China: A history by John Keay (2008)

Keay crams China’s dense and confusing 3,000-plus-year history into 580 pages, divided into 16 fact-packed chapters, with plenty of notes, diagrams and, above all, lots and lots of maps. It’s a very big subject – it’s a lot to digest!

He explains at the start that many Western accounts race through the earlier periods in order to get to the first European arrivals in China (around 1500), slow down to dwell on the imperialist nineteenth century – ‘our bit’ of Chinese history – and then really linger over the disasters of the 20th century – the 1912 Republican Revolution, the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion, World War II, the Civil War, communist victory, the long Maoist nightmare, and finally the slow crawl out of tyranny into the state capitalism of the nineties which continues to the present.

Keay deliberately inverts these priorities, devoting an unusual amount of space to the earliest era of proto-Chinese history, the period of myths and legends when many of the founding ideas about Chinese identity and lineage were laid down by semi-historical figures. By contrast he relatively skimps on the modern period, particularly on the troubled 20th century – after all, there are plenty of other books about all that.

This is just one of the several ways Keay deliberately sets out to question, challenge or overthrow the accepted narratives of Chinese history.

Conflicting versions of ancient Chinese history

Rule 1: China is obsessed by its history and its cultural continuity. The traditional narrative has the ethnic Han Chinese developing in the northern, ‘core’ area of the Huang He or ‘Yellow River’ valley, before slowly spreading their culture outwards. Traditional history describes how there were a legendary ‘five emperors’ before 2000 BC, who were followed by three pre-imperial dynasties. The three pre-imperial dynasties are:

  • Xia – 2070 BC – 1600 BC
  • Shang – 1600 BC – 1046 BC
  • Zhou – 1050 BC – 256 BC

BUT

1. The increasing pace of archaeological discovery in the past 30 years (freed from the Maoist dictatorship, paid for by new capitalist wealth, and often prompted by the frenzy of new building work going on in China) has produced more and more evidence to undermine this centuries-old view. The Chinese are proud of their very early tradition of casting bronze to make sculptures and bells, enormous bells. But now findings from the south and west of the country are suggesting that bronze-casting peoples who used a proto-Chinese script existed side by side with, and maybe even before, the northern ‘founders’ of the Chinese state. Scandal.

2. From the earliest times China has possessed a written record of its dynasties and rulers. But the archaeological record is turning up evidence consistently at odds with the traditional periods and dates for the rise and fall of the pre-imperial kings and/or dynasties (above) given by tradition. The traditional timeline is being undermined and no new synthesis or scholarly consensus has yet emerged. The historian of early China is in a tricky limbo, for the time being.

3. It’s a straw in the wind, a symptom of this general overhaul of Chinese history, that the Chinese for centuries considered there to have been ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China’ (Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang and Xi’an (Chang’an)) – but that during the twentieth century archaeology has revealed the size and importance of other ancient cities to such an extent that the number has slowly been doubled, with the inclusion of Kaifeng (added in the 1920s), Hangzhou (added in the 1930s), Anyang (added in 1988) and Zhengzhou (2004).

4. Even more controversially, Keay relates the discovery of a set of Caucasian ‘Tarim mummies‘ in the eastern part of the modern province of Xinjiang. These startling finds have led some scholars to speculate that working with metal – and particularly bronze – the wheel, chariots and so on, may have been introduced into China from the West. Not, admittedly, from Europe but the cultures of the Caucasus or India or Tibet. Or maybe not. The debate rages. But for a culture which prides itself on its uniqueness, its separateness and its ancientness, this is shocking stuff.

Needless to say, scholars in China have had some difficulty with this. (p.41)

Keay continues this theme throughout the book with examples too many and too complicated to quote. But again and again he says that modern scholarship, set free from nationalist and communist tyranny, is now chipping away at the traditional narrative of a northern, solely Han origin for Chinese culture. This long tradition in fact relies on a series of Han historians who worked at the courts of the various Chinese dynasties, and who shaped their narratives to please their masters and the cultural expectations of the day.

But increasingly we realise that at many, many periods, large parts of China were not under the control of the Han Chinese. Many non-Han kingdoms and dynasties rose and ruled for centuries other key parts of Chinese territory – At its simplest, many non-Han peoples ruled China.

An already well-known example is the Manchu people (which Manchuria is named after). The Manchus form the largest branch of the Tungusic peoples. They are descended from the Jurchen people, who established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) in China, and then went on to found the Later Jin dynasty (1616-1636), and then, famously, China’s final dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

It would be hard enough if Keay were simply retelling the ‘traditional’ Han-focused history of China in his book – long and complex and alien enough to be demanding – but in this book he relates both the ‘traditional’ account and then highlights how it is being undermined at all points by new archaeological, textual and ethnographic evidence.

The only comparison I’m in a position to make is with my own people, the English. It would be as if there were an ‘official’ version of the history in which the English had ruled England from time immemorial, had invented all its culture and, despite some changes in dynasty, handed down one continuous language and culture. And then modern scholars came along and began to unearth and present a radically different story, that the ancient Britons had driven out earlier peoples before being themselves colonised by the Romans, then by various tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, then the long wars with the Viking Danes, then the conquest by a completely foreign people, the Normans, not to mention the imposition of foreign kings in the shape of James I of Scotland, William of Orange and George I of Hanover.

As I write this I am still reading the section about the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 (although, true to his revisionist approach, Keay points out that the official dates for most of these dynasties are ‘optimistic’: they tended to consolidate true power somewhat after the official start date and to have lost their grip long before the official end date: there was more chaos and interregnum between dynasties than traditional Chinese historiography likes to admit). Although it appears to have been a period of artistic flourishing in the Song-held area, Keay’s narrative is just as much about how much of China was held by long-lasting alternative dynasties and ethnic groups – the Jurchen in the far north, the Khitan and Lao in the north, the Xia in the middle Yellow River valley, the Nanchao in the deep south on the border with Vietnam, and the Uighurs west in Xinjiang.

When Keay quotes 11th century courtiers and poets criticising the way the Song had to give large payments or tributes to the Khitan, it reminds me exactly of how the critics of Aethelred the Unready complained at his abject payment of Danegeld to the voracious Vikings around 1000 AD.

Think of the complexity of English history over the past 3,000 years – and then multiply that by a continent. It is a huge and confusing history, though this volume does a marvellous job of telling it, helped along by a vital supply of maps and frequent timelines for the numerous dynasties (and overlapping dynasties and kingdoms).

Barriers to understanding Chinese history

But it isn’t just the size and geographic scope and ethnic complexity of the story (and the fact that the old versions are being superseded by new discoveries) which make Chinese history so hard to assimilate. Right at the start of the book Keay spends some time outlining the cultural difficulties so many Europeans have in getting to grips with Chinese culture or history.

1. The Chinese language

Logograms European languages (and Arabic, apparently) use symbols (letters) to depict individual sounds, and build up ‘words’ by assembling these individual ‘letters’ together. Chinese is radically different. It consists of logograms or ‘characters’, each one of which stands for a different idea or concept. To quote Wikipedia:

A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. School-children typically learn around 2,000 characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.

The picture is complicated by the way that each pictogram can have radically different meanings depending on the precise tone and intonation of the sound attached to it – there are, apparently, five distinct tones which can be used in Chinese pronunciation to drastically alter the meaning of a written symbol and no recognised way of conveying these in Roman script.

In addition, pronunciation varies hugely across China, so that numerous regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible; two Chinese may be able to read the same newspaper, but would pronounce the characters so differently as to be unintelligible to each other.

Writing system Western scholars have been struggling for centuries to devise a system with which to transliterate the logograms into Latin/Roman script, before then translating the transliterations. From the late 1890s to the late 20th century many Anglophones used the Wade–Giles system, produced by Thomas Wade and systematised in Herbert A. Giles’s Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.

Its drawbacks were:

a) it used nearly as many diacritics or apostrophes, hyphens and various supernumerary markings to convey the variety of intonations as it did letters, making it hard to familiarise yourself with
b) it wasn’t used in America or other European countries

To try and sort out the confusion, from the 1960s onwards Wade-Giles has been steadily replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin system which transliterates Chinese characters into a different set of letters. This is progress, but has the bad side-effect that many if not most Chinese places, people and events can go under two different names: for example, Peking (Wade-Giles) or Beijing (pinyin); Mao Tse-tung or Mao Zedong.

Keay tells us that something like 75% of all Chinese words in translation have been changed in the past thirty years from Wade-Giles to pinyin, but we are living in a period of transition in the way Chinese is written in English, a confusion which Keay describes as having ‘catastrophic’ consequences for Western understanding of Chinese.

Mismatched vocabulary Their words are not our words. Our words are not their words. Thus, in the final chapters, Keay tells us that Chinese doesn’t really have words for ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’. Instead these concepts have to be translated into characters which have vastly different, traditional connotations. Part of the belated reforms to the state and culture in the 1920s involved trying to update the language so it could cope with modern (Western) ideas (p.487).

A striking passage on page 461, he explains that the mistranslation of one character, yi, caused decades of trouble. A number of the treaties which the Western powers compelled the Chinese to sign in the 1840s and 1850s contained the word yi, which some translators gave as ‘foreigners’. (In a fascinating side issue, apparently Chinese nouns don’t indicate whether they’re singular or plural.) But other translators translated yi, widely used in this and other treaties to refer to the European side, as ‘barbarian’ – which the British in particular took as a huge racial insult.

The ramifications of the mistake, if that is what it was, were enormous. More even than opium this tiny monosyllable poisoned diplomatic exchanges, and would require an article of its own – number 51 – in the 1858 Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Tianjin. It infected the translation of other Chinese characters and slewed the interpretation of whole passages, invariably rendering them more reprehensible to foreign readers. It fouled Anglo-Chinese relations: it permeated racial stereotyping; and it corrupted – and still does – most non-Chinese writing on the entire course of China’s history… ‘Never has a lone word among the myriad languages of humanity made so much history as the Chinese character yi,’ writes Lydi Liu. (p.462)

Thus the difficulty and untranslatability of the Chinese language isn’t a remote academic issue, but central to centuries of misunderstanding working in both directions – so that the West has misunderstood Chinese ideas and intentions, but also China has been unable to understand or assimilate western ideas, without first placing them into entirely alien and inappropriate contexts.

