Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.

Writers

Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

Related links

Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

Related links

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith (2007)

This is the sixth of the eight novels featuring Russian homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, and arguably the most Russian.

As usual there is an extensive cast list and lots of scenes, events and encounters which often border on the bizarre and even visionary. For example, one evening Arkady is driving through the choked Moscow traffic when he comes across a jam around the Moscow Supreme Court. Getting closer he sees canvas awnings and police guiding the traffic, so he gets out to ask what’s going on. A cop tells him that workaday excavations under the Supreme Court to build a new café and facilities have revealed a mass grave. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Russians during the Stalin era of the 1930s, 40s and 50s were brought directly from the court room down into the cellar and shot in the back of the head.

Later in the novel, in countryside hundreds of miles from Moscow, Arkady gets accidentally involved with a group which calls itself ‘the Diggers’, poor provincials who assemble every weekend at rural sites which might contain mass graves from the second world war, and here they dig up the corpses, looting anything valuable from the German ones, sending the Russian ones, where identifiable, back to their families.

This latter scene takes outside the town of Tver, where the Nazi advance into Russia was halted then reversed, for this novel, more than any of the others, is about the toxic legacy of Russia’s immensely troubled past on its chaotic, crime-infested present. This is the guiding theme of the novel and it is brought out through a number of intertwining elements.

Elements of the plot

1. Moscow

Stalin’s ghost It opens with riders on the late-night Moscow metro claiming to have sighted Stalin, standing clear as day on one of the central stations. Arkady is tasked with what seems the trivial mission of getting to the bottom of this odd story. When he rides the last metro he comes across a TV crew led by the director Zelensky, his assistant, Petya, and a thuggish minder, Boris Bogolovo aka ‘Bora’. They claim to have been simply filming the metro passengers but Arkady suspects them of doing something with mirrors or optical illusions, or somehow being involved in what he thinks is a publicity stunt, so he confiscates their tape, and shoulders his way past the protesting crew, including Bora who is obviously tempted to get physical, except for all the witnesses.

Once outside the station, Arkady realises Bora is still pursuing him. In a scene of mounting tension, the fit hard man Bora follows Arkady into the snow-covered Gorky Park, but the latter has cleverly lured him onto the snow-covered ice of the lake at the park’s centre. As Bora catches up, Arkady jumps up and down to crack the ice and Bora falls through it, drifting away from the hole and starting to drown. Arkady waits a good while before making another hole and dragging the half-drowned Bora out, pumping his chest to evacuate the water. Bora never actually attacked him and appears to have no weapon so Arkady can’t get him locked up, so makes sure he’s more or less recovered and walks away. This incident will have dire consequences later on.

Kuznetsov murdered In a completely unrelated development a big, stocky middle-aged man named Kuznetsov is found dead in his crappy workers’ apartment with a cleaver embedded in his neck. Arkady is called to the scene to find it being investigated by a pair of detectives we haven’t met before, the dapper Nikolai Isakov and the thuggish Marat Urman. They claim it’s an open and shut case, the wife is covered with blood and hysterical in the next room: she will be charged with the murder.

Comrade Platonov In another strand Arkady is contacted by a certain Platonov, an eighty-year-old chess grand master and unreconstructed communist party member. Platonov has asked for police protection because the communist HQ has been attacked a few times and Platonov has been threatened for speaking out against the current regime.

Tanya the garroter Half way through the novel Arkady is invited to a ‘party’ at this communist party headquarters, a rundown office full of junk equipment. A pretty young woman is there, Tanya, who he had previously seen playing the harp in the bar of the swanky Hotel Metropol. One purpose of the scene is to show how completely collapsed and demoralised the communist party now is, run by a handful of tired old timers.

But there is another purpose: Tanya the harpist drunkenly flirts with Arkady then insists he sees her home. When he is rummaging round in the tatty stationery room looking for their coats he is astonished to feel a piano wire – a wire from her harp! – slipped round his neck and the supposedly drunk Tanya suddenly using all her strength to strangle him. There is a mad struggle in which he pushes backwards, failing to back kick her, but eventually nutting her backwards and, in her temporary loss of grasp, whipping the wire over his head and punching her hard.

