Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe (2014)

Roe’s previous book – The Private Lives of the Impressionists  (2006) – gives a chatty, anecdotal overview of the Impressionists’ lives and loves (and poverty, lots of poverty) blended with lashings of pop social history, ending with the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

This one skips 14 years (neatly avoiding the complex decade of the 1890s when Symbolism and Art Nouveau became the new thing). Instead Roe starts with the dawn of the new century in 1900, and launches her account with the enormous Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from April to November, built and designed in the dominant Art Nouveau style to house a vast array of innovative machines, inventions and architecture.

The decadence and darkness of the fin-de-siecle didn’t disappear immediately, but there was a widespread sense of hope and optimism, that the new century was going to bring marvellous advances in science and medicine and society and, accompanying this optimism, there was in the arts a palpable thirst for something new, for the next big thing.

A group biography

The book is mostly about the artists, specifically Picasso and Matisse, their lovers and wives and children and mistresses, their struggles simply to survive, to find somewhere to live, and their relationships with the growing number of Parisian collectors and dealers.

The book details the slow-burning rivalry between Matisse and his young rival, explaining how and why it began and grew (for example when the two artists exchanged paintings, Picasso hung the work Matisse gave him on the wall and encouraged his mates to use it as a dartboard).

Around them cluster other important artists – Derain, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Braque – each given their own potted biographies, who then weave in and out of the plot – for example, she devotes some pages to le douanier Rousseau, the naive painter of jungle scenes, who Picasso organises an elaborate celebration dinner for.

Several characters I found it hard to care about. Roe has a particular fondness for the master couturier Paul Poiret. I have a blind spot for fashion so I didn’t really care that among his customers was Margot Asquith, the fashionable wife of the British Prime Minister, who apparently wore violet satin knickers, or that his design for skirts slashed open to the knee caused the sensitive to faint and the outraged to write letters to the press. After a while I skimmed through these chapters.

Similarly, Gertrude Stein was an important early collector and supporter of both Matisse and Picasso, and it’s certainly interesting to read about her own avant-garde experiments with a kind of radically decentred prose as a verbal equivalent to what the painters were doing with point-of-view.

But the intricacies of her relationship with fellow lesbian Alice B. Toklas, let alone other lovers and friends called Nancy and Alice, and how they all corresponded with Fernande, Picasso’s lover and muse, descended – for me – into pointless tittle-tattle, and I skipped these parts too.

Social history

Roe’s social history is patchy. The disastrous Dreyfus Affair which dragged on from 1894 to 1906 and bitterly divided France into pro- and anti-Dreyfus camps, is not mentioned and isn’t in the index.

On the other hand, she has a good couple of pages (162-163) about the political chaos of 1906, specifically the record number of strikes and the ubiquity of anarchist agitation. Characteristically, this is mentioned mainly in order to introduce us to a person, namely the thin, witty journalist and art critic Félix Fénéon, who had coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ to describe the Divisionist paintings of George Seurat and Paul Signac.

Similarly, the rise of cinema is an interesting thread running through the book, from the very first film made in 1896 to the fact that by 1902 ten-minute movies with elaborate special effects, dialogue captions and so on were being shown in newly created cinemas. Indeed, some French newspaper dubbed 1907 ‘the year of the cinema’ (p.192). But again, Roe’s interest is in relating it to the location of her title, to the fleapits and even open waste ground, where films were projected in run-down slummy Montmartre.

By introducing the notion of ‘cuts’, movies invented the method of showing the same scene from multiple points of view – wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, different angles. It’s not difficult to make links between these new ways of seeing and Cubism, which also presents multiple points of view of the same object.

More interesting to me was the detail that cinemas were so dirt cheap – entry often only a few centimes – that they quickly became the preferred venue of entertainment for the really poor, and that this change prompted the cabarets and vaudeville theatres to go up-market, charging more for entry, cleaning themselves up, becoming more ‘respectable’. That was an interesting insight into social history.

Late in the book we are given a brief history of manned flight (the Wright brothers made the first manned flight in 1903) because Picasso and Braque visited the new aerodrome at Issy les Moulineaux to watch the earliest French airplanes. Alongside Futurists hymning the car (‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace‘, as the Futurist Manifesto put it), the rapid evolution of cinema and the introduction of the telephone, Cubism was part of the new technological excitement of the times.

And – it’s difficult to sum up in a paragraph – but the book is drenched in the mechanics and economics of selling pictures. As a professional artist, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Competition was fierce because it was competition to get money to pay rent, get studio space, to buy food.

The noughties saw the further rise and complexification of the networks of collectors and dealers who bought and sold modern art, and we learn almost as much of their biographies, backgrounds, motives for collecting, and economic ups and downs, as we do about the painters.

Ambroise Vollard in particular emerges as a predatory buyer, repeatedly swooping on the studios of Picasso, Derain or Vlaminck and buying everything in sight – not once but several times we are told that passers-by gawped in wonder as Vollard loaded a horse-drawn cab to overflowing with colourful canvases and then trotted it off to his gallery (for example, buying 30 paintings off Picasso for 2,000 francs, p.270).

Private collectors – like the Stein family, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude who arrived in Paris in 1902, and whose adventures we follow in some detail – pale in comparison with the professional activities of Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the growing band of professional art dealers.

As a result of the growing interest of the dealers – and of wealthy collectors and patrons like the Russian Shchukin – we watch Picasso and his fellow painters in particular go from starving in garrets (specifically, the ramshackle building in Montmartre known as the Bateau-Lavoir) trying to flog paintings for 15 francs a pop to – in the last few chapters of the book, by 1909, 1910 – being paid two or three thousand francs per consignment, huge sums which allow Matisse to give up the burden of teaching and move out of Paris altogether, and Picasso to rent a swanky apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lots of addresses…

Above all In Montmartre is – as its title suggests – the biography of a place, the ramshackle alleyways and slums, vacant lots, little squares, scattered windmills and allotments which made up the prominent hill of Montmartre, to the north of central Paris. Still, in 1910, the haunt of the real working class, not to mention a floating population of performers who worked in cheap, tatty circuses and cabarets, it was so ramshackle that you could not only rent apartments and studio space dirt cheap, but on the northern, more derelict face (the so-called Maquis), you could simply find abandoned shacks and move in, rent-free, as Modigliani did when he first arrived in the city in 1906.