2. Multiple dynasties and names

Language aside, there is another basic problem with the sheer numbers of Chinese rulers. There have been hundreds and hundreds. Over its 4,000 year (?) history, China has had numerous would-be ‘dynasties’, of which only a score or so are recognised as ‘canonical’, and of which there are Five Big Ones. Keay – sounding a lot like my old history teacher – says these need to be memorised:

  • HAN 202 BC – 220 AD (contemporary with the later Roman Republic and early Empire)
  • TANG 618-907 AD (from the Heptarchy to a unified England, or the early period of Muslim expansion)
  • SONG 960-1279 AD (roughly contemporary with the Crusades 1095-1291)
  • MING 1368-1644 AD (from Edward III to the start of the Civil War; or the early Ottoman and Mughal empires)
  • QING (or Manchu) 1644-1912 – from the time of Charles I to the Great War

Minor dynasties could overlap i.e. there be two (or more) competing dynasties at the same time in different parts of this huge country. For example, during the period from 907 to 960 there were no fewer than five dynasties in the heartland of the lower Yellow River and ten distinct kingdoms in the south!

Another complicating factor is that later dynasties often took the names of earlier dynasties in order to invoke their power and authority: these are distinguished by adding an indication of timing or a geographical location (former Han or Eastern Han).

At the individual level, emperors might also take a number of names – they had personal names, temple names, dynasty names and sometimes period names, with no consistent naming convention over the full 3,000 year reach. Sometimes they took the names of ancient and venerable predecessors, but without the convenient tradition – in Western Europe at any rate – of numbering same-name rulers. Instead emperors (or would-be emperors) have their dynasty name attached to the beginning of their title: thus Song Taizong (r.976-997), Song Renzong (r.1022-63), Song Shenzong (r.1068-85) and so on, where Song indicates the dynasty name. This is always written in italics.

Later, during the final dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors were named after the period during which they ruled, their so-called era name which always starts with ‘the’ – thus the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661), the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722), the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) and so on. Though I read this through carefully several times, I still don’t pretend to really understand it…

3. Concern for the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ distorts Chinese history

And running like a thread through the narrative, Keay highlights the concern of most Chinese historians to present the history of China as One Unbroken Lineage. Very early on, the concept evolved of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ i.e. that a dynasty and its emperor enjoyed its power from Heaven and that, in turn, their job was to ensure harmony and balance here on earth.

This didn’t stop competing family members, usurpers, scheming eunuchs, queen mothers, rebellious generals and invading foreigners fighting like ferrets in a sack for Total Rule. But it meant that

a) when someone finally came out on top, there was an established sense of harmony, balance and Good Rule for them to follow, multiple traditions bolstered by hordes of followers of Confucius, who taught respect for the past and the necessity for a deeply hierarchical social order.
And b) that, looking back, the Chinese historians we rely on for much of our accounts, excluded or marginalised from their narratives incidental rulers or dynasties which didn’t suit a neat linear progression of the Mandate of Heaven.

Thus eleventh century historians like Ouyang Xiu and Sima Guang made the official pedigree of rulers flow through the northern Five Dynasties of the period – because they were based in the north, the ‘traditional’ birthplace of Chinese culture and rule – and downplayed the history of the Ten Kingdoms of the south, even though by this period the majority of the population of China lived in their territory in the south. Because they didn’t fit the tradition.

Their obsession with creating a consistent linear pedigree to bear out and justify the theory of the Mandate of Heaven means that the traditional, old Chinese historians have to be handled with caution. Having explained all this Keay routinely gives more space to alternative dynasties and entire non-Han kingdoms than the Chinese tradition likes to. It is another example of the way he’s not just telling one story, but comparing and contrasting multiple stories which we, the readers, are expected to grasp and evaluate for ourselves.

4. China name dyslexia

Even more basic, we can’t help it but we Westerners just find it difficult to remember Chinese names. They look and sound very similar. For example, the timeline of Western Zhou kings from 1045 to 770 BC goes: Wen, Wu, Cheng, Kang, Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao, Yi, Li, Gonghe, Xuan and You. If you read it through once:

a) it seems as if there are several repeats because several of the names are very similar
b) some of the names have distracting meanings in English e.g. Gong, You
c) adding to the difficulty is that they are all very short, just one or two syllables. Compare and contrast with the ancient names we’re used to from the European tradition – Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. I’m not saying they’re better, just pointing out that they’re longer and so there’s more for the ear and mind to hang on to and distinguish.

Right at the start Keay himself remarks ‘Non-Chinese readers will be appalled by the swarm of same-sounding people, places and titles lying in wait for them. (p.52)’ and he isn’t wrong. Every time I picked the book up I had to go back a few pages to remind myself where I was and who I was reading about: which dynasty or kingdom, which era, which set of rulers, fighting which set of non-Han enemies, and so on.


Some memorable ideas

Beyond these few points I won’t make any attempt to summarise Chinese history, it is far too vast and complex: read Wikipedia, or this excellent book. But a few things have stuck in my mind.

No stone, no old buildings China is deficient in quarriable stone. The eastern part is soft loess and alluvial silt, fertile for agriculture with no stone in sight. From time immemorial the Chinese built in wood. Scrolls and artworks show immense cities and dazzling palaces from the time of the European Dark Ages onwards. But wood perishes and burns (and civil wars have repeatedly led to entire cities being razed to the ground), so hardly any of China’s ancient architecture survives. Unlike the ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there is not much to see.

Confucian conformity Keay describes the long waxing and waning of China’s three philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism emphasises right-thinking, self-scrutiny and self-correction until you bring your mind into harmony with the heavens, the emperor, the ancestors and society around you. Because I know more about Chairman Mao’s terrifying tyranny of Right Thinking I found that every time I read about Confucius and Confucian traditions, it just made me think how Chinese culture’s long-held belief in the priority of the mass and society at large over the individual has made it a natural home for dictatorship and tyranny.

Compare and contrast with the irreverent knockabout vulgarity of Anglo-Saxon individualism, which is littered with eccentrics, rebels and dissidents, and which underpins our ideas of modern democracy i.e. that everyone is entitled to their opinion and to free speech to express it in and to freedom of association to form parties and groups who can argue and lobby for their ideas.

Reading this deeply into Chinese history makes you realise how vast is the gulf between our Western democratic individualism and the Chinese mind-set, even today. From earliest times the emperor was subservient to the Mandate of Heaven, everyone was subservient to the emperor, and the Confucian system was one of unrelenting hierarchy and subservience in every social situation. The entire tradition produced what Keay describes as ‘a stifling degree of social conformity’ (p.349). Seen in this perspective the terrifying mind control of the Maoist years, in which millions of victims were singled out because they were rich peasants or traders or teachers and subjected to ‘re-education sessions’ in which they had to reveal their past errors of thought and learn ‘correct thinking’, appear just a continuation of Confucian notions that the individual must bring his thinking into harmony and alignment with the ancestors, the emperor and society around him (it’s always a he).

China and the West China had an advanced civilisation while Europe was in the Dark Ages, how come Europe came to dominate China by the 19th century etc etc blah blah? Having read this account the answer is fairly obvious:

  • Chinese culture preached slavish submission to the emperor; Europe was convulsed by widespread revolutions which overthrew oppressive rulers in the name of liberty and freedom from as early as the 1640s, and which led to (various competing forms) of democracy.
  • Confucianism despises merchants and trade and business. According to Confucian scholars the highest calling in life was being a Confucian scholar. On the contrary, the West, despite superficial distaste, in fact worships and glorifies the trader, the merchant, the successful businessman, the plantation owner, the Indian nabob, anyone who made it rich and bought a big estate in the country.
  • In China innovation was punished. Innovation and change, like the formation of any ‘party’ or lobby group, were seen as subverting the static harmony of the Celestial Kingdom and directly threatening the emperor, his huge bureaucracy, and society at large. From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, any attempt to change things generally resulted in punishment, exile or execution. If any reforms were carried out, they had to be camouflaged as returns to an idealised past, invoking the names of past emperors or dynasties. Thus it was that figures as diverse as  Britain’s first envoy to China, George Macartney, and the father of modern communism, Karl Marx, both agreed that China’s political system had completely outlived its relevance and was a hollow shell just waiting to collapse.

Foot binding Under the Song Dynasty, by about 1100, binding the feet of girls and women had become commonplace. As soon as they could toddle girls’ feet were securely bent and bound, each toe bent and held under the sole by rope or rags. The binding was never taken off, but only changed as feet grew (or tried to). The result was girls and women were in constant pain, their feet sometimes growing to only half their intended size, permanently deformed and bent double like a birds’ claws. Hundreds of millions of girls and women were reduced to an agonising hobble. Maybe a third of China’s female population was tortured this way, for the best part of 800 years. Given the size of the Chinese population, Keay remarks that the Chinese custom of binding girls’ feet may have caused pain and suffering to more people than any other activity in human history (p.326).

One reason the Song dynasty is remembered The Song dynasty ended in the 1270s. It was followed by three other Big Dynasties which followed each other without much hiatus – the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). But all three were somewhat compromised. The Yuan and Qing were imposed from outside by non-Han peoples; the Yuan by Mongols and the Qing by Manchu northerners. So for many Chinese to this day, both dynasties are somewhat unauthentic. The only ethnically Chinese dynasty was the Ming, but they are now associated with China’s long decline, the era when China’s international standing began to slip in comparison with the European nations who increasingly visited and oppressed her.

By contrast with these three compromised dynasties, the Song – untainted by foreign rulers or national humiliation – is sometimes considered, by Chinese scholars, to be a peak of peace, culture and achievement, even if it did end while Henry III was on the throne of England.

The name China When Marco Polo visited China in the 1270s, it had come under the rule of the Mongols. The Mongols had had to fight their way south from Mongolia through the part of northern China long-held by the Jin people, before confronting and overthrowing the reigning Song dynasty. As a result, from their perspective, the Mongols tended to refer to all the southern enemy as Jin – or Chin, as they pronounced it. Thus the Mongols who hosted Marco Polo and showed him round referred to the ‘natives’ as Chin and through one of the many mistranslations and misunderstandings which characterise China’s interaction with outsides, in Polo’s account of his adventures, this became Chin-a.

That’s one theory, anyway.

Magna Carta and Genghis Khan I was struck by the coincidence that Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, having fought their way across northern China, captured Beijing on 1 June 1215. And on 15 June 1215, exactly a fortnight later, King John of England grudgingly signed the ‘Magna Carta‘, effectively a peace treaty in his civil war with his own nobles. Two worlds, one emphasising its Asiatic tyranny, the other laying the basis of civil rights and democracy.