Tanya is arrested and Arkady taken to hospital with severe bruising and cutting round his neck. He is startled to learn from his assistant, Viktor Orlov, that Tanya is the girlfriend of the thuggish cop, Urman. Hmmm. Characteristically Arkady’s superior, the prosecutor Zurin, who hates him, prefers Tanya’s version of the story: she is claiming that Arkady tried to rape her. As usual, Arkady finds himself surrounded by enemies and deliberate misunderstanding.

Eva In the previous novel, Arkady had hooked up with a female doctor who was working in the eerie Exclusion Zone around the ruined Chernobyl power station, Dr Eva Kazka. He had ‘taken’ her from her divorced husband (who turns out to be the killer at the core of the novel, Alex Gerasimov) and brought her back to his Moscow flat where they formed an odd household, looking after the street kid Zhenya, who sometimes flops on their sofa, sometimes is absent for long periods.

But early on it becomes clear that their relationship is in trouble. Throughout the novel Arkady is given to playing tapes they made in the happy early months of their relationship, and lamenting the fact that they’ve drifted apart. This mainly seems to be because she’s obscurely re-activated a relationship she had from an earlier part of her career, when she worked in Chechnya during the troubled years of the 1990s, during Russia’s savage wars with the little republic (Chechen population 1.27 million, Russian population 144 million).

In fact, it is a surprise to learn the man who is taking her away from Arkady is his fellow investigator, Nikolai Isakov. Bit by bit we learn that he was a member of the special forces or OMON (also known as the Black Berets) in Chechnya and so was his thuggish sidekick, Urman. This is where he met Eva who was, being a principled rebel, tending Chechen civilians caught in the conflict. She testifies that Nikolai was genuinely brave, a born leader of his men, and went out of his way to be chivalrous to the Chechen population. Doesn’t stop Arkady being upset that she is leaving him.

Isakov’s political ambitions It emerges that Isakov has not only smoothly transitioned from leader of men in Chechnya to Moscow investigator – he also harbours political ambitions. He is the figurehead of a new ‘Patriotic Party’ which will ‘make Russia great again’. To this end he has employed two American political advisers, satirical portraits of two chancers named Wiley and Pacheco. And also the former porn movie director, Zelensky, who we met at the scene of the ‘Stalin sightings’ on the metro.

Arkady feels some kind of pattern emerging from the fog. When the distraught wife of Kuznetsov, the man we met with a meat cleaver in his neck, is found having ‘swallowed her tongue’ and died while in police custody, it prompts Arkady to revisit the morgue to examine the Kuznetsov’s body. Turning him over Arkady and Orlov see the massive tell-tale tattoo of the OMON on his back. Aha.

Isakov, Urman, Bora, Kuznetsov were all in the same OMON unit in Chechnya. Tanya who tried to kill him is linked with Urman. Eva who is dumping him met Isakov in Chechnya. What are they all trying to hide?

The Sunzha Bridge incident Slowly a theme emerges, a central incident on which the plot turns out to hinge: during the Chechen War, Chechen guerrillas attacked a Russian hospital and massacred all the doctors, nurses and patients, then fled in lorries. Nikolai Isakov was leading a group of six OMON troops by a small bridge which the guerrillas were reported to be heading for. Here they intercepted the trucks and engaged in a fierce firefight with the fleeing guerrillas, eventually killing 14 of them and repelling the trucks, with only one wounded on their own side.

Isakov’s American political advisers have made a big deal out of this heroic episode and are using it in their posters and promotional videos to boost Nikolai’s patriotic credentials. ‘What Russia needs is courageous leaders etc’.