Maybe it’s because the publisher commissioned it as the biography of a place as much as of any specific artists, that Roe pays such fanatical attention to addresses. If you want to know which famous artist was living where, which road or boulevard was home to which dealer’s gallery where so-and-so’s studio was, the precise locations of the top cafés and cabarets – Roe is your woman.

Much more even than descriptions of the art, Roe’s text is absolutely stuffed with addresses, precise directions how to get there, and which floor the collectors had to clamber up to, to discover Picasso or Matisse or Derain daubing away.

  • In 1900 Picasso was living in Nonell’s studio in the rue Gabriel while Braque was living two streets away in the rue des Trois Frères.
  • Matisse’s studio in February 1901 was at 19 quai Saint Michel.
  • Marie Laurencin, painter, printmaker and later muse to Apollinaire, lived at 51 boulevard de la Chapelle, an extension of the boulevard Rochechouart.
  • In 1904 Picasso was staying at the Hôtel Poirier at the corner of the rue des Trois Frères and the rue Ravignan. The Place Ravignan (since renamed the place Émile Goudeau) was just below the place du Tertre.
  • In 1904 Braque moved into a rented studio at rue d’Orsel, near the offices of the anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, a couple of hundred yards from the place Ravignan.
  • By the time she met Picasso in August 1904, Fernande Olivier (destined to become his first muse) was living at the ramshackle building known as the Bateau-Lavoir ‘on the ground floor, in room number three, on the rue d’Orchamps side’ (p.88)
  • The cabaret artistique, the Lapin Agile, was ‘a dark little two-roomed cottage nestling between the trees at the corner of the rue Corot and the rue des Saules’.
  • Maurice Utrillo lived at 12 rue Cortot from 1906 to 1914, Raoul Dufy shared an atelier there from 1901 to 1911. It is now the Musée de Montmartre.
  • The circus Medrano was in a large building at the foot of the Butte (the hill or ‘mound’) at the corner of the boulevard Rochevcouart and the rue des Martyrs, once site of the Circus Fernando where, in 1879, Degas painted Miss Lala hanging by her teeth from a rope, a painting now in the London National Gallery.

And so on. No one goes anywhere or does anything without Roe nailing down precisely where it was, with the street, the number, the floor and – if you’re lucky – the precise room number given. The digital version of the book ought to have a deal with Google Maps so that each address links through to a map with, ideally, archive photos of what the place looked like then, next to photos of what it looks like now.

… but not so many illustrations

I annotated the book with a line by each address that was mentioned, and an asterisk by each painting that was mentioned. Flicking back through the book makes me realise that a) nearly as many addresses are referenced as paintings b) the book only contains eight full-colour illustrations of paintings.

Since the point of the book is (at least partly) about the evolution in style of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque and so on, you want to see the works which are liberally mentioned throughout, and sometimes analysed in considerable detail (e.g. the four pages devoted to analysing Picasso’s breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). But since hardly any of them are illustrated in the text, I ended up spending quite a lot of time on the computer googling the images mentioned in the text, but not included. In other words, it’s not a very visual guide to the period.

Instead it does what it says on the tin – provides an enjoyable romp through who lived where, bumped into who, organised such and such an exhibition, started painting this or that famous work, went holidaying and painting in Normandy or the South, arrived in Paris from abroad and stayed at the so and so hotel before moving into studios at such and such address, and was bought up by such and such a dealer who had just moved into new bigger premises on the Boulevard thingummy.

It’s in this respect that the book is as much the biography of a place as of the avant-garde artists or art of its time.

Timeline of the avant-garde 1900s

The book begins with a pen portrait of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and how the last few weeks of its run saw the arrival of a nineteen-year-old Spanish artist in town, come to seek his fortune and try his luck – Pablo Picasso.

1900

  • April to November the Exposition Universelle is held in buildings erected in the open ground around the Eiffel Tower
  • October – Pablo Picasso arrives in Paris aged 19.
  • Winter – Picasso heads back to Barcelona for Christmas with his family.

1901

  • Cézanne paints his portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which allegedly took 115 sittings and still wasn’t finished.
  • February – Picasso’s friend Casagemas commits suicide by shooting himself in front of the woman who was spurning him. This really affects Picasso who sinks into a prolonged depression and starts doing paintings of down and outs, sad people, outcasts, in a monochrome blue, the so-called ‘Blue period‘ which lasts into 1904.
  • March – 71 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, his first solo exhibition anywhere. Here Matisse (aged 31) runs into André Derain (21) and his tall, burly friend, Maurice Vlaminck (25), all three of whom would become the core of the ‘Fauves’.

1902

  • The first narrative movie – A trip to the moon – is shown (the first ever film had only been shown in 1896).
  • September – Émile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne, dies, possibly murdered by his opponents in the long-running Dreyfus Affair.
  • October – Back in Barcelona, Picasso’s uncle pays for him to avoid Spanish military service.
  • Leo Stein arrives in Paris in 1902 and takes rooms at 27 rue de Fleurus, close to the Luxembourg Gardens where he is joined by his sister, Gertrude (b.1874) that autumn. In 1904 Michael Stein arrives with his wife and child and takes an apartment at rue Madame, just round the corner from rue de Fleurus. They immediately begin collecting contemporary art.

1903

  • February – Matisse is living at his parent’s home in Bohain, northern France.
  • May – Paul Gauguin dies in Tahiti.
  • October – The first Salon d’Automne shows 990 works.

1904

  • April – Picasso is back in Paris. He paints Boy leading a horse, epitome of his ‘Rose period’.
  • Matisse spends the summer staying with neo-Impressionist or Divisionist artist, Paul Signac, at St Tropez in the south of France, discovering the bright white light of the Mediterranean, and paints the pointillist Luxe, calme et volupte.
  • July – Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi arrives in Paris. Born in 1876, he is 38 years old.
  • October – the second Salon d’Automne features 2,044 works and has a Renoir room (35 works) and a Toulouse-Lautrec room (28 rooms).