Chinese history in one map

This animation gives a sense of the ebb and flow of Han power over this vast geographical region.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (2008)

An autobiographical author

Lodge’s novels are strongly autobiographical and, laid end to end, build up to the portrait of a certain type of life and its possibilities – in a quiet way, he has recorded the experience of a generation.

Out of the Shelter describes the boyhood and teenage years of the son of suburban south London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war – as Lodge was. The Picturegoers explores the lives of characters in the fictional south London suburb of Brickley – very similar to the suburb of Brockley where Lodge grew up. Ginger, You’re Barmy describes the experiences of a bright university scholarship boy plunged into the harsh world of National Service – based on the two years the university graduate Lodge spent in the Royal Armoured Corps.

Lodge married young (24) and had three children in quick succession while he worked to establish himself as a university teacher of English literature. The British Museum Is Falling Down describes a day in the life of young English academic, the unhappy Catholic father of three small children. How Far Can You Go steps back from the day-to-day to provide a panoramic overview of the lives and loves of 10 young Catholic men and women, students in the 1950s who mature during the social and theological changes of the 1960s and 1970s – as Lodge and his friends did.

Paradise News and Therapy describe in different ways the familiar subject of male mid-life crisis, the sense of being successful and surrounded by all the material good things of life, and yet feeling something is missing – a malaise which is healed by liberating sex and family reconciliation in Paradise News, and by joining an old flame on her devout Catholic pilgrimage, in Therapy.

Even his classic comic novels, the so-called Campus Trilogy – Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work – are closely based on his own experiences of teaching at a Californian university during the heady 1960s, of attending countless international literary conferences in the 1970s, and of working in a scheme designed to bring university and industry closer together in his adopted city of Birmingham – referred to throughout the trilogy as ‘Rummidge’.

Unexpectedly, at the end of his writing life, Lodge broke this pattern with two long and thoroughly researched ‘historical’ novels – Author, Author (2004) and A Man of Parts (2011) – based around the lives and loves of Henry James and H.G. Wells, respectively.

Slipped in between them is this ‘contemporary’ novel which reverts to the usual pattern and brings the generic Lodge figure into the final stages of life – into retirement, forced to face the indignities of old age, the difficulty of an ageing marriage, the fractiousness of an extended family, and the decline and death of his own parent. There is no escaping the fact that, despite occasional smiles, this is for most of its length quite a depressing novel which, at its very end, I found unbearably moving.

Deaf Sentence

The novel’s 300 pages are told in the first person by Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics living in an unnamed northern city (presumably Lodge avoided the fictional city of Rummidge as too associated with his comic past), who began to go deaf in his 40s and now requires a high-powered hearing aid to hear anything at all.

The events take place over a defined period, from 2 November 2006 through to 8 March 2007. We know this because a lot of the sections are diary entries given a precise date but also because, like a lot of 21st century novels (by Amis, Jacobson, McEwan), it keenly references contemporary events, referring several times to terrorist atrocities, to the 7/7 bombings (7 July 2005), to the war in Iraq, to the hanging of Saddam Hussein (December 30 2006).

Are contemporary novels more weighted down by contemporary events than in the past? Does the news, in all its grimness, bear down more on the present generation than ever before? It sometimes feels like it.

The novel is an amiable, factual record of Desmond’s thoughts and feelings about retirement, the academic life, about deafness and marriage (he is married to the eight-years-younger Winifred, companionably nicknamed ‘Fred’), about his two grown-up children Anne and Richard, and his growing concern for his 89-year-old Dad, displaying evermore symptoms of senility.

Much of the tone is deliberately flat and humdrum to the point of banality:

  • 12th November I phoned Dad, as I always do on a Sunday evening, at about six o’clock.
  • 28th November I went to London yesterday to see Dad…
  • 22nd December I have spent the last two days in bed trying to get over my cold…

There’s not so much a plot as a number of relationships which develop and change over the four and a bit months of the narrative.

  • Desmond visits his old Dad in the shabby south London suburb of Brickley (the fictional setting of Out of the Shelter) and Lodge slowly builds up a portrait of the old boy, once a jazz musician playing in all sorts of bands in and around London, with a wide circle of musician mates – all dead now, like his wife – which is why he’s now living alone in their pokey old terraced house, where he refuses to have a cleaner and so everything is coated in a layer of cooking fat and dust. Brutally honest, the Dad sections were flat and depressing to read; there are no redeeming features to being this old and worn out.
  • Desmond’s family consists of his daughter, Anne, 6 months pregnant, and his son, Richard, a specialist in low-temperature physics at Cambridge, cultivated, clever but distant. Desmond’s first wife – the kids’ mother, Maisie – died of cancer when they were small. In their different ways they were all scarred by this tragedy.
  • After some time alone, Desmond met and began an affair with a mature student at the university where he taught, posh Winifred, who was raised in an upper-middle-class Catholic family. She herself got married young to a complete cad who was unfaithful to her, and it took her a while to summon up the courage to divorce him. Desmond and Winifred’s affair continued, deepened, and they ended up getting married. Desmond moved into her house, big and grandly furnished, and for a while they lived a high lifestyle. But his deafness and his early retirement have estranged them a bit, in addition to which Fred has had a second lease of life since she opened an interior design shop with a good friend, Jakki, and has been exercising, losing weight and even had a breast reduction operation.

Alex Loom

The nearest thing to a ‘plot’ is the intrusion into Desmond’s life of an American woman post-graduate student named Alex Loom. The novel opens with her button-holing him at an art exhibition and then she pops up periodically, displaying ever more psychotic behaviour. Initially she says she wants his advice and help with the thesis she’s writing, a ‘discourse analysis’ of suicide notes. She invites him to her flat, where her manner is odd and, when Desmond gets home, he finds she’s hidden a pair of panties in his overcoat pocket. Next, she sends him an email apologising and saying he is welcome to go round to her flat in a few days time, at precisely 3pm, when she will leave the door ajar, and will be in the study with the curtains drawn, bending over her desk, naked from the waist downwards, and he must say nothing, but roll up his sleeves and spank and spank and spank her until his anger is assuaged, ignoring her cries or pleas – and then rebutton his sleeves, put on his raincoat, and leave without saying a word (p.136).

The email gives Desmond an erection every time he reads it – an arousal he takes out on Winifred in one of their now-rare acts of coition – but Desmond wisely doesn’t keep the appointment. Nonetheless, Alex continues behaving like a bunny-boiler, scaring him by phoning him from outside Fred’s boutique and threatening to go in and tell her ‘everything’. What everything? Nothing has happened. Still, Desmond is now scared of her, and appalled when she turns up at the first night of a play at the local theatre and inveigles herself so successfully with Fred, that the latter merrily invites Alex to the couple’s big Christmas party.

In line with the novel’s realistic depiction of life as one damn thing after another there isn’t a particular climax, but a series of set pieces which bring various relationships and issues to a head.

Christmas First of all there is a long description of the complicated and large family Christmas which involves catering for 13 adults and two children (p.188). It involves Desmond in driving down to London to collect his Dad, to ferry him back to the northern city where the story is set. But Desmond has not made adequate provision for his Dad’s incontinence, which leads to an embarrassing/amusing scene of his Dad wetting himself and needing to have clean trousers and pants brought from the car and handed to him in a toilet cubicle at the next Services – to the entertainment of the horde of motorway toilet-goers. The Christmas itself is the traditional snake pit of frictions, mostly between Fred’s very prim mother, Cecilia, and Desmond’s scruffy, uncouth and deaf Dad. There are some comic moments, but more moments of irritation and fretfulness and family arguments.

Center Parcs It’s called ‘Gladeworld’ in the novel, possibly for legal reasons, because the narrator, in his grumpy old man way, is unremittingly hostile to it. He goes so far as to compare the hot, muggy, chlorine-saturated swimming pool with its piles of human bodies flinging themselves around through flumes and circling in the pointlessly shaped pools, to Dante’s vision of hell. He and Winifred are invited to spend New Year’s Eve there by her business partner, Jakki, and her smooth husband, Lionel, but the trip is not a success, leading to more friction between Desmond and Fred.

Poland To his surprise Desmond is phoned by an old contact at the British Council who asks if he’d be prepared to step in at short notice to cover a small lecture tour of Poland since the academic scheduled to do it has had a bad skiing accident and – to escape worry about his Dad and his increasingly argumentative relationship with Fred – Desmond accepts. The narrator skips the journey there, his lectures, the dinners and receptions, in order to zero in on his pained visit to Auschwitz, close to the final destination of Cracow. Here, at the end of his writing career, Lodge confronts a truth much bigger and all-devouring than anything tackled in his previous fiction. Since this the visit takes place in January it is growing dark as he arrives, and the narrator finds himself walking through the endless rows of barracks of the vast death camp as the light goes and the world descends into total darkness.

(Having recently reread the works of Primo Levi I am familiar with a lot of the factual background. In an odd way, I found the account of the death camp which is at the heart of Robert Harris’s first thriller,  Fatherland, almost as harrowing, because it was more fully crafted and embedded in a text fraught with terror.)

Back at the hotel there is a message saying his daughter has had her baby, prematurely. Panic that she or it might be unwell gives way to joy when he manages to phone England and be reassured that mother and daughter are well. But then another message is left for him saying  his father has had a stroke.

Dad’s death

There follow twenty harrowing pages, as Desmond returns to find his Dad was discovered on the floor of  his house, maybe been there for days, incapacitated and barely conscious. In the hospital he’s moved to, he sinks slowly and steadily, never regaining enough consciousness to talk with his son, who watches his battered bruised body, tortured by catheters and intravenous drips, slowly decay.

This is exactly what happened to my father. I watched the same inexorable decline five years ago. And last year I spent a week in a public ward at a big London hospital, surrounded by senile, demented and distressed old men, myself strapped up to intravenous drips and painkillers, suffering complete incapacity, dazed and helpless, in thrall to the banging rhythms of the noisy hospital and the endless smells of bad food and my neighbours’ excrement.

Reading these pages brought both experiences back much more vividly than I ever want to remember them again.

As if placing a trip to Auschwitz next to a harrowingly realistic description of his Dad’s death weren’t enough, at the core of the sequence Lodge has Desmond confess to Fred that he, Desmond, packed the kids off to stay with relatives during his first wife’s last days because he – with the complicity of their GP – knowing his wife was in the last stages of terminal cancer and in continual pain, helped her take an overdose of brandy and painkillers, curled up on the bed beside her, and held her till she died.