Arkady undermines the legend But, typically, Arkady obstinately pokes and enquires and digs deeper and begins to suspect the incident is not all it was painted to be. Through contacts he comes across the alcoholic Jewish hunchback, Ginsberg, who was attached to the OMON as press and PR man. He arrived at the scene of the heroic fight by helicopter only moments after it ended and took photos from the hovering chopper. After building up his trust, Arkady gets Ginsberg to hand over the photos he took from the chopper down onto the scene of the fight, strewn with dead Chechens and heroic OMON forces. Having had time to examine them really closely, Arkady makes an appointment to meet Ginsberg again, but the hunchback fails to turn up and eventually Arkady discovers his body in a nearby street. He appears to have drunk himself insensible in a snowdrift and been run over by a snowplough with gruesome results. And the investigating officer? The thuggish Urman. It really feels like a conspiracy now.

No medal for Nikolai Following up all the leads, Arkady gets a meeting with retired Major Gennady Agronsky who was in charge of allotting medals during the Chechen War. Isakov’s name was put forward for one because of the much-publicised incident, but Agronsky looked into the incident in detail, and eventually refused to grant one. A few weeks later he was forced into retirement. Like Ginsberg he thinks there was in fact no firefight: he thinks the Chechens were hostages or somehow captives of the OMON forces who simply executed them and claimed the glory.

Arkady’s father A completely different thread which runs through the text is a series of vivid memories Arkady has of his father, General Kyril Renko. Kyril was an eminent general during the second world war (which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War). The Russians suffered so badly in the war partly because Stalin, in his paranoia, purged (ie executed) nearly the entire command structure of the Red Army, 1,000s of senior and experienced officers. He also refused to believe all the intelligence telling him Hitler was about to attack, believing all such reports to be Western disinformation, thus giving the Germans all possible advantages.

Arguably it was the weather and nothing to do with Russian leadership which halted then turned the tide of the German advance. If they had attacked 6 weeks earlier they might have taken Moscow and forced the collapse of the Soviet government (as in Robert Harris’s brilliant counter-factual thriller, Fatherland.)

Arkady’s father navigated all these horrors to become one of Stalin’s favourites, managing to survive both the war and the revival of purges in the later 1940s and 1950s (until Stalin’s death in 1953). Throughout the book Arkady meets characters who think his father was a great patriotic hero. But, in line with the book’s general theme of debunking the past, Arkady knows his father was a butcher in his professional work and a bully in his private life.

Arkady repeatedly relives the countless times his father bullied the young boy into stripping down then rebuilding a pistol. If he made any errors his father forced him to stand with his arms outstretched holding the gun, a pose which quickly became a form of torture.

But at the heart of his memories is Arkady’s obsessive rerunning of the summer day when his mother took him down to the stream near the family’s dacha, to collect stones, the little boy has no idea why. That night the General holds a massive party for all his Army colleagues and neighbours in the select neighbourhood of dachas. The mother is reported missing and a search party finds her down in the lake. She has filled all her pockets with the stones and drowned herself. The General is furious when he discovers Arkady, the innocent little boy, helped her collect them, and asks his friends to take the boy away before he kills him. Kyril never forgives the boy and is further embittered when he rejects a career in the Army to become a lousy cop.

So when various supporters of the new Patriotic Party tell Arkady how much they admire his ‘heroic’ father, Arkady doesn’t even have to reply. We know his version. By extension, we know how much contemporary myths and legends – and lies – distort the past.

Zhenya’s father Another father looms large in the plot. Zhenya, the runaway street kid we met in the previous novel, flits in and out of Arkady’s life. He is just one of the estimated 50,000 kids living wild on the streets of Moscow. Most of them aren’t abandoned, they’ve run away from abusive alcoholic parents. There are so many of them running wild and committing street crime that Putin himself has declared them a threat to national security (p.54).

Cruz Smith’s novels paint an unremittingly bleak and hopeless picture of contemporary Russia.

Zhenya is 12 now and still the startling chess prodigy we met in the previous novel. He and old comrade Platonov are invited to take part in a TV chess championship. Cruz Smith lets rip in depicting this televised fiasco as a symbol of the collapse of Russian culture: instead of grandmasters spending days in subtle battle as back in the glory years, this is ‘blitz’ chess, a knockout tournament where each player has just five minutes to play all their moves, for the entertainment of the cheering, mindless TV audience.