1905

  • March – as part of the annual Salon des Indépendants, organised by Signac, Matisse helped put together a display of 45 works by van Gogh (who had committed suicide as long ago as 1890). Matisse later said this was a turning point in his career, van Gogh helping him turn away from Signac’s Divisionism towards a more expressive style.
  • In early summer Matisse’s wife discovers the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure near Perpignan, and Matisse goes there to start painting fiery bright paintings of the landscape and people. He writes to all his friends in Paris to join him but only André Derain replies and arrives, tall, dressed in a white suit with a red beret, and they both spend the summer feverishly painting. By the start of September Derain had completed 30 canvases, 20 drawings and 15 sketches.
  • 5 September – Fernande Olivier moves in with Picasso thus starting their tempestuous relationship, during which he painted more than 60 portraits of her. He paints performers from the nearby Montmartre circuses, including Boy with a pipe (which, in 2004 was sold for $104 million to the head of an Italian food processing conglomerate).
  • October – the third Salon d’Automne includes a room devoted to the brightly coloured works of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Their visual violence leads art critic Louis Vauxcelles to nickname them all wild beasts, or ‘fauves’. And so an art movement was born.
  • Michael Stein buys Matisse’s Madame Matisse in  a green hat for the full asking price of 500 francs, massively relieving Matisse’s financial straits.
  • November – dealer Ambroise Vollard buys Derain’s entire stock of paintings, 89 oils and 80- watercolours,for an unprecedented 3,300 francs (p.134). Then buys a 100 francs-worth of work from Vlaminck.
  • November – Vollard commissions Derain to travel to London to paint city landscapes, such as Charing Cross bridge, following in the footsteps of Monet (as explained by the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain).
  • December – Kees van Donger, his wife and little girl move into the Bateau-Lavoir and become close friends of Picasso and Fernande. Picasso is painting a portrait of Gertrude Stein – she claims she had to do 99 sittings for it. Gertrude is working out her revolutionary new prose style. She notices that what she calls Picasso’s ‘harlequin’ phase is played out.

1906

  • January – Amedeo Modigliani arrives in Paris, aged 21. He moves into a derelict shack on the Montmartre hill and establishes a reputation as a dissolute womaniser gifted with phenomenal draughtsmanship.
  • 19 March – Matisse’s one-man show opens at the Galerie Druet, displaying 60 paintings hardly any of which sell.
  • Juan Gris arrives in Paris from Spain, at first supporting himself by doing satirical illustrations.
  • April – Vollard gives Picasso 2,000 francs in exchange for all his recent paintings, enough to fund Picasso to take Fernande on a holiday to Spain, specifically to the village of Gosol where he painted the locals and himself in a chunky new ‘primitive’ style. – Picasso self-portrait (1906)
  • October – Paul Cézanne dies.
  • October – the fourth Salon d’Automne opens with a vast display of the entire history of Russian art collected and arranged by Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev (b.1872 and so 34), marking the start of Diaghilev’s artistic and musical adventures in Paris. The Salon also shows a big retrospective of Gauguin including drawings, ceramics, 227 paintings and his totemic carvings.

1907

  • April – Matisse leaves Paris to paint at Collioure.
  • Spring – Picasso visits the Ethnography Museum and is bewitched by the power of African fetishes. From now on all his work now shows angular human figures with harsh, stylised shapes and blank eyes, completely different from the naive figuratism of either the blue or rose period. – Dance of the Veils, 1907
  • August – Matisse starts writing Notes of a painter, published in 1908.
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opens his gallery at 28 rue Vignon. He will become one of the greatest supporters of Cubist art and will have his portrait painted by Picasso just three years later.
  • Autumn – Picasso cautiously unveils Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (originally just titled The brothel) to close friends and a fellow artists. Nobody likes it and he puts it away for 16 years.

1908

  • By the spring Picasso’s gang or bande had crystalised into Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. Picasso (25) formed a particularly close working relationship with Braque (26), reading the same pulp paperbacks, going to the same clubs, to the cinema, thinking about the next step in their odyssey away from traditional painting.
  • August – Picasso spends a month painting in the country at La Rue des Bois, a tiny hamlet near Creil, north of Paris.
  • November – Braque holds a one-man show at Kahnweiler’s gallery. It was here that the same critic who coined the expression ‘fauve’ described the content of many of Braque’s landscapes with houses as containing ‘petits cubes’. Cubism was born – or at least, named.

1909

  • February – Matisse is in Cassis, studying seawaves as preparation for La Danse, a major commission for a mural from the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. This year Shchukin opens his collection of French avant-garde art (Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse) to the public in St Petersburg.
  • February – the first Futurist manifesto was published in Italy.
  • May – the Ballets Russes give their first performance in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet and become wildly fashionable.
  • May to September Picasso is in Spain, visiting relatives in Barcelona, but mostly at the village of Horta where he had spent time when he was ill as a teenager, accompanied by his mistress Fernande, who was herself severely ill with a kidney infection.
  • September Vollard pays Picasso 2,000 francs for thirty paintings and Picasso can at last afford to leave the slums of Montmartre and move into a swanky apartment on the boulevard Clichy.
  • The Bernheim-Jeune brothers become Matisse’s sole dealers, guaranteeing to buy everything he paints, with a sliding scale depending on size. This is the first reliable income Matisse, now aged 40, has ever had.

1910

  • February-March Matisse holds a retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, including sixty-five paintings and twenty-five drawings.
  • May – the Ballets Russes return with a new repertory of ballets, featuring the greatest dancer of the era, Nijinsky.
  • Juan Gris moves into the Bateau-Lavoir and begins to paint cubist paintings.
  • October – First cubist works show at the Salon d’Automne. Matisse displays La Danse and La Musique which are both greeted with howls of criticism.
  • November – Roger Fry organises an exhibition bringing together works by French artists from the previous thirty years under the title ‘Post-Impressionism’ at the Grafton Gallery in London.

Holidays or whores

In The Secret Lives of the Impressionists I noticed Roe’s fondness for describing women’s boobs and busts and lingering on the opportunities for a titillating glimpse of female flesh given by, for example, holiday trips to the seaside in the 1870s to watch bathing beauties.

In this book I really noticed her fondness for the word ‘whore’. I won’t bore you with a string of quotes, but she uses it a lot to describe the prostitutes who thronged around Montmartre (and who the artists alternately used and painted).

I find ‘whore’ a blunt, mannish word; in fact I tend to associate it with male writers who want to convey a show-off sense of their own man-of-the-world toughness. There is available to writers the much more neutral word ‘prostitute’ – and these days I thought we were all meant to use the non-judgmental phrase ‘sex workers’.

In Roe’s hands (pen, keyboard or discourse) the prolific use of the word ‘whore’ seems to me to epitomise the drastic change in atmosphere from the sunlit world of the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s to the much more intense, night-time, bars-and-cabarets-and-circuses world of the noughties, the world of late Toulouse-Lautrec, to the beggars and street people of Picasso’s blue period, to van Dongen’s brutal depictions of naked women with splayed legs, to Matisse and Derain’s terrifyingly intense portraits.