All three scenes, coming one after the other, make for a very harrowing and upsetting read.

Aftermath

He organises  his father’s cremation and the scattering of the ashes. In what now seems quite an anti-climax he decisively and finally turns down Alex Loom’s phone and email requests for him to supervise her thesis. He knows she’ll never finish it. He knows he’ll end up doing most of the work. And he doesn’t trust her. Even so, when he receives an email from her saying he’s right, she’s a useless failure, she always screws up and so that’s why she’s going to kill herself, she’s just taken the pills to kill herself – Desmond still jumps into his car and hurtles across town to her flat, hoping and praying she’s still alive –

But only to find the bailiffs and removal men taking out the furniture. She had fallen behind on her rent and payments for all the furniture so it’s all being repossessed. Alex herself was last seen heading off in a taxi with a few belongings, presumably to return to the States. It was a hoax.

So. With his Dad dead and cremated, Desmond is set to inherit some money, which he’ll give to his own children. The crisis has brought him and Fred together, wiping away the frets and arguments of Christmas. He is a lucky man and he knows it. He has admitted the extent of his deafness to himself and has started attending lip-reading classes – and gets along very well with the old men and women who surround him, and is himself amused by the little quizzes and competitions the class teacher sets them all.

Auschwitz and the experience of his own Dad’s death have made him treasure life, even in the smallest details, every bit of it, every minute.


An information novelist

In my review of its predecessor, Author, author I pointed out how most of Lodge’s books have a strong pedagogic streak: he is a teacher to his marrow. In the early novels you learn a lot about Roman Catholic teaching and practice, especially around the oh-so-taboo subject of sex in the chaste 1950s and suburban 1960s. The Changing Places trilogy is all the funnier for being stuffed with literary references and lit crit ideas. 2001’s Thinks… is packed with information about artificial intelligence and current scientific knowledge about consciousness, and Author, author routinely explains to the reader all kinds of details and aspects of late Victorian life and culture.

Lodge is often categorised as a ‘Catholic novelist’ or a ‘campus novelist’. Reviewing his oeuvre, I think it’s more appropriate to think of him as an information novelist; whatever the ostensible subject matter, Lodge is always calm, sober and, above all – informative. Making the narrator of this novel a professor of linguistics allows Lodge to share with his readers all sorts of diverting factoids about the use and abuse of language, specially as it relates to the central character’s dominating condition of deafness. He sets this pedagogic tone on the first page:

This is known to linguists as the Lombard Reflex, named after Etienne Lombard, who established early in the twentieth century that speakers increase their vocal effort in the presence of noise in the environment in order to resist degradation of the intelligibility of their messages. (p.3)

Desmond explains to us that in his professional life he was an exponent of ‘Discourse Analysis’ and then has, of course, to explain to us what that is and how it differs from linguistics, semiotics or structuralist analyses. And give us a few examples of his expertise:

‘F’ is called a labiodental fricative because you produce it by bringing your top teeth into contact with your bottom lip and allowing some air to escape between them. (p.20)

There is a steady stream of these informative snippets and factoids, which are always clearly explained at a kind of first-year undergraduate level, and are never less than interesting.

In the classic Austin scheme there are three possible types of speech act entailed in any utterance, spoken or written: the locutionary (which is to say what you say, the propositional meaning), the illocutionary (which is the effect the utterance is intended to have on others) and the perlocutionary (which is the effect it actually has). (p.104)

The visit to Auschwitz has plenty of explanatory matter that could have come from a guidebook. His Dads’s medical condition, decline, and the various treatment options are explained to him by the houseman with textbook clarity. In some ways, the world arranges itself around Lodge’s fictional characters like a textbook.

Deafness

The central element of the novel – before it is rather overwhelmed by the dark ending – is, as the title suggests, the severe deafness of the central character. This is based (as might be expected) on Lodge’s own deafness and the book shows a detailed knowledge of the scientific causes of deafness, the latest news about attempts at cures, and shares more than most of us probably want to know about the various hearing aids on the market. Some of this is played for laughs – for example, a sort of comic business is made of the never-ending failure of batteries at just the wrong moment at parties or conversations or holidays. And Lodge/Desmond lament that whereas blindness is perceived as being truly tragic, for the most part deafness – or at least partial deafness – has always been comic.

Desmond/Lodge shares his thoughts about famous ‘deafies’ such as Goya and Beethoven, both of whom might be said to have been made as artists by their affliction. Alex Loom’s macabre PhD about suicide notes allows Lodge to tie in with Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament, written to the composer’s brothers to explain his surly and anti-social behaviour as a protection mechanism for an extremely proud and sensitive man who couldn’t bear not to hear or understand what people were saying to him, and fearful of seeming ridiculous. Better a curmudgeon that a cretin.

There is also a series of bad deaf puns, as the academic narrator refers to the Deaf Instinct (p.126), wishes he were half in love with easeful deaf, (in relation to Alex) thinks about Deaf and the Maiden (p.129), and titles a section of the book Deaf in the Afternoon. Ha ha.

The rest of the ‘plot’ aside, the novel amounts to the most sustained description of the indignities, the embarrassments and the strain on even the most loving marriage which the deafness of one partner creates that I’m aware of.

Experimental novelist

Lodge’s books use various Modernist techniques, the kind of thing he must have discussed countless times in his classes about James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – stream of consciousness, different points of view, parody and pastiche – but in a completely homespun way, somehow emptied of any of their original excitement or threat. Like his popular lit crit books, his novels draw the teeth of those formal innovations, demystify and domesticate them.

Thus the narrative is a little tricksy in the way it alternates between first-person diary accounts and having a third-person objective narrator describe many scenes – and yet you don’t really notice. The first time the text switches to the third person it does so with a laconic sentence, ‘I feel a fit of the third person coming on’ (p.28). Oh, alright. What’s remarkable is how easily the reader assimilates all this – the switching of point of view, the incorporation of diary format with emails, notes, conversations real and reconstructed – without blinking.

Sex

All of Lodge novels feature sex, some are dominated by sex as the main motivating force for the male characters – but I always find the many sexual events which take place are described in an unnervingly graphic and cold way. For me the enduring memory of his oeuvre is the number of erect penises which litter the books and the number of acts of coition described with clinical accuracy.

There’s still a fair amount of sex in this book, though it is now OAP sex i.e. Desmond fails to get an erection, fails to persuade Fred to do anything about it, or just falls asleep before there is any sexual congress. In a sort of funny running joke, whenever Desmond opens his email he is bombarded with adverts for Viagra and other erection-boosting panaceas, in increasing wildness of tone and promise, all of which remind him of the moribundity of his own sex life.

Now his protagonist is nearly 70, sex is no longer the consuming passion it was in the earlier books, but Lodge still describes his characters’ sexual proclivities and histories with unnerving factuality. Desmond contrasts his sex life with his first wife, Maisie (who had ‘an unconquerable aversion to oral sex in any form’, p.76) with the second wife, Fred, who still, from time to time, treats his penis as ‘a particularly delicious stick of seaside rock’ (p.76). Ah. Thanks for that. When Desmond and Lionel unwisely share the small sauna cubicle at Center Parcs, oops Gladeworld, Desmond is close enough to be impressed at the size of Lionel’s manhood, ‘his flaccid organ hanging down like a rubber cosh between his thighs’ (p.236).

What is lowering about all this is the protagonist’s predatory attitude – even towards his own wife, cunningly trying to steer her towards sex, shaping his conversation, the whole rhythms of his day, to manipulate her towards the bedroom. Half the time this has ‘comic’ results i.e. he can’t get it up or just falls asleep. But the unrelentingness of the lechery gets a bit wearisome. Coming to Lodge’s last books after reading the last novels of Kingsley Amis and the first four by Howard Jacobson I think I’ve had more than enough of bookish, middle-aged men who don’t appear to be able to think about anything else except sex sex sex.

Alex Loom’s ‘spanking’ email comes as a bolt from another life, another world, another discourse altogether – a little bit of Fifty Shades of Grey parachuted into the story of an increasingly grumpy old academic. It also has a life and vigour which Desmond’s addled couplings don’t. If you wanted to be provocative, you could ask why the only woman who shows independence and agency in her sex life – i.e. Alex, with her spirited creation and control of the spanking scenario – is described as mad and punished with expulsion from academia and from the country.

Out of touch

Lodge’s narrator describes the mundane realities of contemporary life in soul-sapping detail: the trips to Sainsburys with the marital shopping list, the two-for-the-price-of-one offers, the daytime TV, the traffic jams whenever anyone tries to drive anywhere, the morons shouting into their mobile phones in the ‘quiet carriage’ of trains.

The narrator jokes that he’s a grumpy old grouch, but he puts real feeling into the prolonged passage about why he hates Christmas, and the two-page diatribe against ‘Gladeworld’ is hilariously mean-spirited. But there are many smaller details which reveal the narrator as an old man. In fact, in these peripheral ways, the book is interesting for showing how even someone who has clearly made an effort to keep up with changing society – as Lodge clearly has – eventually lacks the feel for it, for the current conversations and experiences.

As a small example, Desmond notes the graffiti covering everything in South London but bemoans its lack of semantic content. He shares with us the only piece of graffiti which has ever amused him. Underneath the official notice ‘Bill stickers will be prosecuted’ someone had scrawled Bill Stickers is innocent. Ha ha. The internet says this joke goes back to the 1960s – that’s 50 years old.

In another passage Lodge writes the rather dull cliché that we live in an ‘age of communication’ and goes on to list the channels of communication as books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the internet – and the way he places the internet last after all the others, makes you realise that this book, recent though it is (2008), was still written before the tsunami of comms which burst with the arrival of smart phones, tablets, iPads and the social media platforms Facebook, twitter, Youtube, Instagram and so on, which have revolutionised communication, especially between the young.

The novel won’t ‘die’ – indeed more novels are published every year than ever before. But it will be interesting to see how the tsunami of simplified and simple-minded digital discourse affects the rhetoric and strategies of longer fictions.

Conclusion

For most of its length it would be easy to dismiss this as a rather boring book – some but not many laughs, long stretches about car journeys, or the food in the cafés in Sainsburys, or the hassle of getting hearing aid batteries – in which not much happens.

But I think that would be to underestimate it. In his quiet, undramatic way, Lodge introduces us to quite a large cast of characters and slowly, through prolonged exposure to Desmond, Winifred and his Dad, we not only situate them in their web of relationships, but come to care for them.