Cruz Smith describes the chess games of Zhenya and Platonov with characteristic clipped poetry. Despite not describing the actual moves, he vividly conveys the way Zhenya slaughters his opponents to make it to the final. In this Big Match Zhenya is poised to win when someone in the audience coughs, Zhenya glances up, and then to everyone’s amazement, deliberately resigns the game.

Outside the studio, he explains to Arkady and Platonov that he saw his father in the audience. His father? Arkady has been keeping an eye out for Zhenya’s father for several years, under the impression the boy was dying to be reunited with his errant parent. In the event the dad – Osip Lysenko – follows Arkady, Platonov and his son out into the snow where he proceeds to harangue them all, blaming Arkady for abducting him, eventually pulling an old-looking gun out, pointing it at Arkady’s skull and – without any warning – shooting him in the head!

Arkady’s recovery That was unexpected. The whole plot goes on hold while Arkady recovers in a weird and powerful chapter which intertwines status reports on Arkady’s blood pressure, heart rate and so on, with snippets he overhears of the doctors talking about him and vivid memories, especially of the mother drowning incident.

In particular we hear the docs explaining to his on-again, off-again partner, Dr Eva, that the gun was very very old, so old the bullet barely detonated, though it did enter the skull and mash some of the brain. Arkady had been accompanied by the ever-faithful assistant detective Viktor Orlik who promptly shot Osip dead.

The doctors operate to remove the bullet and then cut open the front of Arkady’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain. As the days pass, Arkady comes out from anaesthesia, argues with his nurses and doctors, receives visitors and, with typical obstinacy, insists on checking out before he is fully recovered.

This section contains some weirdly affecting passages where the recovering Arkady realises the extent of his brain damage: he is shown an orange and asked what colour it is, what shape it is. He knows, but can’t formulate the words. It would have been very interesting if he had continued in this slightly brain-damaged state. A brain-damaged investigator would (presumably) be some kind of first in the vast annals of crime fiction. And also Cruz Smith’s style, his approach, is so very alert to language and its manipulation, that it’s a shame he didn’t make more of this opportunity.

2. Tver

Instead, Arkady recovers with disappointing speed and decides he needs to drive to Tver, a town a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. Why? Because all of the OMON group Isakov belonged to come from Tver. The secret of his rise, what his squad got up to in Chechnya, the secret of the Sunzha Bridge, all will be revealed there.

Prosecutor Sarkisian Tver’s town prosecutor has been tipped off by Arkady’s boss that his subversive underling is coming, and organises a Russian welcome, ie the manager of the hotel Arkady’s been booked into shows him up to the room, slips on some knuckle dusters and is about to beat him up, when Arkady sprays fly spray in his face.

Arkady decides it’s safer to take a furnished room and replies to an ad which introduces him to one Sofia Andreyeva Poninski, who rents out to him a rather nice flat, furnished with oil paintings and classy rugs, claiming to do so on behalf of its absent owner, an academic on an overseas posting. Possibly the academic doesn’t even know it’s being let, but Arkady won’t quibble, and he sets about investigating the scene in Tver.

Rudi Rudenko After getting shouted at by angry provincials he realises he’s going to have to ditch his car with its Moscow number plates, and on a whim decides to rent or buy a motorbike. Answering an ad he goes to the beaten-up garage of a pony-tailed hell’s angel, Rudi Rudenko, initially violent (like all the Russians in these novels), who eventually calms down and sells Arkady an ancient motorbike with sidecar. Rudi lets slip that he is one of the ‘diggers’ and Arkady insists on coming on their next dig.

This is the big jamboree I referred to above, where fleets of cars, with families, bikers, history fanatics, treasure seekers with metal detectors, all congregate on likely looking sites to dig up bodies from the Great Patriotic War. For as well as being the home town of Isakov, Urman, Kuznetsov and all six of the Omon troops involved in the Sunzha Bridge incident, Arkady tells us that Tver is also where the German advance into Russia ground to a standstill.