It is a harsher world. Thus, for example, Roe writes – brutally, I think – that the five women depicted in Picasso’s epoch-making painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are ‘not only whores but whores with attitude’ (p.220).

It came as a complete revelation to me that Les demoiselles are in fact ‘whores’. All the commentary (not only in this book but in several online articles, once I came to read about it) takes it for granted that the painting depicts a brothel with a bunch of naked women standing around, and that their blunt sexuality is part of the point.

I’ve known this painting for forty years or more and never given it a thought that it is set in a brothel. I thought it was one more example of the thousands of paintings in the western tradition of a number of half-dressed women standing around, not least thousands of scenes from the classical world.

Certainly the women’s supposed ‘sexuality’ is the last thing I notice when I look at it. Coming from a world awash with images of naked women (and from Western art awash with nudes) my first response to this painting isn’t shock at their ‘blatant sexuality’ – I can see boobs and bums in thousands of other paintings.

It is dismay and difficulty at the aggressively unsensual depiction of the figures, of their angular bodies and especially, of course, the blacked-in primitive masks of the right-hand pair. I register it as a calculated assault on our visual conventions and norms which still, 110 years later, retains its capacity to shock and awe. Like a lot of Picasso, I don’t think I like it but I respond to its horrible power.

Roe’s book is a thoroughly researched, colourful and absorbing portrait of the world from which this weird and challenging art emerged.


Related links

Related book reviews

Related exhibition reviews

Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels by Christopher Lloyd (2014)

Degas’s forensic approach favours those moments when humanity reveals its frailties. (p.191)

This book contains 238 illustrations, mostly in colour, of the pencil, black-chalk, pen-and-ink and charcoal drawings and the innumerable highly-coloured pastels of the master draughtsman among the Impressionists, Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

As a devotee of disegno (the Renaissance term for the art of drawing, and by extension of creating a composition) I found many of Degas’s drawings as ravishing as a work of art can be. Size-wise the book is half way between normal paperback and coffee table so the reproductions aren’t big, but they’re big enough to delight and amaze.

The text is by one-time Surveyor of the Queen’s pastels, Christopher Lloyd (b.1945). Lloyd points out that it was only after Degas’s death in 1917, when the contents of his studio were auctioned off, that anyone really appreciated the enormous number of sketches and pastels which Degas had created throughout his life, not to mention the contents of the 30-plus notebooks he left. There is a vast amount of material.

Lloyd treats Degas’ life and works in straightforward chronological manner:

  1. Beginnings 1853–1855 – His family was affluent: Dad was a banker from a French family who emigrated to Naples. Another branch of the degas family moved to New Orleans, USA and became successful in the cotton trade.
  2. Italy 1856–1859 – Degas goes on a self-financed odyssey round the great galleries of Italy, sketching everything he saw.
  3. History Paintings 1860–1865 – Degas makes a concerted effort to conform and paint the kind of history paintings which French High Society and the official Salon prized most. The book includes reproductions of Semiramis Building Babylon, 1861, The Daughter of Jephthah, 1859-1860, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1865 and so on – which are, frankly, not that convincing. By contrast, the preparatory sketches to these big works are almost all breath-taking. Degas kept the early work, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, in his studio and carried on tinkering with it well into the 1880s, though he never got the faces right. Anyway, the history strategy failed, with none of the history paintings being accepted by the Salon.
  4. Changing Directions 1865–1870 – Degas meets Manet, only two years older than him (b.1832). Overlapping with his history paintings he starts to sketch scenes of modern life. Compare Portrait of Mlle Eugenie Fiocre a propos the ballet ‘Le Source’, 1868, with Racehorses before the stands, 1866-8.
  5. Confronting the Modern World 1870–1879 – Degas takes a five-month trip to his relatives in New Orleans, which opens his eyes about the vastness of the modern world. But it’s back in Paris that Degas becomes part of the new avant-garde, meeting Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir et al, and playing a key role in organising the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. During the 1870s he really consolidates his interest in certain key subjects: ballet dancers, horse-racing, women at work (washerwomen, milliners), women at their toilette.
  6. Retreat into the Studio 1880–1890 – Degas diversifies into print-making, painting fans, and making sketches for large-scale friezes – though these never seem to have been completed. He experimented with stylised viewpoints, compressing the picture space, and deliberately cropping images, an aesthetic effect copied from photography.
  7. Landscape Drawings – Degas notoriously deprecated landscape painting (odd, really, considering that that was the core motif of Impressionism). He made some landscapes on his travels (he was probably the most-travelled of the Impressionists) but as objects of fact rather than sentimental ‘beauty’. Then in the 1890s he began to extend his interest in the monotype technology he’d first used in the 1880s, this time experimentally manipulating oil paint over the basic printed image. This created a suite of works which, ironically, was the subject of the only one-man show ever devoted to him in his lifetime (in 1892) . They surprised his devotees by moving decisively beyond Impressionism and into the hazy, half-imaginary world of fin-de-siècle Symbolism. – Landscape with smokestacks, 1890. Landscape, 1890.
  8. ‘The Dying of the Light’ 1890–c. 1912 – Degas’s eyesight deteriorated at the same time as he switched to the chosen medium of his final years, intensely coloured pastel, laid on with repeated, thick lines and hatchings, each layer preserved with a fixative and then drawn over again. This produced super-luminous visions which he often dabbed with wetted pastel sticks to produce magical sparkles and highlights. – After The Bath, Woman With A Towel, 1897. The dancers, 1892.

Lloyd not only takes us through Degas’ life, but systematically covers Degas’ various subject areas – the dancers and ballerinas (which form over half of Degas’s total oeuvre), the racehorses, the women workers (milliners, laundresses), and the women at their toilettes.

Half the pleasure comes from the sketches of subjects which don’t figure so much in the finished pastels or oil paintings but which he endlessly explored. Studies pure and simple of faces, men standing around, nude women and more ballerinas.

What an eye! And what an ability to rough out the forms and gestures of human beings with such conviction, creating brisk, confident lines on paper which bring an entire human moment to life.

Some staggering sketches

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

New terms

  • balletomane – a ballet enthusiast
  • contre-jour (‘against daylight’) uses sources of daylight in a painting or pastel to produce backlighting of the subject. The effect usually hides details, causes a stronger contrast between light and dark, creates silhouettes and emphasizes lines and shapes.
  • les rats – nickname for the youngest ballet dancers in the corps de ballet. Edmond de Goncourt described them as ‘little monkey girls’ (quoted page 118)
  • mise-en-page – fancy French term for page layout and design
  • repoussoir is one of the pictorial means of achieving perspective or spatial contrasts by the use of illusionistic devices such as the placement of a large figure or object in the immediate foreground of a painting to increase the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture.

