they see a never-before-observed vast leviathan of the deep, badly injured (presumably from some underwater cataclysm) break the surface and howl and moan, with great blind eyes and an appalling face surrounded by feelers – and then its female mate also surface and swim round it keening until the male dies and sinks and the female, after last haunting wails, itself disappears.

The stunned newspapermen fall to writing their accounts of this historic event but, in this the second part of the story, as they approach Southampton, dock and take the train amid the snug suburban villas and arrive in smoky London with its ancient institutions, they realise it’s hopeless: nobody will believe them; such a miracle just won’t be believed in this staid suburban country. The American holds out the longest but when he takes the story to the Times, is thrown out as a prankster. And over lunch hears the narrator saying the British public would never accept the truth of such a matter – which is why he’s going to dress it up as a fiction and sell it as a short story – the one we’re reading now!

The vision of the tsunami, the monster in the fog, the overturned steamer they pass and then the two creatures is as vivid a piece of science fantasy as anything in H.G. Wells or Conan Doyle. The second half insofar as it takes the mickey out of the American, over-awed by British civilisation, feels cheap, but on another level, also satirises the staid, unimaginative English, who can only accept the out-of-the-ordinary if sold as fiction, and so, to some extent, satirises the author himself and his trade. 

This, I think, is a good example of Kipling’s weakness: there is a powerful central vision but it is weakened by cheap and superficial jibes; his artistry cannot fully support or elaborate the power of the vision – the strength of his imaginative daemon is so often let down by the shallowness of his sensibility. This is why he is a better poet than prose writer, poems being more clipped and focused.

Atmosphere and description:

The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond, except for a regular oily swell. As I looked over the side to see where it might be following us from, the sun rose in a perfectly clear sky and struck the water with its light so sharply that it seemed as though the sea should clang like a burnished gong. The wake of the screw and the little white streak cut by the log-line hanging over the stern were the only marks on the water as far as eye could reach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘At The End of The Passage’ (1890) Four men in the service of the British Empire in India – a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, Hummil. Each week they meet up at Hummil’s station to play cards and eat the horrible food which is all that’s available. It is the summer and blisteringly hot on the plains of northern India, like living in an oven, with nothing to do, no ice, horrible food, barely any drinks. Although there’s a plot of sorts, really this is an evocation of the terrible isolation and mental strain suffered by men given huge responsibilities in an alien and inhospitable land.

They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age — which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.

Their conversation is about colleagues who’ve died of disease, for example as a result of the continual cholera epidemics, have become lonely alcoholics, or have simply killed themselves – a fairly common occurrence. The doctor, Spurstow, realises their host, Hummil, is at the end of his tether. He is tetchy with his guests and when the other two leave, Spurstow volunteers to stay and Hummil breaks down completely and confesses that he hasn’t slept for days and days, and begs for sleeping pills. Spurstow realises that Hummil has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares. Spurstow disables Hummil’s guns and gives him sleeping draughts.

When the three rendezvous at Hummil’s a week later none of them are surprised to find him dead in his bed. But he didn’t kill himself. In a strange technical twist, Spurstow uses a Kodak camera to take a photograph of the dead man’s eyes and then, minutes after he’s gone into a darkened room to develop the images, the others hear the sound of smashing and breaking. ‘It was impossible,’ he repeats to the others, ‘impossible’. Spurstow obviously saw images of unspeakable horror imprinted on the dead man’s retinas.

The thrust of all these early India stories is the immense sacrifice made by the white men who ran the Empire, in the teeth of resentful ungrateful natives and despite concerted opposition from ignorant Liberals and politicians back home. Their strength is the powerful evocations of India in all its moods: 

There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare.

And the sense of men at the very limits of endurance is powerfully present and, on a human level, is persuasive. But their weakness is their crudity and the bitter sarcasm and contempt for anyone who opposes his Imperial views which run through them like cheap fabric. And, almost needless to say, the obvious fact that it depicts this vast country overwhelmingly from the point of view of the colonial masters, whose interactions with the native inhabitants all too often are limited to kicking and cursing.

The Bisara of Pooree (1887) Very short story about a tiny magic charm in the shape of a carved fish; whoever owns it can make people fall in love with them. A disreputable man named Pack overhears two officers discussing the charm, one – Churton – has come into possession of it, the other – The Man Who Knows – explains its magic powers. Pack overhears all this, breaks into Churton’s house, steals the Bisara and uses it to magic the lovely Miss Hollis in love with him. Churton is outraged and steals the charm back – very satisfactorily watches Miss Hollis fall out with the reptile Pack, then hands the charm on The Man Who Knows who ties it to the bridle of a native pony and watches it being ridden off into the distance. Although very short, this text packs in loads of facts and attitudes about British India, about the social structure and customs of the British in Simla, as well as the weirdness of the native religions and superstitions, all told with  a droll ironic tone.

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was): officers on a cavalry night manoeuvre into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah, keep hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent. Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror. Because down in the valley they can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts return to haunt and paralyse the Afghans allowing the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

The Dream of Duncan Parrenness (1884) Kipling was only 19, maybe 18, when he wrote this pastiche of an 18th century East Indian administrator, returning extremely drunk from a party at the office of Warren Hasting (first Governor-General of British India, until 1785) to be confronted by the ghost of himself in the future,

and I, Duncan Parrenness, who was afraid of no man, was taken with a more deadly terror than I hold it has ever been the lot of mortal man to know. For I saw that his face was my very own, but marked and lined and scarred with the furrows of disease and much evil living.

The ghost of his future self makes the drunk and stunned young man an offer to remove everything that will hinder him in his future career: and, in three grand moments, the apparition says:

  • Give me your trust in men
  • Give me your trust in women
  • Give me your boy’s soul and conscience

and at each vow the apparition puts his hand over Parrenness’s heart, which he feels growing colder and harder. And finally, in return for abandoning all his principles, the apparition puts into his hand – a little piece of dry bread. This has the power and the three-ness of a good folk story; combined with the Biblical strangeness and pregnancy of the piece of bread. No wonder Kipling made such an impression at such an early age, he had full command of his strange, haunting idiom so young.