On this rather slender basis, Smith makes Isakov and Urman turn up at this particular dig, accompanied by their Yankee advisors, Wiley and Pacheco, and the camera team directed by the seedy ex-porn director, Zelensky. The idea is that Zendensky is filming Isakov at various ‘patriotic’ events, building up a portfolio which can be edited into TV ads for the forthcoming elections. (Slowly, without us really realising it, Isakov has stopped being a police investigator and morphed into a populist political candidate).

Disaster at the dig This is the long climactic scene which brings together all the novel’s threads and all its key characters. Isakov and Urman are there, along with the creepy director Zelensky who films the activities, and the two American political advisors consulting on how he should behave. Arkady has been joined by Eva (actually now in Isakov’s entourage) and young Zhenya.

The diggers set about digging in the lee of a hilltop crowned with pine trees, Arkady watching fascinated, and little Zhenya with him keen to see old guns and grenades. Soon enough bodies start turning up, garnished with equipment and name tags. The Americans cue the director who positions Isakov to make a grand Patriotic Speech about the patriotic soldiers who gave their lives for the great nation of Russia – ‘Who is willing to make that kind of sacrifice nowadays etc?’

However, the whole plan is seriously scuppered when the woman who rented Arkady the flat turns up on the site as the official pathologist brought in to verify the provenance of the corpses, Dr Poninski. She ruins the mood by examining a series of corpses and announcing that they are indisputably Polish, garnished with Polish name tags, letters, weapons etc – and every one of them has been shot in the back of the head.

Far from being patriotic heroes, these bodies are just some of the victims of one of Stalin’s worst crimes, the execution of the entire officer class of the Polish people which, along with the systematic extermination of all its intelligentsia and managerial classes, was designed to reduce the Poles to eternal slavery to the Great Russian People (this is also the secret at the heart of Robert Harris’s great thriller, Enigma.)

Angry, demoralised, disillusioned, the majority of the diggers pack up and leave. But not Isakov’s sidekick, the volatile thug Urman. He insists on taking a shovel and moving up the slope into the trees and is followed by the boyishly excited Zhenya, so Arkady has to follow them too.

All through this scene there have been alerts about armed ordnance left lying around and references to the steady trickle of diggers who have, in the past, blow their legs off when a spade hit a grenade or landmine. As Arkady tries to reason Zhenya into leaving, Urman suddenly turns violent, knowing Arkady is on their trail about the Bridge incident and blaming him for everything which has gone wrong with Isakov’s campaign. Now he turns his shovel on Arkady, clouting him round the head, knocking him, stunned, into the hole he’s been digging and, madly, impulsively, starting to bury Arkady alive. When he’s shovelled all the loose dirt available onto our hero he starts digging up more, and that’s when he uncovers an anti-personnel mine which springs into the air, loaded with ball bearings and scrap metal, gives a gentle click, and explodes, cutting Urman in half.

A dazed Arkady slowly excavates himself from his grave, picks up Zhenya and staggers back to the dig headquarters, mounts his bike and drives back into Tver.

Isakov’s father Cruising along the high street he sees two figures outside the local security services (FSB) headquarters. It is Isakov and Eva, pacing up and down, deep in conversation.

When he joins them Arkady finds Isakov agonising about his father, formerly a senior figure in the Tver NKVD, predecessor to the KGB. Like Arkady, he had a powerful dominating father, but this one was an alcoholic. Just like Arkady’s, all his colleagues said Isakov’s father was a great ‘hero’ during the war – in which case, why did he become obsessed in later years with washing his hands and end up drink himself to death?

After the revelation of the Polish genocide at the dig, Isakov thinks he finally understands. Now for the first time he is inclined to believe the rumours he heard about his father that he was not some hero, he was actually the KGB executioner – locked into a room with a pistol, boxes of ammunition and a bottle of vodka – night after night he got drunk and shot in the nape of the neck hundreds, then thousands, of Polish army officers who were corraled into his underground cell, until he was ankle deep in blood and covered in human gore.