Related links

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira (2014)

On page three of this book, astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira explains that part of what enthralled him as a student studying the theory of relativity was the personalities and people behind the ideas.

I felt that I had entered a completely new universe of ideas populated by the most fascinating characters. (p.xiii)

This is the approach he takes in the 14 chapters and 250 pages of this book which skip lightly over the technicalities of the theory in order to give us an account of the drama behind the discovery of the theory. Ferreira describes relativity’s slow acceptance and spread among the community of theoretical physicists, many of whom went on to unravel unexpected consequences from his equations which Einstein hadn’t anticipated (and often fiercely opposed). He shows how the theory was eclipsed in the middle years of the century by the more fashionable theory of quantum physics, then underwent a resurgence from the 1960s onwards, until Ferreira brings the story right up to date with predictions that we are trembling on the brink of major new, relativity-inspired, discoveries.

This book isn’t about the theory of relativity so much as the story of how it was devised, received, tested, studied and expanded, and by whom. It is ‘the biography of general relativity’ (p.xv).

Thus the narrative eschews maths and scientific formulae to focus on a narrative with plenty of human colour and characters. For example, early explanations of the theory are dovetailed with accounts of Einstein’s opposition to the Great War and the political attitudes of Sir Arthur Eddington, his chief promoter in Britain, who was a Quaker. A typically vivid and grabby opening sentence of a new section reads:

While Einstein was working on his theory of general relativity, Alexander Friedmann was bombing Austria. (p.31)

Some reviews I’ve read say that – following Stephen Hawking’s example in his A Brief History of Time (1988) – there isn’t a single equation in the book, but that isn’t quite true; there’s one on page 72:

2 + 2 = 4

is the only equation in the book – which I suspect is a joke. For the most part the ideas are explained through the kind of fairly simple-to-describe thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) which led Einstein to his insights in the first place – simple except that they are taking place against an impossibly sophisticated background of astrophysical knowledge, maths theories, weird geometry and complex equations.

Timeline

In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote a number of short papers based on thought experiments he had been carrying out in his free time at his undemanding day job working in the Berne Patent Office. The key ones aimed to integrate Newtonian mechanics with James Clerk Maxwell’s force of electromagnetism. His breakthrough was ‘seeing’ that space and time are not fixed entities but can, under certain circumstances, bend and curve. (It is fascinating to learn that Einstein’s insights came through thought experiments, thinking through certain, fairly simple, scenarios and working through the consequences – only then trying to find the mathematical formulas which would express essentially mental concepts. Only years later was any of it subjected to experimental proof.)

The book gives a powerful sense of the rivalry and jostling between different specialisms. It’s interesting to learn that pure mathematicians often looked down on physicists; they thought physicists too ready to bodge together solutions, whereas mathematicians always strive for elegance and beauty in the equations. Physicists, for their part, suspect the mathematicians of coming up with evermore exotic and sometimes bizarre formulas, which bear little or no relation to the ‘reality’ which physicists have to work with.

So the short or ‘special’ theory of relativity – focusing on mechanics and electromagnetism – was complete by around 1907. But Einstein was acutely aware that it didn’t integrate gravity into his model of the universe. It would take Einstein another ten years to integrate gravity into his theory which, as a result, is known as the general theory of relativity.

Ferreira explains how he was helped by his friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossman, who introduced him to the realm of non-Euclidean mathematics devised by Bernhard Riemann. This is typical of how the book proceeds: by showing us the importance of personal contacts, exchanges, dialogue between scientists in different specialities.

For example, Ferreira explains that the ‘Hilbert program’ was the attempt by David Hilbert to give an unshakable theoretical foundation to all mathematics. Einstein visited Hilbert at the university of Göttingen in 1915, because his general theory still lacked complete mathematical provenance. He had intuited a way to integrate gravity into his special theory – but didn’t have the maths to prove it. Eventually, by the end of 1915, in a process Ferreira describes as Einstein dropping some of his ‘intuitions’ in order to ‘follow the maths’, Einstein completed his general theory of relativity, expressed as a set of equations which became known as the ‘Einstein field equations’.

In fact the field equations were ‘a mess’. A set of ten equations of ten functions of the geometry of space and time, all nonlinearly tangled and intertwined, so that solving any one function by itself was impossible. The theory argued that what we perceive as gravity is nothing more than objects moving in the geometry of spacetime. Massive objects affect the geometry, curving space and time.

Almost before he had published the theory (in an elegantly compact three-page paper) other physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists had begun to take the equations and work through their implications, sometimes with results which Einstein himself strongly disapproved of. One of the most interesting themes in the book is the way that Einstein himself resisted the implications of his own theory.

For example, Einstein assumed, on the classical model, that matter was spread evenly through the universe; but mathematicians pointed out that, if so, Einstein’s equations suggested that at some point the universe would start to evolve i.e. large clumps of matter would be attracted to each other; nothing would stay still; potentially, the entire universe could end up collapsing in on itself. Einstein bent over backwards to exclude this ‘evolving universe’ scenario from his theory by introducing a ‘cosmological constant’ into it, a notional force which pushed back against gravity’s tendency to collapse everything: between the attraction of gravity and the repellent force of the ‘cosmological constant’, the universe is held in stasis. Or so he claimed.

Ferreira explains how the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter was sympathetic to Einstein’s (gratuitous) cosmological constant and worked through the equations, initially to support Einstein’s theory, but in so doing discovered that the universe could be supported by the constant alone – but it would contain very little matter, very little of the stars and planets which we seem to see. Einstein admired the maths but abhorred the resulting picture of a relatively empty universe.

In fact this was just the beginning of Einstein’s theory running away from him. The Russian astronomer and mathematician Alexander Friedmann worked through the field equations to prove that the perfectly static universe Einstein wanted to preserve – and had introduced his ‘cosmological constant’ to save – was in fact only one out of many possible scenarios suggested by the field equations – in all the others, the universe had to evolve.