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897) A hymn to the dedication and hard work of a typical English family, the Chinns, whose menfolk have served in India for generations, since 1799.

It was slow, unseen work, of the sort that is being done all over India today; and though John Chinn’s only reward came, as I have said, in the shape of a grave at Government expense, the little people of the hills never forgot him.

Young John Chinn takes up a post with the ‘Wuddars’, a regiment made up of men from the Bhil tribe – ‘wild men, furtive, shy, full of untold superstitions’ – who worshiped and revered his father Lionel and his father, John. The text takes a long time explaining the good work the white man did, first to win the trust of a tribe inclined to be savage and murderous, then to discipline them and bring them The Law, and eventually Pride in the native Regiment which they formed and served in.

The arrival of young Chinn back for England to join his Wuddars allows Kipling na orgy of lachrymose sentimentality as the young man remembers the Bhil phrases he used in his boyhood, is reunited with his loyal Bhil nurse and faithful Bhil retainer etc and the tears flood into his eyes at each step.

The man was at his feet a second time. ‘He [Chinn] has not forgotten. He remembers his own people as his father remembered. Now can I die. But first I will live and show the Sahib how to kill tigers. That that yonder is my nephew. If he is not a good servant, beat him and send him to me, and I will surely kill him, for now the Sahib is with his own people.’

This old man, Bukta, takes Chinn out for his first tiger shoot which Chinn insists on doing the Bhil way i.e. on foot. Bukta vets reports of tigers until he hears of a monster, ten foot long and virile, they stalk it, and Chinn shoots it through the shoulder at fifteen paces, like a man. That night he is the centre of a native feast or orgy, with lots of strong drink, gifts of flowers from grateful natives and – it is hinted – native women. These treks among the people teach him their ways and customs, and give him authority. Bukta encourages him to dispense the Law to ‘his’ people; his people, for their part, believe his is a demi-god, the reincarnation of his ancestors, even down to the tell-tale Chinn birthmark on his shoulder.

The actual ‘story’ only kicks in half way through the text with all is explanatory apparatus. Rumour comes that the Bhils of the Satpura Mountains have been seeing a vision of old John Chinn riding a tiger in the moonlight. The wise Colonel of the regiment says this kind of thing always prefigures trouble. And sure enough, word then comes that the Satpura Bhils have taken prisoner a Hindu doctor sent to innoculate them against smallpox. So young John Chinn is sent, with the faithful Bukta, to defuse the situation, which he does, masterfully.

But the Bhils are still scared of the night tiger they see  his ancestor riding. So, ‘the Deuce take it’, some terrified locals take young John and faithful Bukta to the cave of the tiger and there is an eerie powerful moment when it emerges and stares directly at our hero – who promptly shoots him, leaving the tiger enough breath to bound up to the tomb of his ancestor, John the first, and there expire. Thus the superstitious Bhils are freed from their visions, and vaccinated, and confirmed in their awe of Chinn Sahib.

I suppose a modern reader ought to be offended and outraged that the ‘natives’ are referred to as children throughout, naughty children, good children, embarrassed children, but always children who must be managed and controlled by the White grown-ups.

The officers talked to their soldiers in a tongue not two hundred white folk in India understood; and the men were their children, all drawn from the Bhils, who are, perhaps, the strangest of the many strange races in India.

The least excitement would stampede them, plundering, at random, and now and then killing; but if they were handled discreetly they grieved like children, and promised never to do it again.

‘The Bhils are my children. I have said it many times.’
‘Ay. We be thy children,’ said Bukta.

‘We are the thieves of Mahadeo,’ said the Bhils, simply. ‘It is our fate, and we were frightened. When we are frightened we always steal.’ Simply and directly as children, they gave in the tale of the plunder…

It is hard for children and savages to behave reverently at all times to the idols of their make-belief; and they had frolicked excessively with Jan Chinn.

A rhetoric which, of course, justifies Imperial rule over India by a wise and ‘paternal Government’ (and, incidentally, justifies male rule over the memsahibs). But it is so entirely a quintessence of its time and place, that I can’t see the point of arguing with a text like this, but a) admiring its craft and rhetoric, on its own terms b) pondering the complexity of its relationship with the power structures of its day.

By Word of Mouth (1887) A very short story from Plain Tales From The Hills, in which the doctor mentioned in some of the other stories, Dumoise, marries a meek wife, who promptly dies of cholera. He buries her, then goes for a break in a hill resort, but has barely unpacked his bags before his servant comes running in panic fear, saying he has just seen the dead memsahib walking below, who told him to tell Dumoise that she will see him next month in Nuddea (in Bengal, on the other side of India from the Punjab where Dumoise is based).

Dumoise has barely arrived back at his station before a telegram comes ordering him to Nuddea to help deal with a massive cholera epidemic. He shows the telegram to his assistant who tries to stop him going, saying it is a death sentence, but Dumoise doesn’t care, he knows his fate, he packs and goes and is soon himself dead and reunited with his wife.

There isn’t much suspense in the story; it is really just another example of Kipling’s early vein of ramming home again and again and again the cost to the White Man of running Imperial India and the bloody ingratitude of the lazy sneaky natives and ignorant Liberals back home.

My Own True Ghost Story (1888) The narrator devotes pages and pages to showing off his in-depth knowledge of India and its temporary accommodation for Imperial officers, the dreaded dâk-bungalow, along with a breezy expertise about Indian ghosts.

There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in child-bed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.

After all this build-up it is a comically debunking story. In the depths of the night the narrator is convinced he can hear billiards being played in the room next door, though it is a basic bed room just like his. Next morning the servant says it used to be a billiard room thirty years ago when the white men were building the local railway, which puts the narrator into mortal terror.

But at the end of the story he walks into the ‘haunted’ bedroom and sees the loose curtains banging against the windows to produce the sound of billiard balls clacking. What a fool!

Men on the edge of a nervous breakdown

The suppressed violence and sadism which stand out in Kipling’s early stories – especially marring the stories which make up Stalky and Co – and his vicious asides about niggers and natives, his contempt for memsahibs and women – these all make Kipling’s stories hard for anyone of a sensitive nature to read.