You could argue that Lodge often treats his characters with the same kind of clear, logical, factual style as he treats his technical explanations of Discourse Theory or Speech Acts, in the flat factual tone set by the ageing academic narrator himself, a lucid, logical kind of fellow. There is little or no passion in his accounts of anything. When he describes how his first wife died of cancer nobody is moved. When he gets aroused and wants sex with his wife, the reader is not aroused, but feels like a zoologist observing the mating rituals of a peculiar species.

It is this calm, even tenor of Lodge’s prose which makes the final passages all the more upsetting. When the bad things happen – in Auschwitz, his father’s slow death and then the revelation of how he helped his first wife to die – it is precisely because they are occurring to such a sensible, rational, logical and inoffensive chap which makes them feel so terrible.


Credit

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2008. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

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

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2008)

Furst has written 14 spy novels set in or around Eastern Europe in the late 1930s when the clouds of war were gathering over the continent. The last seven or so have appeared at nice regular two-year intervals, conform to a nice predictable formula and his readers can look forward to the usual predictable pleasures.

Hero There’ll be a central male protagonist – as the novels have gone by these have tended to become steadily posher, so this one is Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, 46, whose ancient family long ago lost their noble title and vast lands, and so is now plain Colonel Mercier. Mercier fought and was wounded in the Great War, and then in the 1920 Russian invasion of Poland, alongside the rather better-known de Gaulle. He was given a medal by the Polish government and partly because of that has ended up serving as French military attaché in Warsaw. He is tall, dark and handsome, walks with a slight limp from a war wound, because of which he sometimes uses an elegant silver-topped cane – but he nurses a secret sorrow: his beautiful wife, Annemarie, died suddenly three years earlier of influenza (p.55). Luckily his height, good looks, aristocratic bearing and independent means have kept in a regular supply of young lovelies to console him. His daughter, Gabrielle, thinks he is irresistible (p.190).

Sex The male protagonist usually has an easygoing way with women and enjoys soft porn sex with at least one round-bottomed young lady during the course of the book. For example, after a tennis match at the country house of Polish aristocrat Prince Kazimierz, Mercier is in the shower when the door to the bathroom opens and the lovely Princess Antoniwa enters, lets her robe slip to the floor, before stepping into the steamy shower to join him. You can almost hear Je t’aime playing on the movie soundtrack as they enjoy literally steamy sex. Later, we are treated to a description of his initiation into the joys of mutual masturbation by an older cousin, Albertine, when he was a teenager (pp.121-124).

High society Prince Kazimierz. Princess Antoniwa. Country houses. Mercier’s own upbringing at boarding school, the huge family apartment in the snobby 7th arrondissement of Paris. Part of Mercier’s job is to attend cocktail parties given by the various embassies, meeting and remeeting the beau monde of Warsaw. ‘Daaahling, have another one of these simply delicious canapés.’

Espionage One of Mercier’s jobs is managing ‘agents’. The one who features in this book is a shabby German businessman, Edvard Uhl, who works in the giant Krupps arms manufacturers. He was picked up by one of Mercier’s ‘honey trap’ woman agents, and has now been blackmailed / seduced into travelling once a month to Warsaw where he a) has hot, giggling rumpy-pumpy with the supposed ‘Countess Sczelenska’ (real name Hana Musser, a half-Czech, half-German refugee from the ‘fulminous Nazi politics’ of the Sudetenland), and b) the following day meets Mercier to hand over blueprints and diagrams about German tanks, and receive a packet of collars in return. But Uhl is getting increasingly nervous…

Paris Furst has acknowledged his debt to Eric Ambler who wrote half a dozen spy thrillers set in Eastern Europe, actually during the last years of the 1930s, with brilliantly atmospheric evocations of Eastern and MittelEuropa. Following the master, his stories are set outside the Anglophone comfort zone of Britain or the USA, instead among the capital cities and fog-shrouded landscapes of Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Romania or, in this case, Warsaw.

However, although the adventures often take place in remote parts of Eastern Europe, the texts’ centre of gravity is nearly always the European city Furst which lived in for years and where his heart obviously belongs – lovers’ Paris, the Paris where French movie producer Jean Casson, Hungarian exile Nicholas Morath, Russian émigré Ilya Serebin, and Italian foreign correspondent Carlo Weisz (the heroes of his previous novels) all have apartments regularly adorned by nubile young ladies, and where they depart from for foreign adventures before gratefully returning in various states of disrepair. Paris is the meta-location of these novels, thus Mercier feels ‘the Parisian mystique take hold of his heart: a sudden nameless ecstasy in the damp air’, as soon as he is back there (p.119).

Datestamps As usual the novel is divided into a handful of long parts or acts – in this case, four – each made up of numerous much shorter sections, often marked with a date stamp to give a sense of the urgent passage of time, of the ominous forward momentum of events. The earliest is 17 October 1937, the last one 9 May 1938.


1. Hotel Europejski

It is autumn 1937. Herr Uhl, happily married with kids, makes excuses to visit the factory down on the Polish border once a month but in fact pops over to Warsaw, checks into the Hotel Europejski and has championship sex with the plump, big-bottomed ‘Countess Sczelenska’. Colonel Mercia is French military attaché to Warsaw. We meet him playing tennis with the cream of Warsaw’s cosmopolitan high society at the rich country mansion of Prince Kazimierz.

Mercier is the ‘control’ of Herr Uhl, meets him in a seedy café in a working class quarter, pays him money, takes diagrams of German tank technology. Later Mercier packs night wear and a revolver and is driven by Marek, the loyal Polish chauffeur, down to Katowice on the German border where he and Marek crawl at night through the various lines of barbed wire, before a searchlight goes on and they have to shoot their way out and back to the Polish side. The tank traps which used to feature in these defences have been filled in: Why? To make them easier for tanks to cross. Why? When? Puzzling.

Uhl gets panicky on the train back into Germany and becomes convinced ‘they’ ie the Gestapo, are waiting for him at passport control. He dodges out of the queue waiting to hand over their passports, nips back under the train to steps down to the river and walks back to the previous station. But this suspicious activity was noticed and reported, a report which eventually percolates up to Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss in local Sicherheitsdienst (SD) headquarters at Glogau. It takes them a while but his operatives eventually match the description of a pot-bellied businessman with a big knobby nose who behaved suspiciously with Uhl.

Thus, after Mercier’s next rendezvous with Uhl a month later, Mercier, leaving the rendezvous cafe separately, accidentally sees Uhl being forcefully chatted up by a stunning blonde and tails the pair back to a rent-by-the-hour hotel in the red light district. But when the blonde comes running downstairs ten minutes later, and is followed by a big goon carrying a package wrapped in bedsheets, Mercier intervenes, there’s a fight, the Krauts make off in a getaway car and Mercier unwraps the roped-up bedsheets to discover Uhl inside, almost dead. Not quite. He is spirited away to hospital.

In a different plotline – Mercier is invited to a diplomatic reception given to entertain businessmen from the French company Renault, who are trying to sell the Polish government armaments. His regular consort drops out and at suggests a replacement, the girlfriend of a Russian émigré writer (Maxim Mostov), the young and lovely Anna Szarbek, who works for the League of Nations as a lawyer. Guess what happens, go on, guess. Yes, they fall in love and thus begins a passionate love affair set against the looming threat of war!

Among Mercier’s routine chores are regular meetings with his opposite number, Colonel Anton Vyborg, who we’ve already met in Furst’s novels Dark Star and The Polish Officer, both set a few years later, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. In one meeting Mercier admires a map which Vyborg casually mentions was drawn up by Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section (p.222). Alert readers will remember that this same de Milja is the Polish Officer in the novel of the same name. If the reader had read either of those novels he would have a strong sense of the doom which all these characters are heading towards…

Mercier is reprimanded by the Ambassador for the diplomatic embarrassment of ‘the Uhl Affair’, and is recalled to Paris to explain.

2. On Raven Hill

Paris, where almost all Furst’s novels start and end. Mercier returns to the huge apartment in the 7th arrondissement and bumps into cousin Albertine, the one who initiated him into the joys of sex when he was an innocent 14-year-old. Now she is formal, polite, friendly – but with a teasing hint of flirtation…

Mercier has a formal interview with Colonel Bruner who reprimands him for causing a scene and losing an agent. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Sturmbannführer August Voss has his ear bitten off by his boss about the cack-handed fiasco with Uhl. Infuriated Voss had had one of his thugs identify who it was who interfered in the street, i.e. he has got Mercier in his sights.

In every single one of Furst’s novels he mentions the fictional Brasserie Heininger, the supposedly upmarket, must-be-seen-at Paris nightclub and restaurant. In Night Soldiers it was the scene of an exciting and thrilling shootout, when the Bulgarian head waiter was assassinated for interfering in politics by assassins who then shot the place up and the owners left one mirror, cracked by a bullet hole, in place as a memento, the table beneath it, table 14, quickly becoming the most fashionable one to dine at.

But whereas in Night Soldiers the actual event was part of a genuinely gripping narrative about the criminal and espionage underworld of Paris, repetition of this story has made it boring and banal, and it is now getting irritating (p.137). Mercier is taken to the Brasserie for lunch by Aristide de Beauvilliers, the intellectual on the French High Council for War who, of course, insists on sitting at the famous table and telling him the story of the bullet hole – yawn.

Mercier reports that Uhl was due to go watch German tank manoeuvres at a place called Schramberg. He’s been reading the German General Guderian’s book about tank tactics, Achtung – Panzer! He’s come to the conclusion that the Germans will attack through Belgium, north of France’s supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line. De Beauvilliers agrees but explains that the French Army is in the grip of old men who think they’re infallible. Pétain, hero of Verdun, has ridiculed the Ardennes theory, so it is squashed. Meanwhile, French politicians are so polarised that no decisions, no funding for the Army, is forthcoming. We readers know all this means France will be conquered in a matter of weeks by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in June 1940.

Mercier returns to Warsaw. He attends another reception where he is anxious to see whether Anna Szarbek will attend. She does. His heart soars. Walking her back to her apartment they are caught in a sudden snowstorm and duck into a cinema where they end up snogging. He sees her to her door where she is charmingly shy and conflicted about whether they should see each other again. Women, huh?

In action mode, Mercier slips into civilian clothes, flies to Switzerland, is briefed by a useful fellow official at the French consulate there, given a pistol, maps, compass and then driven by a reliable local, Stefan, across the border to Schramberg. He makes his own way out to the test zone, hides and then observes the German tank manoeuvres for himself.