Isakov’s confession In this febrile mood, Arkady confronts Isakov with his theory about what happened at Sunzha Bridge and Isakov suddenly confesses. He reveals he wasn’t even there, he was off driving round with Eva. The unpredictable Urman was in charge. And they were doing quiet peaceful trading with local Chechen merchants. They were buying Chechen carpets, one of Chechnya’s cultural exports, which fetch a fortune in Moscow, let alone in the West, in Paris or New York.

They were all sitting round, having concluded the deal and sharing a civilised cup of tea, when news came through on the radio of the guerrilla massacre of the Russian hospital and – crucially – that an armed convoy of Russian troops was heading their way. Did they want to be found by their infuriated comrades sitting round sipping tea with the enemy? No. On the spur of the moment, Urman executed all the unarmed Chechens where they sat, and was arranging their bodies in likely postures of battle when the helicopter with Ginsberg the hunchback arrived. This explains why the latter’s photos show the scene below being dramatically altered over the course of just a few minutes, as Urman and the other boys from Tver tried to rearrange it to look like a violent battle scene.

Isakov confesses it all then takes out his pistol and points it at Arkady’s head. Yes, he admits, that’s why Kuznetsov and Ginsberg had to die – they were about to reveal everything and ruin Isakov’s political ambitions – and now it’s why Arkady has to die.

But at this dramatic moment Eva, who has listened to everything, puts her hand in her pocket and presses play on the little tape recorder she’s got hidden there, and it plays back part of Isakov’s confession. As he turns towards her she takes the tape cassette and throws it over the barbed wire gates into the FSB compound. There is no way any of them can get in to retrieve it. And it will inevitably be found whatever happens to them. Isakov stands open-mouthed, completely non-plussed what to do. Eva and Arkady walk away.

Arkady makes a call on his cell phone to his long-suffering boss, prosecutor Zurin, explaining how the chain of murders all go back to Isakov and Urman’s illegal carpet-smuggling racket in Chechnya, and how Isakov’s political ambitions now lie in tatters.

Final assault In the last few pages, Arkady, Eva and the reader think it’s all over and the couple are reunited again (though how their relationship will feel after her defection back to Isakov remains to be seen). So it is all the more shocking when they climb the stairs to the apartment Arkady had rented, push open the door – only to be confronted by the killer Bora from the opening scenes. He has already murdered Sofia Poninski – a traitor to Holy Russia for revealing the dig’s corpses to be Polish, half cutting her head off – whose bloody corpse is lying in the corner. For Bora is carrying a razor sharp knife which Arkady tries to seize – badly slicing the palm of his hand – before Bora sinks it into the side of Eva, and rams it upwards, as she gasps and is pushed back against the wall.

The street kid Zhenya is also there, barricaded behind a pile of chairs and furniture, somehow surviving the madman, and holding Arkady’s ancient pistol, the gun he owns but rarely carries. As Bora turns to Arkady knife in hand, Zhenya shoots him through the head. God, what horror.

Arkady runs for the phone and rings an ambulance and all the way to the hospital holds Eva’s hand as she goes in and out of consciousness. The nurse comes out of the operating theatre a few hours later and says it’s touch and go whether she will survive.

And on this bombshell the novel ends.

Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – tall, rather gangling everyman hero, who wanders bemused through the crime-infested landscape of post-communist Russia
Nikolai Isakov – hero of the OMON / Black Beret forces in Chechnya, not least for his heroic stand at the battle of Sunzha Bridge, currently working as a fellow investigating detective of the Moscow militia but who is standing for election to the Russian Senate, partnered by –
Marat Urman – his unpredictably violent sidekick
Dr Eva Kazka – the doctor Arkady brought back from Chernobyl in the previous novel, but who is now reviving her old love affair with Isakov
Zhenya – the twelve-year-old street kid and chess genius who drifts in and out of Arkady and Eva’s lives
Grandmaster Platonov – dyed-in-the-wool communist and one-time chess legend, now asking Arkady for protection from Russian ‘patriots’
Zelensky – former independent film director, now reduced to making porno movies, who’s hoping to step back into the world by directing election ads for Isakov
Boris Bogolovo aka Bora – former OMON fighter, hired to mind Zelensky and crew as they do promotional shoots for Isakov; humiliated by Arkady he takes his violent revenge at the end of the novel