Similarly, there is a continuous thread of hysteria, of depression, guilt, mental torment and countless references to horrors of the mind, which create a claustrophobic and sometimes unbearable atmosphere of stress and despair.

Nominally these are ghost stories or tales of the uncanny – but the cumulative impression they give is of an array of male characters just about managing to hang on to their sanity in situations of unbearable strain and torment.

Oh, Spurstow, for pity’s sake give me something that will put me asleep — sound asleep — if it’s only for six hours!’ He sprang up, trembling from head to foot. ‘I haven’t been able to sleep naturally for days, and I can’t stand it! — I can’t stand it!’ (At the End of the Passage)

About half-way through, Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door. ‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands.  (A Madonna of the Trenches)

I moved toward the bed, every nerve already aching with the foreknowledge of the pain that was to be dealt it, and sat down, while my amazed and angry soul dropped, gulf by gulf, into that horror of great darkness which is spoken of in the Bible, and which, as auctioneers say, must be experienced to be appreciated. Despair upon despair, misery upon misery, fear after fear, each causing their distinct and separate woe, packed in upon me for an unrecorded length of time…  (The House Surgeon)

The man was beyond any expression of terror. He lay and quaked, grunting. When Halley took the sword-hilt from between his teeth, he was still inarticulate, but clung to Halley’s arm, feeling it from elbow to wrist. ‘The Rissala! The dead Rissala!’ he gasped. ‘It is down there!’ (The Lost Legion)

Do you know what fear is? Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death, but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see — fear that dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat — fear that makes you sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at work? (My Own True Ghost Story)

All this makes the moments of gentleness stand out all the more – in a way the eeriest moments are when one of Kipling’s narrators sounds like a normal, sensitive, empathetic human being, for example in the dream-like sweetness of ‘They’, in the rare tone of emotional candour signalled by the narrator’s respect for the blind lady of the house.

And, out of hundreds and hundreds of ‘moments’ and ‘scenes’ in these densely packed stories, one which endures for me is the gentleness of the doctor and the calm understanding tone of the narrator when they have to deal with the ex-soldier right on the verge of hysteria in A Madonna of The Trenches. It is a cliché but it feels like the experience of the Great War, the loss of his only son, Jack, and the extensive work Kipling did writing a history of his son’s regiment and thus poring over countless diaries and letters, have really chastened him, given the old brute a late-flowering gentleness and sympathy which is eerily moving.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)

Furst

Furst’s novels are all historical spy adventures, set in Continental Europe, often in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, in the dark days before the Second World War and on into the early years of the conflict. They feature fairly ordinary, everyday guys who become reluctantly embroiled in ‘spying’, in its unglamorous, everyday forms – receiving and passing on information, meeting people from foreign powers who slowly take control of your life, who persuade you to take risks you’d prefer not to. So:

  • In Blood of Victory (set in late 1940 and 1941) the Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, finds himself slowly drawn into a plot to sink barges in the Danube river to choke off Nazi Germany’s supply of oil from Romania.
  • In Dark Voyage (set over two months in 1941) grizzled Dutch merchant captain, Eric DeHaan, finds himself reluctantly recruited into the Dutch Royal Navy and carrying out a number of clandestine voyages, ferrying Allied soldiers, arms and equipment on a number of hazardous missions around the Mediterranean.

The Foreign Correspondent

Although they go off on missions to the East, many of Furst’s protagonists are based in Paris, safe haven for many exiles as the grim 1930s progressed. This novel, though it features trips to Berlin and Prague, is more rooted than most i the boulevards and cafés of the city of light, and includes a map of Paris at the start, with key locations in the story marked on it.

It follows the ‘adventures’ of Italian émigré journalist Carlo Weisz. He’s landed a good job as Paris correspondent for Reuters, where he’s looked after by an understanding manager, Delahanty, who doesn’t mind that in the evenings Weisz helps write and organise an anti-Fascist, anti-Mussolini freesheet, Liberazione, cobbled together by half a dozen Italian refugees who meet at the Café Europa, the galleys then smuggled to Italy, where it’s printed and distributed via an informal network.

The text is divided into four long parts, within which the numerous sub-sections are simply divided by line breaks. As with all Furst’s novels, these short sections come with date stamps  and sometimes precise times of day, to convey the pace of events, and give a sense of urgency and thrill.

The narrative covers events between 4 December 1938 and 11 July 1939, ie the dark slide towards war, and features the following true historical events:

  • The Nazi occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, beginning 15 March 1939
  • Victory of the Nationalist (fascist) forces in the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939
  • 7 April the Italian navy bombarded the coast of Albania, then invaded
  • Signing of the Pact of Steel, 22 May 1939

Dark times, darkly captured and broodingly conveyed.

1. In the Resistenza

We meet Weisz in Civil War Spain, as that conflict grinds to an end, accompanied by the veteran female journalist, Mary McGrath, and driven around by a driver provided by the Republican side. They visit the front lines, are shot at by Nationalist soldiers across the river, then briefly interview the legendary ‘Colonel Ferrara’, an Italian commanding an International Brigade on the Republican side, then drive off to the nearest town to file their reports.

Back in Paris, the high profile Italian exile, vociferous opponent of Mussolini, and editor of Liberazione, Bottini, is assassinated by agents of OVRA, while in bed with his mistress Madame LaCroix. It is a warning to other exiles, and we are introduced to the head of the little squad which carries out the execution, an Italian nobleman and committed Fascist, Count Amandola. But as Mme LaCroix happens to have been the wife of a French politician, this prompts the French police to open a murder investigation which will wind on for the rest of the narrative.

Thus it is that on returning to Paris, Weisz discovers Bottini to be dead and is offered the editorship of Liberazione by the small band of exiles, led by Arturo Salamone, and which he reluctantly accepts. He feels it is his duty, and he is a good journalist, he should be able to manage. The meeting is followed by a short text which is the ‘report’ of ‘Agent 207’, summarising the decisions of the meeting. Aha. One of them is a spy, or at least an informer, passing on his reports to OVRA.