3. The Black Front

Mercier celebrates Christmas and New Year at his estate back in southern France. The loyal family retainers. The loyal hunting dogs. Mass at the local church with the surviving relations, including an irritating right-wing uncle. Then, gratefully, back to Warsaw. Mercier sends his report of the German tank manoeuvres to Paris. De Beauvilliers hints that it will be ignored by the foolish high command.

Mercier receives a clandestine plea from the two Russian diplomats who he’s always meeting at receptions, a Jewish couple, Viktor and Malka Rozen. They have been ordered back to Moscow. They know they will be interrogated and shot. They wish to defect. He checks with his superiors, then makes an appointment to meet them, but they don’t show.

In Paris Madame Dupin had told him about a League of Nations conference to do with laws surrounding national minorities and refugees. He immediately wonders whether Anna will be going and, if so, she will be free from the clutches of the Russian boyfriend. He arranges with his bosses to go, impatiently and excitedly boards the train and – lo and behold! – she is on it and – quelle surprise! – they are soon in her overnight compartment where he quickly finds out she has ‘small breasts in a lacy black bra’ (p.216) among other discoveries.

Back in Warsaw, Mercier returns to routine work: a letter from Uhl, now recovered, saying he is being sent to safety in Quebec, with a new identity and job. Meetings. Colonel Vyborg invites him to a private meeting and tells him he is under surveillance by people attached to the German embassy. Neither of them know they are thugs hired by Sturmbannführer Voss, the angry man humiliated in the Uhl fiasco.

One night there is a frantic beating at the door and it is Madame Rozen. This sparks the most exciting passage in the novel as she has fled the embassy, but her husband twisted an ankle and is in a park up the road. It is midnight. Mercier packs his Browning pistol and makes his way through the deserted streets, making the reader as tense as he is. He finds Rozen, becoming incoherent with the freezing cold, and supports him all the way back to his apartment, with one interruption. An angry man steps out to confront them but Mercier waves his gun and the man strolls away. From the description, the reader suspects it is Voss not anybody from the NKVD who might be tailing the Rozens.

Mercier calls the embassy and his people put in place a successful operation to exfiltrate the two Russians, his boss Jourdain, the embassy chauffeur Marek, a motorcycle guard, they drive out to a remote airfield where a plane arrives bearing Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s boss, all the way from Paris. The Rozens climb into it and it departs. Panic over. Mercier returns to his apartment for a well-earned kip.

Next night he entertains Anna to dinner and Furstian sex. She has moved out of the apartment she shared with the Russian writer. They are now definitely an item.

At a diplomatic dinner given by the Portuguese embassy, Mercier is surprised to find himself in conversation with the courtly old Dr Lapp, a German businessman assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence. Very slyly he indicates that he is a true German patriot and not so keen on the present regime. Shall we meet again, somewhere more private? Mercier repeats the conversation to his boss who points out that he’s becoming quite the spymaster. It was the incident of saving Uhl from being abducted by the Germans; everybody heard about it and everybody deduced his role.

4. A Shadow of War

March 1938. Mercier, in his capacity as military attaché, goes on a typically boring trip to a Polish arms, armoured car and light tank factory, the Ursus Tractor Company in the suburb of Wola. Mercier leaves the factory after a long, exhaustive tour but his faithful driver Marek is not waiting as they’d arranged. Instead, out of the shadows emerge three menacing figures who, before, he can react, surround Mercier and start beating him up, whipping him with a horsewhip, punching and kicking to the ground. It’s looking bad for our hero when a shot rings out and the bad guys desist the beating and run off. The gun was fired by Marek the driver who comes running up to his boss and helps him to his feet. He describes how he’d parked a few streets away and had himself been approached by a thug who drew a gun. Being the sturdy dependable type he is, Marek simply shot this figure.

The reader knows the three assailants are Major Voss and two of his SD thug pals. Voss is very angry at Mercier for interfering in the abduction of Uhl, and blames him for his recent transfer to a small provincial town, Schweinfurt. This demotion was the last straw had determined him to travel to Warsaw with two drinking buddies and ugly bullies from the SD – Meino and Willi – fired up by fantasies of kidnapping Mercier and torturing him, maybe in front of his pretty girlfriend. They were met off the train and driven around by local German thug, Winckelmann, and this is the man who approached Marke threateningly and who Marek shot dead.

Safely back in the centre of town, Mercier is tended by Anna. A few days later he has the planned meeting with Dr Lapp. Mercier passes on the message he has been given by his bosses that Dr Lapp should travel to Paris and phone the number he hands him. He’ll be met by the sophisticated de Beauvilliers and discussion about recruiting him will proceed from there. But Mercier has his own agenda. Running like an unobtrusive thread has been gossip and speculation about a shadowy organisation that opposes the Nazis from within, in fact which originated within the Nazi party itself. Initially, there was a genuinely socialist wing of the party, which wanted to do away with big industrialists, redistribute wealth to the workers and so on. But Hitler needed rich backers and so, in the Night of The Long Knives in July 1934, he had most of the leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA) murdered.

But some survived and went underground in what is rumoured to call itself the Black Front. Now Mercier asks Lapp about a name he has heard, a Halbach. Lapp is reluctant to speak, but eventually says, yes it still exists, in feeble shape. Halbach lives under a pseudonym in a Czech border town, writing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Mercier plans what will be the final sequence in the novel. He gets funds from de Beauvilliers, and maps, and takes local trains to the little town where he confronts Halbach, saying he knows his real identity but – relax! don’t panic! – is offering him the chance for a new, faked Swiss identity, to escape before the Gestapo find him. He just needs his help tracking down another Black Front colleague, known as Hans Köhler. Halbach tells him that Köhler’s real name is Johannes Elter.

Mercier takes Halbach to Prague to get a new passport and identity, buys a decent second-hand car and drives the pair of them across the border, on a tense car journey all the way to Berlin, where Elter lives. They stay overnight in a rough brothel, visited by drunk SS men. Next day Mercier drives Halbach to the converted church where he knows he is part of a model railway club (!). Elter is shocked to see his old comrade. In private, Halbach explains that the Gestapo are moving in but that he, Halbach, has found a sponsor who can guarantee safety. All he must do is bring all the secret documents he can get his hands on from office I.N.6, the section of Military Intelligence dedicated to making plans against France, to a certain hotel the next day.

It’s a lot for Elter to take in but he handles Halbach’s passport, is shown the money, and promises to be at the bar the next evening. Halbach returns to Merciers car and they drive north for three hours to the port of Rostock where Halbach catches the ferry to Denmark, to be a free man, his job done. Mercier returns and checks into the grand hotel where, the next evening, exactly on time, Elter appears with a heavy briefcase. Mercier takes him up to his bedroom, hands him passport and cash. The pair stand in the darkened room. For a moment I thought the door was about to burst open and the Gestapo rush in but in fact Elter hesitantly says that, if there’s more money, he’s prepared to do this some more. Mercier, momentarily wrong-footed, quickly agrees. They part.

Mercier examines his haul. 73 documents ranging from the trivial to maps of the Ardennes with attack routes sketched. Next day he flies from Tempelhof airport to Le Bourget with the docs in a fake bottomed briefcase, and by taxi to the French High Command. Waits several days. When he is called in for an interview, his colleague de Beauvilliers offers him a job with his small intelligence unit in Paris. But his boss, Colonel Bruner, genial and pleased, congratulates him, confirms his promotion to colonel and then floats the theory that maybe the whole thing was a set-up: Halbach an imposter, Elter a fake, the documents a deliberate decoy, part of a canny plan to deceive the French.

Disgusted Mercier catches a cab back to the family apartment where cousin Albertine is getting drunk with Anna who he’s brought along for the trip.

The novel ends with a short paragraph explaining how, 24 months later, General Guderian did invade France through the ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes, to the north of the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line, leading France to capitulate within weeks and establish the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.


Dramatis personae

Listing them makes you realise just how many interesting and credible characters Furst creates in each of his novels. The sheer number, and the complex ways they overlap and interact, feed into the larger webs and networks of characters which recur across the novels, themselves symbolic or embodying the complex web of diplomatic, espionage and intelligence manoeuvring across pre-war Europe.

  • Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, French military attaché to Warsaw.
  • Annemarie, his fragrant wife, who died three years earlier.
  • Gabrielle, lovely daughter number one.
  • Béatrice, daughter number two, living in Cairo.
  • Albertine, cousin who initiated him into the joy of sex.
  • Prince Kazimierz, member of Polish aristocracy.
  • the lovely Princess Antoniwa, ditto.
  • Edvard Uhl, businessman and industrial spy for Mercier.
  • ‘Countess Sczelenska’, real name Hana Musser, refugee from the Sudetenland, honey trap mistress of Uhl.
  • Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss, permanently angry head of the SD in Glogau, who is handed the report about the suspicious behaviour of Uhl on the train back into Germany, whose agents track him down and are about to abduct him from a Warsaw hotel when Mercier intervenes to rescue Uhl – leading to Voss being reprimanded – which leads to his vendetta against with Mercier.
  • Winckelmann, one of his thugs in Warsaw.
  • Meino and Willi, thuggish SD friends Voss travels to Warsaw with to beat up Mercier.
  • Marek, Mercier’s loyal embassy driver.
  • Wlada, Mercier’s skinny nervous housekeeper at his Warsaw apartment.
  • Anna Szarbek, lawyer for the League of Nations, who Mercier falls in love with.
  • Maxim Mostov, Russian émigré writer and journalist, who is upset when Anna leaves him for Mercier, and then is exposed, along with many others, by the intelligence handed over by the Rozens (see below) as a spy, and so deported from Poland back to the USSR.
  • Colonel Anton Vyborg, Mercier’s opposite number in the Polish military, with whom he has regular meetings, Vyborg featured in Furst’s earlier novels, Dark Star and The Polish Officer.
  • Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section of Polish Intelligence, mentioned in an off-hand reference by Vyborg, he was the lead figure in Furst’s earlier novel, The Polish Officer.
  • Jourdain, Mercier’s colleague at the French embassy in Poland.
  • The French ambassador to Poland.
  • Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s superior at the Quai d’Orsay back in Paris.
  • Madame Dupin, assistant director of Protocol.
  • de Beauvilliers, the 60-year-old intellectual on the French High Council for War, politely dismissive of the current French Army leadership under the hero of the Great War, old General Pétain.
  • Viktor and Malka Rozen, two Jewish Russian agents in Warsaw who Mercier helps to escape when their own government turns against them.
  • Colonel de Gaulle, Mercier’s contemporary at the St Cyr military college, and with whom he shared adventures as French representative to the army of General Pilsudski during the Russo-Polish war of 1920.
  • General Guderian, theorist of tank-led Blitzkrieg.
  • Stefan, drives Mercier from the French embassy in Switzerland across the German border to Schramberg, where Mercier observes Wehrmacht tank manoeuvres in the snow.
  • Dr Lapp, a German businessman who looks like Buster Keaton, is assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence, who approaches Mercier at a diplomatic dinner, apparently offering to hand over intelligence.
  • Halbach, member of the underground anti-Nazi movement, the Black Front.
  • Elter, fellow member of the Black Front who Halbach persuades to smuggle documents out of the French section of German High Command headquarters in Berlin.