Tver

Rudi Rudenko – pony-tailed biker who sells Arkady a knackered motorbike and through whom he gets to know about the ‘diggers’
Big Rudi – Rudi’s gaga grand-dad who remembers Stalin and the ‘good old days’ – when you could exterminate the intelligentsia of a whole nation and nobody made all this fuss!
Prosecutor Sarkisian – Tver prosecutor, tipped off by Arkady’s boss Zurin, who plans to get Arkady beaten up
Sofia Andreyeva Poninski – forensic scientist of Polish extraction who identifies the bodies dug up by the diggers as Polish officers who had been systematically massacred by Stalin’s secret police / NKVD.


Thoughts

This is the third of the novels to centre round illegal smuggling – of sables in Gorky Park, art works in Red Square, Chechen carpets here. The criminal activities at the core of each novel rarely justify the convoluted webs of mayhem they seem to set in motion. To do that, Cruz Smith has to deploy some occasionally far-fetched plot twists and coincidences which aren’t always believable. In this one I never really believed in Isakov’s political ambitions, the central thread in the plot.

For a start, this would surely have been the very first thing Arkady would have had in mind about Isakov when we met him – a fellow investigator standing for the Senate would have been pretty big news in any office.

Then Isakov’s campaign itself seems oddly flaky and amateurish. There don’t appear to be any of the staff and volunteers you expect of such a campaign, with the exception of the not very believable American campaign advisers. And they advise their candidate to come up with a crude publicity stunt about Stalin and then go to the site of a mass grave and the exhumation of hundreds of dead bodies. Not classic feel-good photo opportunities, are they?

Similarly, the presence of Zelensky the ex-porn movie director allows Cruz Smith to make salient points about Russia’s thriving porn and prostitution industries (including a harrowing scene where Arkady gets to view footage he and friends shot of them gang raping a naive volunteer who wants to break into the movies). But it was never really clear how the footage he was shooting either in the Moscow underground or at the grim dig was going to be used in campaign ads.

Finally, the freakish story which starts the book, the supposed appearances of Stalin on the Moscow metro, are initially mystifying and eerie, so it is disappointing when they end up being explained away as mass hysteria sparked off by a few agents provocateurs who Zelensky and his people have planted on the trains. Once they start shouting ‘Stalin Stalin!’ it’s easy for the raddled drunks and ancient baboushkas on the late night tube to catch the fever, and think they saw something too. Was that all there was to it? And what a peculiar idea for a publicity stunt?

Then again, questioning the plausibility of some of these storylines is to misunderstand how Cruz Smith’s novels work. These rather eccentric plot lines are a) colourful in themselves but b) really serve as emanations of the commanding vision of the book – the dominance of the Present by the horrors of the Past. Their function is not to be plausible, but to be illustrative.

They should be seen less as storylines which have documentary verisimilitude, than as poetic embodiments of the novels’ themes and ideas.

And, of course, they act as opportunities for Cruz Smith to deploy his wonderfully spare, poetic prose.

Style

Cruz Smith is a great prose poet. He combines tremendous perception and acuity of observation with a dazzling ability to shape and turn a phrase.

She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. (p.3)

Antipenko and Mendeleyev sat side by side, like the stones of a slumping wall. (p.35)

Outside the day faded, the sun a bonfire in the snow. (p.53)

Of the rackety Moscow metro:

The others gasped when the lights of the car flickered and sparks shot up between the tunnel and the train. This was the oldest section of the entire system. Rails were worn. Insulation frayed. Blue imps danced around the switches. (p.69)

Viktor took a first sip of vodka like a butcher whetting his knife. (p.231)

Not on every page, but regularly enough to have your breath taken away, the reader is dazzled and grateful for Cruz Smith’s ability as a writer, as a shaper and moulder of the English language.


Credit

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Macmillan in 2007. All quotes and references to the 2008 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

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

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

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

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

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