Soon afterwards, in a Paris bar, Weisz bumps into an acquaintance from his two years of study at Oxford, Geoffrey Sparrow, who is accompanied by his petite girlfriend, Olivia. She enjoys flirting with Weisz, who finds himself entranced by her ‘smart little breasts’ (p.43). They go on to another bar where Sparrow accidentally-on-purpose introduces Weisz to a ‘Mr Brown’, an obvious British agent (which we know for sure since we’ve met him in previous novels). So – the old friend act and the flirting were designed to ‘ensnare’ him. At this stage it’s just an introduction and an agreement that they’re on the same side, but we all know something more will come of it…

Weisz is invited to room 10 of the Sûreté National offices, to meet the French detectives investigating the Bottini murder. They let it be known that he’s being watched, and mention that an Italian official was recently expelled from France. Was that a threat or a tip-off? As so often in Furst, the main character is puzzled about what’s going on, about the deeper or ‘hidden’ meaning of sometimes the simplest conversations. As exiles, most of his protagonists are at the mercy of ‘the authorities’ and live with a permanent sense of insecurity.

Finding himself the attention of the British and French security services, and probably of OVRA into the bargain, Weisz not unnaturally becomes convinced he’s being followed, narrowing it down to a man in a check jacket who keeps popping up behind him in the street, then on the Métro. It’s mildly ironic then, when a completely different man leans over him in the Métro carriage and slips him an envelope before quickly exiting the carriage.

Weisz brings the envelope to the next meeting of the Liberazione group at the Café Europa, where it turns out to contain detailed technical specifications for what looks like a torpedo, the writing in Italian. A new design for an Italian torpedo? Who was the man who gave it to him working for? Is it a trap? Is the door about to burst open and French police find them with the evidence that they’re spies, so they’ll all be shot? Or is it a genuine bit of clandestine information but – who should it be passed on to? The French authorities? The British? Mr Brown?

This is typical of the fog of uncertainty in which Furst’s characters (and the reader) move. Also typical is the low level of suspense: it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much, and the group decide to burn the document quickly, which they do. And nothing happens. No police burst in. The man who gave it to Weisz never reappears. There are no repercussions at all. The novels are full of mysterious threats and loomings.

Weisz regularly fantasises about sex. He imagines making love with Sparrow’s girlfriend. He thinks about calling up his old girlfriend Véronique for sex. He fantasises about his lazy landlady Madam Rigaud, who has accidentally on purpose bumped his ample hips against him many a time. He remembers the myriad highly erotic encounters with his former German lover, Christa von Schurr. He remembers having sex with the well-known British spy and recruiter, Lady Angela Hope, who – apparently – made a great deal of noise, ‘as if he were Casanova’, twice, before attempting to wangle Italian state secrets out of him (futilely, it turns out). He goes to sleep.

2. Citizen of the Night

The Reuters man in Berlin, Wolf, is getting married and going on honeymoon, so Weisz’s boss, Delahanty, sends him to Berlin to cover. We have been privy to Weisz’s sensuous memories of making love with Christa – now he sees the assignment to meet her again. Sure enough, as soon as he contacts her she comes to his hotel room, and for the rest of his stay they meet every afternoon to enjoy a sequence of pornographic encounters, livened up by varieties of underwear and positions, and the ability to perform time after time. Underwear, panties, bra, camisoles are described in loving detail.

In between sex sessions, Christa invites Weisz out to a remote fairground where he is introduced to an unnamed man (p.88). He hands over a list of Nazi agents who have penetrated to high position in Italy, lots of them, over 150. Weisz is left wondering: Has Christa only revived the affair to ‘recruit’ him for her people, to make him a conduit to a free press outside Germany? What is he expected to with the list? Weisz experiences a familiar feeling of perplexity.

Furst’s men (they’re all men) move rather dreamily around Paris and other European capitals, cocooned in an atmosphere of good food, fine wines, bars and cafés high and low, seeming to end up in bed with a steady stream of uninhibited, easy and sexually inventive women, but plagued by obscure meetings and ambiguous conversations which leave them permanently puzzled about what they’re meant to be doing, and for who…

Germany threatens to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia which Hitler hadn’t already seized as a result of the Allied betrayal during the Munich Crisis (August 1938). And so Weisz’s boss tells him to pack and go by train from Germany to Prague to record the event.

He travels down with two other journalists, Hamilton of The Times and Simard from Havas, but the train is stopped by the Germans at Kralupy, before it reaches Prague. The three journalists pay the very reluctant town taxi to drive them through snow to the capital, the driver grumbling all the way. They’re still driving slowly around town when two students bundle into the car carrying a Nazi flag which they’ve torn down. Seems like a student prank for a few moments until a Gestapo car swings after them and starts shooting, bullets through the windows, little Simard gets injured and there’s frantic argument about how to tie a tourniquet. The taxi driver skedaddles through Prague’s snowy back streets to an old stables which the students know about, and where they help them hide out till the cops are gone.

In a separate plotline S. Kolb, a seedy little man who works for the British SIS (and who we have met in previous books) is despatched by his masters to track down Colonel Ferrara who we met in the opening pages. Ferrara had managed to escape from Spain after Madrid fell and the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939. Kolb tracks him to a French internment camp near Tarbes, in the south, then bribes the camp’s commandant with a lot of francs to let Ferrara free.

At first sceptical that he’s going to be shipped back to Italy, Ferrara lets himself be persuaded into a taxi to a station, and then onto a train to Paris. Here Kolb fixes him up with a room at the Hotel Tournon and it is here that Weisz is introduced to him, via Mr Brown.

Mr Brown explains to Weisz that ‘they’ would like him to write Ferrara’s biography, the biography of an Italian patriot and hero who resisted Mussolini. Ferrara agrees; later, when Weisz puts it to the Liberazione group, they also agree. So Weisz gets into the habit of going every evening, after his main day’s work, to the Hotel Toulon, there to smoke lots of cigarettes and type up Ferrara’s life story.