Friedmann explained his findings in his 1922 paper, ‘On the Curvature of Space’, which effectively did away with the need for a cosmological constant. His work and that of the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, working separately, strongly suggested that the universe was in fact evolving and changing. They provided the theoretical underpinning for what astronomers had observed and named the ‘de Sitter effect’, namely the observation, made with growing frequency in the 1920s, that the furthest stars and nebulae from earth were undergoing the deepest ‘red shift’ i.e. the light emanating from them was shifted down the spectrum towards red, because they were moving away from us. Even though Einstein himself disapproved of the idea, his theory and the observations it inspired both showed us that the universe is expanding.

If so – does that mean that the universe must have had a definite beginning? When? How? And could the theory shed light on what were just beginning to be known as ‘dwarf stars’? What about the bizarre new concept of ‘black holes’ (originally developed by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzchild, who sent his results to Einstein in 1916, but died later that year)?

What Einstein called ‘the relativity circus’ was well underway – and the rest of the book continues to introduce us to the leading figures of 20th century physics, astrophysics, cosmology and mathematics, giving pen portraits of their personalities and motivations and describing the meetings, discussions, conferences, seminars, experiments, arguments and debates in which the full implications of Einstein’s theory were worked out, argued over, rejected, revived and generally played with for the past 100 years.

We are introduced:

  • To Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who proposed a sophisticated solution to the problem of white dwarfs and how stars die – which was rejected out of hand by Eddington and Einstein.
  • To the Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau who proposed that stars shine and burn as a result of the radioactive fission of tremendously dense neutrons at their core (before he was arrested for anti-Stalin activities in 1938).
  • To J. Robert Oppenheimer who read Landau’s paper and used its insights to prove Schwarzchild’s wartime idea that stars collapse into such a dense mass that gravity itself cannot escape, and therefore a bizarre barrier is created around the star from which light, energy, radiation or gravity can emerge – the ‘event horizon’ of a ‘black hole’.

These are the main lines of research and investigation which Ferreira outlines in the first quarter or so of the book up to the start of World War Two. At this point, of course, many leading physicists and mathematicians of all nationalities were roped into the massive research projects run in America and Germany into designing a bomb which could harness the energy of nuclear fusion. This had been thoroughly investigated in theory and in observations of distant galactic phenomena – but never created on earth. Not until August 1945, that is, when the two atom bombs dropped on Japan killed about 200,000 people.

Learnings

Some of the several fascinating things to learn from this mesmerising account are:

  • How often Einstein was wrong and wrong-headed, obstinately refusing to believe the universe evolved and changed, refusing to believe (therefore) that it had an origin in some ‘big bang’, and his refusal to accept the calculations which proved the possibility of black holes.
  • That although a great genius may devise a profound theory, in the world of science he doesn’t ‘own’ it – there is literally no limit to the number of other scientists who can probe and poke and work through and analyse and falsify it – and that the strangeness and weirdness of general relativity made it more liable than most theories to produce unexpected and counter-intuitive results, in the hands of its many epigones.
  • That after early successes, namely:
    • predicting the movement of the planets more accurately than Newton’s classical mechanical theory
    • showing that light really is bent by gravity when this phenomenon was observed and measured during a solar eclipse in 1919
    • inspiring the discovery that the universe is expanding
  • the theory of relativity was increasingly thought of as a generator of bizarre mathematical exotica which had little or no relevance to the real world. We learn that ambitious physicists from the 1930s onwards preferred to choose careers in the other great theoretical breakthrough of the 20th century, quantum physics. Quantum could be tested, experimented with and promised many more practical breakthroughs.

Almost everyone’s attention was elsewhere now, enthralled by the triumph of quantum physics. Most of the talented young physicists were focusing their efforts on pushing the quantum theory further, looking for more spectacular discoveries and applications. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, with all its odd predictions and exotic results, had been elbowed out of the way and sentenced to a trek in the wilderness. (p.65)

  • And so that Einstein, now safely ensconced in the rarefied atmosphere of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, dedicated the last thirty years of his life (he died in 1955) to an ultimately fruitless quest for a ‘Grand Unified Theory’ which would combine all aspects of physics into one set of equations. He was, in the 1940s and 50s, an increasingly marginal figure – yesterday’s man – while the world hurried on without him. He died before the great revival of his theory in the 1960s which the second part of Ferreira’s book chronicles.

Visualisation

Again and again Ferreira shows how the researchers proceeded – or summarises the differences between their approaches and results – in terms of how they visualised the problem. Thus Schwarzchild’s vision of a relativistic universe described a spacetime that was perfectly symmetric about one point; whereas 40 years later, in 1963, New Zealander Roy Kerr modeled a solution for a spacetime that was symmetric about a line (p.121). A different way of visualising and conceiving the problem, which led to a completely different set of equations, and completely different consequences.

Other scientists take an insight like this, a new vision with accompanying new mathematics, and themselves subject it to further experimental modeling. The Soviet physicists Isaak Khalatnikov and Evgeny Lifshitz took Oppenheimer and Snyder’s 1930s model of a star collapsing – which assumed the shape of the star to be a perfect sphere – and modeled what happened if the star-matter was rough and unequal, like the surface of the earth. In this model, different bits collapsed at different rates, creating a churning of space time and never achieving the perfect collapse into a singularity modeled by Schwarzchild 60 years earlier or by Kerr more recently. This Soviet model was itself disproved by Roger Penrose, who had spent years devising his own diagrams and maths to model spacetime, and submitted a paper in 1965 which proved that ‘the issue of the final state’ always ended in singularities (pp.123-125).

And that is how the field progresses, via new ways of seeing and modeling. One revealing anecdote is how, at a conference in the 1990s on the newly hot topic of ‘dark matter’, one presenter put up a slide listing over one hundred different models for how dark matter exists, is created and works (p.192), all theoretical, derived from different sets of equations or observations, all awaiting proof.

It is not only the complexity of the subject matter which makes this such a daunting field of knowledge – it is the sheer number and variety of theories, ancient and modern, which its practitioners are called on to understand and sift and evaluate and which – as the first half makes plain – even the giants in the field, Einstein and Eddington, could get completely wrong.

The 1960s and since

In Ferreira’s account the 1960s saw a great revival of the theory of general relativity to explain the host of new astronomical phenomena which were being discovered and named – joining black holes and dwarf stars were pulsars, quasars and so on – as well as new theoretical micro-particles, like the Higgs boson. Kip Thorne called the 60s and 70s the Golden Age of Relativity, when the theory provided elegant solutions to problems about black holes, dark energy and dark matter, singularities and the Big Bang.