Credit

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst was published in 2008 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Phoenix paperback edition.

BBC mini-series

The Spies of Warsaw was adapted by the BBC into a two-part mini-series for TV, snappily retitled Spies of Warsaw and starring a post-Dr Who David Tennant as the dashing Colonel Mercier.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

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

Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (2008)

The full title is Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Kelly is a fellow at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and it shows in this book, which carefully weighs the existing written accounts of the Huns alongside the latest archaeological evidence to give a sober, untheatrical account of the historical background to the advent of the Huns and the rise to power of their legendary leader.

Sources

To start at the end, there is a very useful appendix detailing the 22 or so classical and early medieval authors who make any reference the Huns, long or short, giving you the opportunity to search for translations online.

As to the Huns, they left absolutely no written accounts of their lives or culture: they were illiterate nomads from central Asia. The one and only Hun word we know of is strava because Priscus uses it to describe the funeral ceremonies held for the dead Attila. Otherwise we are entirely dependent on the written records of their enemies.

Sieving the sources

Kelly shows how one of our two most important sources, Ammianus Marcellinus (our only written account of the Huns before Attila), like so many ancient and medieval authors, based his accounts on previous similar accounts of ‘barbarians’. Kelly shows how Ammianus copied elements from the account by the famous Greek historian Herodotus in his History (430s BC) of the Scythians, a non-Greek, horse-riding warrior race from north of the Black Sea. This was how Roman authors and their audiences expected barbarians to be.

So the historian must assess how much is ‘true’ and how much is repetition of the kind of topoi – clichés if you like – handed down in the literary tradition: ie you have to pick through all the written accounts very carefully, weeding out the handed-down, the rumour, the fantasy and the made-up, before you establish the tiny kernel of fact. If any.

So what is Kelly’s book like?

Comments

A commenter on Amazon made a shrewd point: there is surprisingly little about Attila in this book about Attila. For the book is overwhelmingly about the Romans – about Roman emperors and generals and administration and power politics from the 370s when the Huns first arrived, to the 450s when Attila abruptly died. This is for the reasons stated above – that the Huns left no written record, a very sparse archaeological record, and what we know about them comes from their interactions with the Empire. We only have half the story.

The book convinces you that everything about the build-up, about Attila’s reign, and then the aftermath of his death, is fully and completely recorded and assessed. But that turns out to be a tremendously complicated story of Roman alliances, deceits, of cheating generals and scheming emperors and even scheming emperors’ wives, with a long central section about a scheming emperor’s eunuch. Lots and lots about the Machiavellian politics of the two Roman imperial courts – disappointingly little about Attila himself.

Key questions

So, for example, neither Kelly nor anyone else can answer some simple questions:

Where did the Huns come from? Kelly spends a chapter discussing the Huns’ origins and considering at length the theory that they were descendants of the Xiongnu, Mongolian nomads who established an extensive empire in the 3rd century BC, only to reject the theories and conclude – as almost everyone else is forced to – that our best guess is they came from the Great Plains of Kazakhstan.

As they migrated west they found themselves cramped into a smaller area (the Hungarian Plain, itself flat and featureless) with less resources, less acreage for their thin, hardy horses, and fewer settlements to plunder. So after a while they realised it was better to extract ongoing tribute from these places rather than raze them to the ground: they developed a policy of terrorising the inhabitants to extract tribute. Thus arriving in Hungary forced the Huns to change their loose social structure, to become more settled and organised, which led (apparently) to the coalescing of clan leadership. It is against this background that Attila emerges. And all this is no more than intelligent guesswork…

Why did the Huns arrive? They first appear in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (330 – 391) who says they arrived in the 370s. The terror they spread with their policy of total devastation terrorised the Gothic tribes who had lived just across the Danube  for generations, to plead with the Roman authorities to be allowed to cross the river into the Empire. But what pushed the Huns out of Kazakhstan? Why did they migrate west? No-one knows.

The Battle of Adrianople

Kelly gives a detailed account of the build-up to the fateful Battle of Adrianople 378 AD. The Goths were pushed by the newly arrived Huns towards the Danube and then begged the Emperor Valens to flee to safety across it. Valens gave permission but then the management of 80,000 Goth refugees was badly handled: settlement and food for them were slow in being organised. Mounting discontent toppled into war when the local Roman officer invited the Goth leader, Fritigern, to peace talks, then tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed and Fritigern returned to mobilise his fighting men among the various tribes of Goths, along with some Huns who had crossed the border, into a sizeable force. The Emperor Valens, irritated at having to cancel a campaign he was waging in the East against the Persians, marched back to Constantinople where he was booed at the Imperial Games, and set off north to the city of Adrianople in a vengeful mood. He had asked the emperor in the West, Gratian, to send forces, and Gratian was making his way to rendezvous with his fellow emperor – but slowly.

Arriving early at Adrianople early, his scouts telling him the Goth army was only some 10,000 strong, and his own impatient mood prompted Valens to decide take the Goths on with his eastern army alone. It was exterminated. There is a detailed account of the heat which exhausted the waiting Romans and the fires which the Goths lit to blow smoke downwind into their faces and then, while the leaders were still discussing some kind of truce, skirmishing broke out among the impatient troops which escalated chaotically – thus denying the Romans the advantage of their traditional discipline and order. Some 20,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered along with Valens himself, burned to death in a farmhouse where he had taken refuge. It was the biggest Roman military defeat in 700 years, throwing the East wide open, and bringing home to everyone the power of the invading ‘barbarians’.

Priscus’ mission

Part three of this four-part book retells in considerable detail the one and only account of Attila we have from personal experience, that of Priscus of Panium who was chosen to accompany Maximinus, the head of the Byzantine embassy representing Emperor Theodosius the Younger (ruled 408–450) which travelled across the Danube and into the heart of the Hun empire to meet Attila.

Kelly uses Priscus’s eye-witness account to critique the stereotyped hearsay of Ammianus and to draw some obvious conclusions, namely the Huns were more civilised than the Romans had been led to believe. Priscus was impressed by Attila’s palace beyond the Danube, as well as the quarters for his queen who supervised the creation of sophisticated tapestries. Slowly he realises that Attila is no psychopathic barbarian but a cunning strategist.

A calculating man

What emerges from Priscus’ account (which itself only survives in fragments) is Attila’s cunning and the extent to which he engaged in normal diplomacy. Like anyone else who’s heard of Attila, I assumed his horde raped, pillaged and burned their way indiscriminately across Europe, but this isn’t quite true or is only part of the truth. Attila undertook several incursions into Roman territory – into the Balkans in 441 and 447, then into Gaul in 451 where his rampage was stopped at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, and then south into Italy in 452, until he reached the gates of Rome.

However, after each of these campaigns he withdrew back to his strongholds across the Danube. Ie he never set out to conquer and take control of Roman territory. Kelly’s book makes clear that the incursions were carried out to spread terror and thus increase his main aim, to bolster his negotiating position with the emperors, forcing them to pay him off with ever-bigger tribute/bribes/pay-offs. Successive Roman emperors handed over staggering amounts of gold to Attila and also – a subtle Stalinist touch – he always insisted that any Hun refugees in Roman territory were also handed back to him, to be executed in short order. No Hun was to be allowed to create an alternative power-base or become a client of the Romans.

Kelly sums up Attila’s policy neatly as a protection racket on a grand scale.

Attila’s death

The last 40 pages of this 230 page book describe in minute detail the manoeuvres and machinations of the final emperors who faced him – Valentinian III (Western Emperor 425 to 455), Theodosius (Eastern Emperor 408 to 450) and Marcian.

As with the rest of the book, you need both a family tree and to have been keeping notes to remember which member of which imperial family was conspiring against who and why, let alone the network of barbarian rulers who by now had seized enormous tracts of the western empire – the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, all of them potentially making alliances with any of the others against any of the others – it is like a permanent, super-complex game of Risk. And right in the thick of it, Attila abruptly died in 453.

One account has it that he stayed up late drinking in his palace on the night of his wedding to another wife (nobody knows how many wives he had) and the next morning his bodyguard found him dead in her bed. If the sources can be believed, he appears to have had a nosebleed and, drunken and unconscious, drowned in his own blood. Or did his new wife poison him? Or did his bodyguard kill him? Various theories and rumours survive in our ancient sources and, once again, you have to choose the one you think most plausible, in the full knowledge that they might all be fictions.

Aftermath

History doesn’t stop. The new situation threw all the players the book has described in such detail into a new matrix of strategic possibilities. The Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, the western Roman emperor, the eastern Roman emperor – all had to reconsider their plans and alliances now a key element in the geopolitical situation had been removed. Briefly, Attila’s three sons – Ellac, Dengizich, Ernak – fell into civil war, were killed, overthrown or defeated in battle and the empire built up by this cunning, calculating man collapsed, leaving absolutely no trace behind except the permanent weakening of the Roman Empire and a fearsome reputation.

Related links

Early medieval reviews

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson (2008)

Like Empire and Colossus before it, this is the book of a Channel 4 TV series. And like them, it is a thematic not a chronological history. Thus:

  • Chapter 1 – A quick skate through the history of money and credit, starting with Babylonian clay tablets, quickly on to the rise of the Medici bankers in Florence
  • Chapter 2 – The bond market
  • Chapter 3 – The stock market
  • Chapter 4 – Insurance
  • Chapter 5 – The real estate market
  • Chapter 6 – The rise and fall and rise again of international finance

In his introduction Ferguson says the world is more truly globalised than ever before and that money in all its aspects rules everyone’s lives, which makes it all the more worrying that polls and surveys in the western world show an astonishing ignorance of even the basics of economics. Therefore he was toiled on the TV series and book to try and make economics more comprehensible and to ‘break down that dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge’.