In short order, Weisz dumps his Paris girlfriend, Véronique and buys a typewriter in a flea market. He uses it to type out copies of the list of Nazi agents in Italy which Christa gave him back in Germany and which he carried round Prague and back to Paris. He’ll post copies to the British and French authorities – the flea market typewriter was so they couldn’t match it against his own typewriter, if they manage to trace it to him,

This section closes with Furst giving us a brief sketch of the Liberazione‘s distribution network in Italy: the conductor on the Paris-to-Genoa train; Matteo, who works at the printing works of Italy’s second newspaper, Il Secolo and slips printing the free sheet in between bigger jobs; Antionio who drives a coal delivery truck from Genoa to Rapallo and takes copies with him; Gabriella and Lucia, 16-year-olds in a convent school in Genoa who help distribute free copies; ending with readers like Lieutenant DeFranco, a detective in the rough waterfront area of Genoa, who enjoys reading the copy posted in the police station’s lavatory.

3. The Pact of Steel

Back in Paris. Véronique phones to tell Weisz that a threatening man came to cross-question her about Weisz and Liberazione, pretending to be – but obviously not – a member of the Sûreté. The Liberazione group meet and discover that Salamone has been dismissed from his job. The threat from OVRA seems to be looming from different directions. Agent 207 reports the meeting.

Weisz is despatched by his Reuters boss to cover the crowd assembled outside the hotel where King Zog of Albania is discovered to be staying. King Zog shows himself at the balcony, some cheer, some throw bottles, the crowd turns ugly and Weisz is suddenly hit very hard on the head, by some kind of sharp but heavy implement, regaining consciousness on the floor and helped to a nearby café by a cop. Staggering home, he fears he’s being followed. Was it an OVRA attack? A random bit of thuggery?

Next evening he meets up with Ferrara to move the book forward, and finds Kolb and Brown there. They go to a ‘mad’ nightclub up in Pigalle, where the girls dance naked except for shoes. Here Ferrara picks up a fetching naked girl called Irina. The reader suspects this will end badly: possibly she, too, is an OVRA agent or will lure him to a sticky end…

News comes in to Reuters that Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, is flying to Berlin to sign a so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Delahanty orders Weisz back to Berlin to cover it for the Italian point of view.

While Weisz is packing a new guest at the hotel looms menacingly at his door and we strongly suspect something bad is going to happen to Weisz, when the old hotel retainer Bertrand arrives puffing and panting up the stairs with Weisz’s plane tickets, thus saving him in the nick of time. The novels are full of close shaves, what-might-have-beens, or even perfectly innocent events which we – sharing the protagonist’s paranoia – think of as unnecessarily sinister. Thus in a hundred little ways, we enter the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which the characters move in…

Back in Berlin, Weisz gets a cryptic message from Christa inviting him to a party at a friend’s house. When he arrives at the apartment given on the invitation, there is no party and the door is open. He tiptoes through eerily empty rooms suspecting something bad has happened and, again, the reader is thinking the worst. But Christa is simply lying in bed, naked. She had fallen asleep. They have sex several times, as she explains that she thinks she’s being watched and so arranged this rendezvous at the apartment of a friend.

Weisz is an eye witness of the signing of the Pact of Steel at a formal hall in Berlin. Up till this moment the Italian exiles Weisz moves among have been hoping Italy will somehow keep out of Hitler’s mad plans, especially as Mussolini is on record as saying Italy wouldn’t be ready for war until 1943.

Weisz notices the changed atmosphere in Berlin, the number of uniforms on the street – SS, Gestapo, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Hitler Youth and so on, the expectation of violence. Then he’s back in bed with Christa.

Idly, he trailed a finger from the back of her neck down to where her legs parted, and she parted them a little more. (p.186)

When his trip ends he is upset, kisses Christa goodbye in the street, she walks away and out of sight, and he wonders if it’s forever. Oddly, as in all these Furst novels, I had absolutely no sense of emotional involvement or upset whatsoever. I see the logic of these characters’ emotions – but I don’t feel them. For me, these novels are like diagrams of emotion and feeling. Blueprints.

Back in Paris Weisz discovers the café where the Liberazione group meet has been burned down. Salamone has had a heart attack. Things are not looking good for our little group. The same man who pretended to be a Sûreté officer to interview Véronique, turns up at Elena’s workplace, the Galeries Lafayette, asking about her. Infuriated, Elena tails him through the Métro back to 62 Boulevard de Strasbourg. There’s a card claiming it’s the office of a photo agency. Next day Weisz rings the number on the card and establishes it’s an obvious front, they know nothing about press photos. Then Weisz goes along himself and finds letters in the postbox with Croatian names and addresses. Possibly agents of the Croatian Ustasha, sub-contracting to OVRA.

4. Soldiers for Freedom

Weisz and Ferrara continue working on the biography. Weisz reads in a newspaper a small article about a spy circle in Berlin being rounded up and imprisoned. His heart stops, as he thinks it must be Christa and her circle – and from this point onwards, for the last 60 or so pages of the novel, its protagonist’s overwhelming motivation is to find out what’s happening to Christa and try to ensure her safety.

Mr Brown takes Weisz to meet a ‘Mr Lane’, obviously a more senior SIS figure, who talks him into considering expanding the Liberazione operation, increasing the print runs, expanding the distribution network. Now that Mussolini is an official ally of Hitler, Britain will put more effort into trying to undermine his regime. But Weisz can only think about Christa.

Taking the initiative regarding the threat from OVRA, Weisz makes an appointment to see the inspectors investigating the Bottini murder. He takes along a case full of evidence about the phony Sûreté guys, and the evidence suggesting they are Ustashe agents operating illegally in France. They are interested. ‘Leave it with us; we’ll be in touch.’ At their next meeting they show Weisz photos, some of which he identifies as the men he’s seen. This confirms something the detectives knew (though they’re very vague about it to Weisz). As a sort of reward, they tell him there’s an OVRA agent within Liberazione, Zerba the art historian. Weisz is shocked, and so is Salamone when he tells him later. The latter’s first reaction is to kill him, but the police and Weisz had said No, let him continue  his activities.

Weisz has made a decision about the British suggestion to increase Liberazione activity: he asks Kolb if he can organise a meeting with his boss, Mr Brown. Here he asks if the SIS can find out Christa’s situation. Brown grudgingly agrees, but insists that, in return, Weisz a) hurry up and finish the Ferrara book b) agrees to go back to Italy to organise the printing and distribution of Liberazione on a much larger scale and in the process c) is seen, spreading the rumour of defiance, raising morale among the anti-Mussolini opposition.