Over the past forty years or so new theories have arisen which take and transcend general relativity, including string theory (which rose to prominence in the 1980s but has since fallen into unpopularity) and supersymmetry (which invokes up to six extra dimensions in its quest for a total theory), loop quantum theory (where reality is comprised of minute loops of quantum gravity which bind together like chainmail), spin networks (frameworks like a children’s climbing frame, devised by Roger Penrose), Modified Newtonian Dynamics (or MOND) or a new theory to rival Einstein’s named the Tensor-Vector-Scalar theory of gravity (TeVeS).

When Ferreira and colleagues undertook a review of theories of quantum mechanics they discovered there are scores of them, ‘a rich bestiary of gravitational theories’ (p.221).

The great ambition is to incorporate quantum gravity into general relativity in order to produce a grand unified theory of everything. Although clever people bet this would happen before the end of the 20th century, it didn’t. 17 years later, we seem as far away as ever.

Thirty years after Stephen Hawking predicted the end of physics and then unleashed his black hole information paradox on an unsuspecting world, there isn’t an agreed-upon theory of quantum gravity, let alone a complete unified theory of all the fundamental forces. (p.205)

Ferreira draws together various developments in theory at the sub-atomic level to conclude that we may be on the brink of moving beyond Einstein’s vision of a curving spacetime: the real stuff of the universe is, depending on various theories, a bubbling foam of intertwining strings or structures or membranes or loops – but certainly not continuous. Newtonian mechanics still work fine at the gross level of our senses; it is only at extremes that Einstein’s theories need to be evoked. Now Ferreira wonders if it’s time to do the same to Einstein’s theories; to go beyond them at the new extremes of physical reality which are being discovered.

Notes

The deliberate non-technicality of the text is compensated by 18 pages of excellent notes, which give a chatty overview of each of the chapter topics before recommending up-to-the-minute websites for further reading, including the websites and even Facebook groups for specific projects and experiments. And there is also a detailed bibliography of books and articles.

All in all this is an immensely useful overview of the ideas and debates in this field.

Related links

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s there was a fashion for popular science books, and I read as many as I could, becoming better informed about the three major subjects which dominated the lists – cosmology, paleontology with an emphasis on human origins, and environmental biology.

Among them were a number of books by E.O. Wilson, particularly the brilliant Diversity of Life (1992), which gives an unparalleled sense of the wonder and diversity of the natural world, and Richard Leakey’s book, The Sixth Extinction (1995). This latter is an often quite technical account of discoveries and debates in paleontology and environmental biology which, taken together, suggest that the rate at which humanity is killing off species of animals, plants, fish and other fauna amounts to a holocaust, a global extermination, which ranks with the other Big Five mass extinction events that have punctuated the 500-million year story of life on earth – hence the title.

Now, 20 years later, comes a book with the same title by American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. I was interested to compare the books, not only in terms of what’s changed in our understanding and the plight of nature, but in style and approach.

The situation’s got worse, of course. One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed towards extinction. (p.17) (The radio news today informs me that 7 honey bees have placed on the US endangered species list, as colony collapse disorder continues to decimate hives.)

Kolbert approaches the issue through thirteen chapters, each devoted to a specific species, combining its history, her personal trips and visits to museums or rainforests, along with profiles of key contributors to the history of ecology, and ideas in evolution or conservation thrown up by each story.

The chapters

Thus she opens by visiting a research institute in Panama devoted to trying to save the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). It explains how the fungus Batrachochrytium dendrobatadis is wiping it out, along with scores of other frog species around the world – and so the chapter introduces and explains the notion of the historic mass extinctions.

The second chapter considers discoveries in the 1700s of large bones in America and Europe, specifically of what came to be named Mammut americanum, and how it led the French naturalist George Cuvier to develop and publish a theory of species being wiped out in sudden catastrophes (in an essay published in 1812) although the term ‘catastrophist’ (someone who believes the history of life on earth is marked by long periods of stasis broken by sudden catastrophes in which entire faunas are wiped out and entire new ones replace them) wasn’t coined until 1832, by William Whewell, president of the British Geological Society.

Kolbert contrasts Cuvier’s catastrophism with the ‘uniformitarianism’ of the great geologist Charles Lyell, whose epic work on geology inspired and underpins Darwin’s thinking. It was Lyell who for the first time gave a thorough sense of the profound age of the earth and showed how it had been formed over hundreds of millions of years by slow unrelenting forces. It was this rhythm and metaphor which helped the young Darwin grope his way towards a theory that life on earth had also changed in a slow but unrelenting way due to the process he called ‘natural selection’. The key to both is a nice steady uniform speed of geological and biological processes.

We learn this in chapter three, where it is tied into the history of the great auk (Pinguinis impennis) which went extinct in the 1840s. Kolbert takes a trip to Iceland to visit a nature centre and then go by boat out to the remote island where, supposedly, the last breeding pair of great auks were caught and killed before being sold for £9. This chapter is used to point out that Darwin must have known about man-made extinctions because he witnessed them wherever he went on his epic voyage round the world in HMS Beagle (1831-36).

Chapter four tells the story of Luis Alvarez’s discovery of a layer of iridium at the geological boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, the so-called Cretaceous–Tertiary (K-T) boundary about 66 million years ago. Along with other scientists he interpreted this as meaning that the end-Cretaceous extinction, which saw about 70% of species wiped out, was caused by an asteroid or meteorite hitting earth. This chapter recounts the fierce opposition from most paleontologists who were wedded to one form or another of Lyell and Darwin’s uniformitarianism, and so harshly criticised Alvarez’s findings when they were published in 1980. As usual, Kolbert ties this account into a trip she took with paleontologists to a secret location in New Jersey where the K-T boundary is easily accessible and where they hunt for ammonite fossils.

Chapter five explains how ‘neo-catastrophism’ has become the new orthodoxy – i.e. that long periods of uniformity punctuated by disasters, have shaped the story of life and the nature of the current biosphere. This is told via a visit to Dobb’s Lyn, a mountainside stream in Scotland in heavy rain to look for glyptolites, followed by a warm dinner at a local B&B. Here the fossil hunters accompanying Kolbert explain the history of the term ‘Anthropocene’, first suggested in 2000 and now widely used.

Just as organisms are divided into kingdoms, phyla, families, genera and species, so geologists divide the entire history of the earth into eons, themselves divided into eras, which are in turn divided into periods, epochs and ages. Thus we are in the the Phanerozoic Eon, which dates from the beginning of multicellular life some 530 million years ago. This eon is divided into three eras: the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era and the Cenozoic Era, where ‘zoe’ is Greek for ‘life’ and paleo means old (Old Life Era), meso means ‘middle (Middle Life era) and ceno is from ‘koinos’ which means new = new life era.