For this reader, at least, he fails. By page 150 I was confused and by page 200 had more or less given up trying to understand the economic mechanisms he’s referring to. I can read the words he uses to explain the massive financial bubble caused by the renegade Scotsman John Law in France in the 1720s. But I didn’t understand exactly why the repeated issue of shares at higher and higher prices in his phantom Mississippi company were doomed to collapse. I could understand that the executives of Enron lied and cheated about their accounts – but I didn’t understand why the financial authorities and auditors who are paid to regulate these things, gave them prizes for so many years.

I didn’t grasp some of the real basics: I don’t understand why the loans a bank has made are counted as part of its assets when common sense suggests that loans are the riskiest parts of its business and so should be part of their liabilities. I found Ferguson’s account of the Wall Street Crash as confusing as every other account of it I’ve ever read, not least because the stock market had been sliding for some time, amid a confusion of other economic indicators, and it actually rallied a bit after the ‘crash’. (Wikipedia article on the Wall Street Crash.) In fact one of the most salient features of the Great Depression of the 1930s which followed is that economists are still arguing about what caused it.

Of course historians are still arguing, and will argue forever, about almost everything that’s happened, from what caused the Great War to the rise of the Nazis. They – historians – fondly imagine they provide a useful function by shedding light on the past and providing some kind of guidance for the future – whereas anyone who’s read a lot of history knows that their ceaseless disagreements provide a kind of high-class entertainment, as informative and pointless as football fans arguing whether Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho is the greater manager. Ie their role is purely ornamental: nobody ever learned anything from history, especially the politicians, the populations and – as detailed here in alarming detail – the financiers who enthusiastically repeat it.

With economists, however, it’s a bit more important, as economists actually run things – banks, big corporations, finance ministries and governments. If we were inclined to take the world seriously, it would be desperately worrying that economists disagree so fundamentally about so much, and use a jargon which is so impenetrable to the rest of us and which, on closer examination, bears so little relationship to reality.

If the aim of the book was to make me more economically literate, it failed because it failed to explain even the basic concepts which economics is built on. Many terms are briskly defined as the narrative speeds on its way, but too briskly for this reader – and the text then moves on to use the building blocks I haven’t properly graspe, to build up more ever more complex sentences and statements. Since I don’t understand the individual elements of the sentences, the complete statements just sound like gibberish.

For example, he briskly defines some of the (numerous) definitions of ‘money supply:

M0 (also known as the monetary base or high-powered money), which is equal to the total liabilities of the central bank, that is, cash plus the reserves of private sector banks on deposit at the central bank; and M1 (also known as narrow money), which is equal to cash in circulation plus demand or ‘sight’ deposits. (p.51)

before going on to apply these definitions in different situations. It seems obvious to me that these are ideas that you should probably spend a week of a degree course getting to know and explore and trying out in different scenarios until you are absolutely confident you have mastered every theoretical and practical implication, before you begin applying them in further theory. That time and opportunity to explore the basics of economics is not on offer here.

Similarly, Ferguson devotes seven or so pages to the Great Depression of the 1930s. I read them twice so I know that an impressive amount of banks went bankrupt and I have some of the dates clearer in my mind, but I couldn’t explain to you why it happened and I have no idea why all the clever economists alive at the time and who presumably noticed it was going on, seem to have been powerless to fix it.

Imagine you have a group of people called airplane engineers and they design and build airplanes over the course of the years and suddenly, within a few months, every airplane in the world crashes out of the sky, killing all their passengers. And the engineers have no idea why it happened. And 80 years later – they are still arguing about why it happened. Would you get in a plane?

Suppose the entire class of European politicians, planners, economists and bankers persuaded Greece it would be a good idea to join the Euro. And a few years later the kind of financial crisis which everyone knows comes around every ten years or so, comes around, and it turns out Greece can no longer pay its debtors. But as a result of being in the Euro it cannot now devalue its currency to make its debts easier to pay and its European partners won’t let it default ie abandon repayment altogether – with the result that the combined efforts of some of the cleverest, best-paid politicians and economists in the modern world have turned Greece into a slave state with record unemployment, record bankruptcies and record suicides.

Would you trust these people? These economists and financial advisers and politicians? To guide your country?

If economists struggle to this day to understand why the Great Depression happened, then why am I even bothering trying to grasp the terminology and theories of an intellectual discipline which cannot explain the most important event in its territory and offers such consistently dreadful advice to the people who run countries?

Ferguson says that, out of the fogs of squabbling economists, there do emerge two vital lessons about the Great Depression:

That inept or inflexible monetary policy in the wake of a sharp decline in asset prices can turn a correction into a recession and a recession into a depression. (p.164)

and that:

the benefits of a stable exchange rate are not so great as to exceed the costs of domestic deflation. (p.165)

I think what makes these sentences incomprehensible to me is that I don’t understand the basic building blocks, the individual ideas, from which they’re made. What is ‘monetary policy’? Obviously it’s policy to do with money, but what exactly? What is an ‘inept’ monetary policy? (What would be a ‘good’ monetary policy?) What, in this context, are ‘assets’? What is a ‘correction’? What is a ‘recession’? What is a ‘depression’ and how are they different from each other?

The second sentence is a masterpiece of magic and obfuscation. I needed an extra paragraph or two to remind me what the benefits of a stable exchange rate are, and also a bit of help grasping what deflation is and what domestic deflation is: and then a bit of help putting that all together so I really grasp it. But that help wasn’t to hand.

So reading this book involved rereading a lot of  history I knew already (the Medicis and early banking blah blah blah, Lloyds of London and the birth of insurance blah blah blah, Rothschilds build biggest bank in Europe blah blah blah) but the book completely failed to explain ‘economics’ to me. It failed to explain how the Medicis got so powerful, or why the Rothschilds or Lloyds got so big. They appear to have introduced new banking techniques and had diverse activities, as also did the five Rothschild brothers, each running a bank in a major European capital. Yes. And?

Maybe I’m particularly stupid. Maybe I have the wrong type of brain. But throughout the book, as it hurried through the history of banking and insurance and bond markets and stock markets and property markets, it felt as if I was watching an American football match where quite a lot is obviously taking place, and the crowd around me are jumping up and down and shouting but, because nobody has explained to me even the basic rules, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, what’s important and not important, when something special happens or why.

The last two chapters – about the housing market and recent economic crashes – read, like a lot of Ferguson’s previous book, Colossus – more like extended magazine articles than history. After some stuff about the decline of the landed aristocracy in England during the nineteenth century, the real core of the long real estate chapter (53 pages) is an extended description of the Savings and Loans scandal of the 1990s and the sub-prime mortgage scandal which helped prompt the recession of 2007 (or is it 2008?) The conclusion of this section appears to say that real estate ie property, isn’t always a reliable investment. Hmm.

Similarly, I have just finished the final chapter about high finance, which opens with an interesting account of the financial collapse surrounding the Great War, but only really takes fire as it approaches the present day and describes the hedge fund boom of the 1990s and 2000s. He then does a quick couple of pages on the way the USA and China have in recent decades become tied in a complex symbiotic financial relationship, with the Chinese government funding the American deficit and Chinese factories supplying consumption-mad America with its consumer goods. Again, this had historical elements but felt less like ‘history’ than an interesting extended article from the Economist or Financial Times. After all the interesting detail, the conclusion of this essay is that a financial crisis can come out of the blue when you least expect it. Hmm. Not a blinding insight, maybe.

These chapters, like similar ones in Colossus – which purports to be a history of the US but is really about the (then recent) US invasion of Iraq – tend to suggest that Ferguson is less a historian in the traditional sense than an impassioned commentator on current political and financial affairs who takes an unusually historical point of view, or uses an unusually large number of historical examples to shed light on  his analyses of the contemporary world.

Confidence sapping

If I came away with one over-riding impression, it is that economic theory has always struggled to catch up with the actual behaviour of incalculably greedy and clever men who are always devising financial structures and models way ahead of the theorists, politicians and regulators, and which almost always come to grief.

If there is one compelling conclusion from the book, it is that economists don’t know what they’re talking about. Again and again Ferguson introduces another tale of greed and folly with words to the effect of, ‘Until 19XX the conventional wisdom was that YY’, before going on to show, again and again and again, how received opinion among economists was overthrown by what actually happens in the world. ‘Bucking the trend’, ‘hardly anyone expected’, ‘nobody could have predicted…’ – by telling so many tales of financial disaster at such length Ferguson, presumably unintentionally, rubbishes the pretensions of his own subject.

Take pages 321 to 330, which describe the pioneering investment theory of a company called Long-Term Capital Management, set up in 1994 by Myron Scholes, an academic, and Fisher Black from Goldman Sachs who were  soon joined by another economist from Harvard Business School, Robert Merton. They devised an impressive mathematical formula for the optimum management of ‘option contracts’ (which, like so many of these concepts, I struggled to understand). They teamed up with a Federal Reserve vice-chairman, a Harvard professor and superstar traders from various firms, along with investment bank backing to set up the company, and started making a lot of money.

The best thing about this story is that after just three years, in 1997 Scholes and Merton were awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. The Nobel Prize! In September the next year their firm went bankrupt, only surviving because of a $3.6 billion bailout by Wall Street banks, frightened of the knock-on effect its collapse would have on the other major financial houses of America. Truly a Nobel Prize-winning achievement.

The net effect of this book is to undermine your faith that anybody really understands what is going on in the world of money, and to make that world seem a much more anarchic and dangerous place than you already feared.

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Bibliography

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

Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008)

A short (138 pages) packed account by Adam Zamoyski of Lenin’s attempt to conquer Poland and send the Red Army on to Germany, to Berlin, to support the fledgling German communists there and, ultimately, to spread the Russian Revolution across Europe.

The Poles were initially pushed back by sheer weight of Russian numbers until they rallied at the gates of Warsaw whereupon, to everyone’s surprise, there occurred the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ and the Russians were held, repelled, and then routed all the way back to East Prussia. Here thousands surrendered or continued their rout back to Russia itself. Poland was saved and the entire area had 20 years breathing space to experience some kind of autonomous government before the Nazi-Soviet Pact and a new Dark Age descended.

One of the key Red Armies in the campaign was the First Cavalry Army operating in the South. It’s their part in this campaign which Isaac Babel describes in his chilling, brutal, haunting classic Red Cavalry.

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