Tense climax

And so the last forty pages of the novel follow Weisz’s tense journey across the border, to Genoa and then to clandestine meetings with the distribution network, as he pays Matteo to find extra capacity at the print works, meets an underworld fixer, Grassone, who can supply newsprint by the ton, and then is taken to meet an old Genoese criminal who is prepared to rent him a huge underground vault to operate in.

They’ve just been shown round the vault and emerged into the daylight into a busy marketplace, when rough hands are placed on Weisz’s collar and he realises a policeman is arresting him. He tries to get away, but is slapped and kicked to the ground and finds himself wriggling under a market stall. The cop is tugging at his legs when suddenly the market traders start throwing things at Pazzo, who turns out to be the well-known and much-hated local cop, such a barrage, that Pazzo is forced to turn and flee.

Leader of the vegetable throwers had been a huge old lady, Angelina. She picks Weisz up and dusts him off and then takes him off through a maze of alleys to a church, where she hands him over to Father Marco for safekeeping. Weisz realises he can’t go back to the hotel, so he’s abandoning his things and in fact the entire project.

Was he betrayed? Was it a misunderstanding (surely the OVRA would have sent a whole squad of heavies not a fat local policeman)? Who cares. Now he’s going home. But when he goes down to the docks to try and board the Hydraios, sailing back to Marseilles, part of the carefully worked out plan – he finds that the slack dock passport controller, Nunzio, has been joined by two serious looking detectives. There is no way through without being cross-questioned and arrested. Forlorn, he watches the ship slip its moorings and sail away.

Promptly Weisz abandons Genoa. He has money and so he buys a completely new outfit and travels to the resort of Portofino where he puts himself about among the rich tourists, hoping to get himself invited aboard one of the many rich tourists yachts. He fails with the Brits and the Americans, but then scores a success with the party of Sven, a self-made Dane, who shrewdly realises he’s in trouble but invites Weisz to join their yacht party anyway.

As if by magic, a few days later Weisz is back in Paris. And the last pages cut to Berlin where Kolb has been sent to extract Christa. Although she is being followed everywhere by the Gestapo, Kolb has a taxi driver follow her when she takes a group of Hitler Youth girls out to a lake (where many of them strip naked and frolic in the waves, to Kolb’s delight). He hisses at Christa from the treeline, and persuades her to come there and then, clamber into the boot of the car, be driven to a safe flat, where they’ll change her appearance, give her new papers and smuggle her into Luxembourg.

On the very last page Weisz arrives tired and demoralised back at the Hotel Dauphine, his Paris base, and the landlady. Madam Rigaud, tells him a new guest has checked in, a German countess, who seemed keen to see Herr Weisz. She’s put her in room 47.

Never has a man run up flights of stairs with such enthusiasm! To a joyous happy ending.


A web of characters

Blurbs on the books tend to praise the tremendous ‘atmosphere’ of Furst’s historical novels. I personally don’t find them ‘atmospheric’ so much as stuffed with an amazing grasp of historical detail and an astonishingly large cast of characters.

The novels feature not just the main protagonist (always a fairly average, if foreign, bloke: Serebin, DeHaan, Weisz) but a realistic web of secondary, tertiary and minor characters, many of whom only appear in fleeting scenes, but are given vivid thumbnail descriptions, quick lines, enough to make an impact and create the sense of a fully-populated imaginative world.

This way that the novels just teem with people and takes us to a wealth of urban settings and locations, helps the novels read like life, like confused, hectic, twentieth-century modern life in big cities, in huge industrialised nations lumbering towards war.

Characters

I set out to make a list of all the characters which appear in the book and was amazed at just how many of them there are.

  • Carlo Weisz, Italian émigré journalist, Paris-based correspondent for Reuters news agency, who works part time producing Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini free sheet.
  • Hotel Dauphine, Weisz’s home in Paris.
  • Madame Rigaud, landlady of the Hotel Dauphine, broad-hipped and complaisant, about whom he has vivid sexual fantasies.
  • Ettore, il Conte Amandola, agent of OVRA, the pro-fascist agency.
  • OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell’Antifascismo (p.98)
  • Bottini, émigré lawyer from Turin and outspoken critic of Mussolini, he is assassinated by OVRA agents in the opening pages.
  • Madame LaCroix, Bottini’s plump noisy mistress. The OVRA agents murder her in bed with Bottini and make it look like he killed her then committed suicide, in order to achieve maximum humiliation of the anti-fascist figurehead. However, Mme LaCroix happened to be married to a French politician minister, and this draws the French Security forces into an investigation of her death, which will eventually draw Weisz into collaborating with them.
  • Staff of the Liberazione freesheet, who meet in the Café Europa:
    • Arturo Salamone, former insurance salesman in Italy, now main organiser of the paper
    • Sergio
    • Elena, fiery little exile
    • Michele Zerba, art historian from Siena (p.239)
  • giellisti (p.8) collective name of the opponents and resisters of Mussolini’s fascism, a conflation of Giustizia e Libertà (p.220).
  • Agent 207 – spy inside Liberazione group, we read his reports of the secret meetings immediately after they’ve happened – obviously he or she is one of the core members. Towards the end of the novel we learn the agent is Zerba, the art historian. (pp.29, 152)
  • confidente – Mussolini’s secret police / secret agents.
  • Mary McGrath, a veteran correspondent in her 40s (p.13) a journalist who we meet accompanying Weisz in Civil War Spain.
  • Sandoval, Spanish driver, assigned by the Republicans to drive Weisz and McGrath around the battlefield and to nearest towns to file his copy.
  • ‘Colonel Ferrara’ – nom de guerre of an Italian hero of the Great War who became an anti-Mussolini  figurehead and volunteered to fight in Spain, where has become a legendary figure (p.18). Kolb buys his freedom from a French internment camp and accompanies him to Paris where Weisz is engaged to write his heroic biography, Soldier for Freedom.
  • The military censor in Castelldans (p.24)
  • S. Kolb (p.50), a meagre little man, his career at a Swiss bank was ruined after he was (unfairly) caught embezzling money, then recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, after which he has been thrown into all kinds of perilous situations. In this novel he is given the money to purchase Colonel Ferrara’s freedom, brings him to Paris, settles him in a safe apartment and supervises Weisz writing his biography.
  • Commandant of the French internment camp near Tarbes where Ferrara is being held.
  • Hotel Tournon – the Paris hotel Kolb books Ferrara into.
  • Monsieur Devoisin, a permanent undersecretary at the French Foreign Ministry, who Weisz visits for official briefings (p.61).
  • Irina – one night Ferrara, Weisz and Kolb go to a nightclub to blow away the blues, to the Club Chez les Nudistes, up in Pigalle, where the girls wear only high-heeled shoes and are illuminated by blue lights. She seduces Ferrara on the dance floor and quickly becomes his beloved – ‘she is my life. We make love all night.’ (p.235)
  • Véronique, one of Weisz’s lovers, works in an up-market art gallery (p.132). He has some dainty sex before formally dumping her as his affair with Christa re-ignites.
  • Delahanty, Weisz’s boss at Reuters Paris bureau (p.27)
  • Geoffrey Sparrow, Oxford friend of Weisz’s (p.41)
  • Olivia, Sparrow’s flirtatious girlfriend (p.43)
  • Edwin Brown, ‘Mr Brown’, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (p.44).
  • Mr Lane, Brown’s superior in SIS (p.219)
  • Sir Roderick (p.233). We don’t get his last name. Lane refers to him as the head of SIS, also mentioned in previous books.
  • Count Polanyi, well known Hungarian spy (pp.48, 125)
  • Nicholas Morath, his nephew and central character in Kingdom of Shadows (p.125)
  • Lady Angela Hope, the dashing British spy and recruiter who the text goes out of its way to make clear Weisz made love to, very noisily, twice (p.49).
  • Inspector Pompon of the Sûreté National who interviews Weisz in room 10 of the imposing Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies (p.63).
  • Inspector Guerin, Pompon’s partner (p.223).
  • Eric Wolf, Reuters man in Berlin, getting married, going on honeymoon in Cornwall for a fortnight, Weisz is sent to Berlin to cover for him (p.70).
  • Christa Zameny, Weisz’s passionate lover, who married German count von Schirren some years before (p.75). When Weisz appears in Berlin they immediately, with barely a word spoken, resume their careers as championship sexual performers, Christa’s panties and bra repeatedly falling to the floor, ‘her breasts shining wet in the light’ (p.85).
  • Gerda, German secretary at Reuters Berlin office.
  • Dr Martz, cheerful Nazi official at the Berlin Press Club.
  • Ian Hamilton, journalist from The Times (p.98) on the short trip to Prague.
  • Prague taxi driver.
  • The two students in Prague.
  • Brasserie Heininger (p.124) the glitzy night-life bar and dance floor which appears in every one of Furst’s novels.
  • Moma Tsipler and his Wienerwald Companions – a Viennese Jazz band who’ve appeared in previous novels and are in residence at the Brasserie Heininger during this one.
  • Louis Fischfang (p.125) film scriptwriter and a lead character in The World At Night and Red Gold.
  • Voyschinkowsky, known as ‘the Lion of the Bourse.’ (p.125)
  • André Szara, protagonist of Furst’s second novel, Dark Star (p.125).
  • Cara Dionello, rich Argentinian, part of the Polanyi party (p.125).
  • King Zog of Albania, in exile in Paris after the Italians seize Albania (p.156)
  • Matteo, printer in Genoa who uses his job as cover to print copies of Liberazione before getting it clandestinely shipped off round Italy.
  • Antonio, truck driver who delivers Liberazione from Genoa to Rapallo
  • Gabriella and Lucia 16-year-old schoolgirls who help distribute Liberazione.
  • Lieutenant DeFranco, detective in the rough waterfront district of Genoa who enjoys reading Liberazione (p.139)
  • Gennaro, transport policeman on the Paris to Genoa train (p.171)
  • Perini, owner of Perini’s barbershop in the rue Mabillon (p.143).
  • Bertrand, loyal old porter at Weisz’s hotel, the Dauphine (p.176).
  • Adolf Hitler, bounding up and down with happiness after signing the Pact of Steel (p.184).
  • Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister (p.184).
  • The assistant manager of the Galeries Lafayette, nicknamed ‘the Dragon’ (p.194).
  • Old Madame Gros, secretary at the Galeries Lafayette (p.195).
  • Grassone, ‘fatboy’, huge underworld figure in Genoa (p.253).
  • Emil, slick underworld fixer in Genoa (p.255).
  • ‘The landlord’, owner of the old wine cellar which Weisz can use as a base for the expanded printing of Liberazione (p.263).
  • Pazzo, the local bully boy policeman who tries to arrest Weisz in Genoa (p.265).
  • Angelina, immense woman wearing a hairnet who retaliates against Pazzo and secures Weisz’s freedom (p.266).
  • Father Marco, who gives Weisz sanctuary after Angelina has got him away from the local police (p.267).
  • Nunzio, easy-gong customs officer at Genoa docks.
  • Klemens, former German street fighter now agent for SIS, driver of the car in which Kolb collects Christa and spirits her away from her watchers (p.274).

Nets and webs

The novel is, in other words, populated by an amazingly intricate web of characters who are shown interacting in a multitude of expected or unpredictable ways. For me, Furst’s novels have complexity instead of ‘atmosphere’. It’s the sheer proliferation of characters, with numberless walk-on parts for taxi drivers, bartenders, customs officials and so on, which gives the novels their extraordinary sense of range and their imaginative suasion.

As explained in reviews of his previous novels, I don’t find Furst’s novels particularly thrilling for most of their length – not until the deliberately exciting final chapter or so. For most of their length they consist of accounts of meetings, interviews, rendezvous, the handing over of documents, discussion of secrets, making of arrangements and so on, in offices, street corners and cafés. And the making love.

Fine food They routinely feature rather sumptuous descriptions of meals at fancy restaurants (at the Ritz hotel in Paris, the Adlon in Berlin, the famous Brasserie Heininger) accompanied by fancy cocktails or champagne.

Sex And of course, the novels are laced with descriptions of knowing, sensual sex with one of the hero’s various lovers or mistresses (Marie-Galante in Blood of Victory, Demetria and Maria Sombel in Dark Voyage, and the very sensuous and imaginative Christa von Schirren in this novel). We read descriptions – muted tasteful descriptions – of Weisz having sex with Véronique, with Lady Angela Hope, with Christa, or fantasising about having sex with little Olivia or his Paris landlady.

He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, so they had a good time. Afterwards, he smoked a Gitane and watched her as she sat at her dressing table, her small breasts rising and falling as she brushed her hair. (p.32)

In Furst’s fiction, you’re never far away from silk bras or panties suavely slipping off smooth flesh.

After a time, she moved her legs apart, and guided his hand, ‘God,’ she said, ‘how I love this.’ He could tell that she did. Sliding down the bed, so that her head was level with his waist, she said, ‘Just stay where you are, there is something I have wanted to do for a long time.’ (p.181)

Good living The fine food, the champagne cocktails, the beautiful women stripping down to their cami-knickers in each novel tend to counter-balance – or even outweigh – the rarer action scenes: the strange men following the hero down a darkened street, the shots from the police as they crash a roadblock, the dive bombers attacking the naval convoy. Much more often you get paragraphs like this:

She stood and took off her jacket and skirt, then her shirt, stockings and suspenders, and folded them over the top of the chaise longue. Usually she wore expensive cotton underwear, white or ivory, and soft to the touch, but tonight she was in a plum-coloured silk, the bra with a lace trim, the panties low at the waist, high at the hip, and tight, a style called, Véronique had once told him, French cut. (p.94)

Sensual and soft More broadly, if something actually violent isn’t happening (which it generally isn’t) Furst’s general purpose setting is noticeably sensual and gentle. It’s not just the sex and fine wine which contributes to the sense of softness about the novels, it’s the default attitude which is – oddly given the subject matter – consistently sweet and gentle.

All his life he’d gazed at rivers, from London’s Thames to Budapest’s Danube, with the Arno, the Tiber and the Grand Canal of Venice in between, but the Seine was queen of the poetic rivers, to Weisz it was. Restless and melancholy, or soft and slow, depending on the mood of the river, or his. That night it was dappled, black with rain and running high in its banks… (p.123)

Very often poetic and wistful:

For a time, Weisz just stood there, alone on the wharf, as the crew disappeared up the flight of stone steps. When they’d gone, it was very quiet, only a buzzing dock light, a cloud of moths fluttering in its metal hood and the lapping of the sea against the quay. The night air was warm, a familiar warmth, soft on the skin, and fragrant with the scents of decay; damp stone and drains, mud flats at low tide.
Weisz had never been here before, but he was home. (p.246)

It is these kind of cadences which give the novels, overall, a dreamy feel which I think explains why the reader is rarely really gripped by the storyline, but is more often absorbed by the endless variety of new characters, interested in the depictions of real historical moments and geopolitical developments – and lulled by the rhythms of much of the prose.

At times this rises to overtly physical descriptions of food or sex but, even in the absence of those obvious highlights, is everywhere characterised by a kind of sweet and gentle sensuality, which helps make the novels such easy, interesting, sexy and rewarding reads.


Credit

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst was published in 2006 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2007 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 – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – 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.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – 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)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – 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.
2003 Absolute Friends – 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. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, who happens to be half-Congolese, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ – but in reality to plunder the country’s resources. Salvo is there to translate, but ends up hearing more than he should about the brutal behind-the-scenes deals the syndicate and the delegates are cutting, and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man –
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 Corgi paperback edition.

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Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2006)

The Uncommon Reader is a short (100 pages) novella by Alan Bennett, dry, clipped, funny, understated, with some-thought provoking notions and brilliant phrasing.

Plot The Queen stumbles across the travelling lending library in the Palace grounds and out of politeness borrows a book. She starts reading. She becomes intrigued at new thoughts and feelings. She develops sensibility ie noticing people and details, becomes less dutiful, more enquiring. This unsettles everyone from her Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. After a discursive middle which explores the nature of reading, what it does to you, why we do it, the book moves quickly to a surprise, or shock, ending.

The camp/gay environment of the Royal Household is very well conveyed, all those gay equerries, a royal milieu familiar to Bennett from his play about the gay traitor Anthony Blunt, from The Madness of George III etc. He seems perfectly at home putting pithy dialogue into the mouths of her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh.

And what dialogue! Bennett has been writing dialogue for 50 years, from the Cambridge Review, through his countless plays, TV monologues and film scripts, along with the brief concentrated format of his diaries: the short form, and a pithy abbreviated style, are his thing and reading the prose is a delight:

‘We have a travelling library’, said the Queen to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’
‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’
‘You remember Oklahoma?’
‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.
‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’ said the Queen.
‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’
‘Smelled delicious.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A book. I borrowed it.’
‘Dead, I suppose.’
‘Who?’
‘The Beaton fellow.’
‘Oh yes. Everyone’s dead.’
‘Good show, though.’
And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Bennett’s books are small, domestic, homely. He is a national treasure because, under his hand, everything turns into Ratty and Moley: vide George III and his wife wonderfully domesticated as Mr and Mrs King; here, the Prime Minister is an easily confused figure of fun, not the war criminal Bennett probably thinks him.

As to the thoughts on reading, they are nicely phrased:

‘Of course’, said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’ (page 22)

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal… (Page 30)

But for all the crafted dialogue, the limpid style, the witticisms, the out-and-out jokes, the sly quotes and the knowing references to contemporary authors, ultimately, like all Bennett, we are left a little empty and unsatisfied. Is that it? I wanted more meat. The choice of the Queen as subject turns out not to be revolutionary or disruptive but to ensure the book is small in scope and intention. The reading bug makes her less mechanical in her brief chats with her subjects: she actually starts asking them what they’re reading, which throws the subjects and her staff; and then she realises she enjoys writing down the thoughts that reading prompts – maybe she should record them in a notebook or something?

That’s about it. The text, like the subject matter, feels controlled and safe and cosy. Like the proverbial Chinese meal, I enjoyed the flavours and colours as I read it; but an hour or two later I was hungry again.

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