Each of these eras is sub-divided into periods: the Paleozoic into the Cambrian Period, Ordovician Period, Silurian Period, Devonian Period, Carboniferous Period and Permian Period; the Mesozoic into the Triassic Period, Jurassic Period and Cretaceous Period; and the Cenozoic Era into the Paleogene Period, the Neogene Period and the Quaternary Period. And these periods are further divided into epochs: thus the most recent period, the Quaternary Period, is sub-divided into the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, the Pleistocene dated 3 million years ago to around 13,000 years ago i.e. until the end of the last ice age; the Holocene dating from around 13,000 years ago to the present day.

Over the last twenty years or so there have been growing calls from some biologists, paleontologists and archaeologists to define the epoch we’re living in as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene epoch, because human interaction with the environment is creating unprecedented changes to the entire planet.

I already knew from books and articles about the calls for our age to be named the Anthropocene – but I had never properly processed the full implications of the fact that, not only are we driving species instinct at an unprecedented rate now, in the present – but that all future life on earth will only be able to evolve and cope with changing conditions, from the smaller and smaller and smaller starting base that we are creating. It is not just the present or our children’s world that we are diminishing – but all future possibilities for life on the planet – forever.

Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. (p.269)

I had never grasped the deep historical implications of our greed and arrogance and destructiveness.

Chapter six records Kolbert’s trip to Kastello Aragonese, an islet near Ischia. The island is home to volcanic vents which release a steady stream of CO2 into the sea. Kolbert meets scientists who are researching the impact of rising CO2 levels in seawater: basically it prevents calcifiers, that is all animals which create shells, from being able to do so – starfish, barnacles, clams, oysters, and scores of thousands of other species. Never in the history of the Earth has so much CO2 been injected into the oceans so quickly. Sea life hasn’t time to adapt.

Chapter seven takes this forward via a trip to One Tree Island off the Great Barrier Reef. Here, in a rough and ready research centre, she meets an international team of scientists who say the future for all coral reefs in the world, and all the species they support is ‘grim’. By 2050 they may all be dead. The Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science has said, that he is

‘utterly humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for my children’s children.’ (quoted p.138)

She times her trip to observe the wonderful and weird sight of the annual ‘spawning’ of the corals. How many more years will it take place?

Chapter eight takes us to the rainforest of Manú National Park in southeastern Peru where scientist Miles Silman shows Kolbert around the 17 plots, each at a different altitude, which he and his assistants have marked out to explore different tropical communities. They were laid out in 2003. It incorporates the research done by Chris Thomas and colleagues from York Uni which estimate that, with worst case rates of global warming, up to 33% of Earth’s species will be exterminated. Back in Silman’s forest, Kolbert describes their research which shows that, as the climate warms up, species are in fact moving up mountains slopes to continue living in the temperature ranges they’re used to. But only so many species can even move (trees are not so mobile) and not many have mountain slopes to move up, but the real killer is speed – scientists think previous changes occurred over millions of years; we are changing the Earth’s climate in a matter of decades.

One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers – roads, clear-cuts, cities – that prevent them from doing so. (p.189)

Chapter nine sees her in the Amazon, visiting some of the squares of rainforest left standing among areas decimated for farmland, as an ongoing scientific experiment. Lots of numbers. There are about 130 million square kilometres of land which are ice free. Of this around 70 million have been drastically remodelled by man; of the remaining 60 million three-fifths is forest. (Another study, by Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty divides the world’s surface into 18 ‘anthromes’, or types of human land-use, which says that 100 million have been altered by human hand, leaving 30 million of wildlands – Siberia, northern Canada, the Sahara, Gobi, central Australian desert.)

Kolbert is taken into the rainforest by her hosts to look for birds, incidentally observing the mad profusion of trees, plants and insects, including a huge column of soldier ants (learning that up to 300 species of animals are dependent on soldier ants and the changes they create). At the base she meets Tom Lovejoy, now in his 70s, credited with putting the phrase ‘biological diversity’ into circulation.

Chapter ten The separation of ecosystems on different continents, islands, archipelagos etc has been one of the key drivers of speciation i.e. diversity. Man began to mess that up with his ocean going journeys from about 2,000 years ago as humans sailed out across the Pacific islands, with the Maori arriving 1,000 years ago in New Zealand and devastating its wildlife. But the real ecological mixing began in the Age of Discovery, which was kicked off when Magellan sailed round the world and Columbus discovered America – the introduction of thousands of Old World species to the New World is now referred to as the ‘Columbian Exchange’.

Nowadays human transports are criss-crossing the globe in mind-boggling volumes, transporting flora, fauna and diseases to every last nook and cranny. Kolbert quotes the estimate that in any given 24 hour period some 10,000 species are being moved around the planet just in ships’ ballast water. So it’s no surprise that diseases once restricted to tiny parts of the world can now travel widely, for example the disease killing off the Panamanian frogs we met in chapter one, and the fungus killing bats in Massachusetts – white-nose syndrome – which we meet here. She follows the catastrophic decline in bat populations in Vermont which have collapsed since the fungus was first identified in 2007. In less than a decade bats have gone from flourishing to endangered, and will probably go extinct in the next decade.

Chapter eleven A visit to see Suci, a captive Sumatran rhinoceros at Cincinnati zoo, is the peg for a review of the catastrophic decline of big mammals (elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, pandas) over the last century. This leads on to a visit to Big Bone Lick, where 19th century naturalists found fossils and bones of huge animals which once roamed North America but which were completely extinct by the 1800s.

It was American ecologist Paul Martin who popularised the Overkill Hypothesis, which is that megafaunas were hunted to extinction wherever prehistoric man went – in Australia 40,000 years ago, in America from 13,000 years ago, in New Zealand 700 years ago and so on. Kolbert presents the counter-arguments of scientists who are not convinced that handfuls of technologically primitive peoples could wipe out entire continents full of big dangerous animals; and then the counter-counter arguments educed from mathematical models, which show that, given enough time, even killing only one big beast a month could wipe out entire species in a few hundred years – which is what appears to have happened.

The conclusion of this line of thinking is that man has never lived in harmony with nature but has massacred large animals and triggered major ecological change wherever he has gone.

Chapter twelve Kolbert visits the centre in the Neander Valley in Germany where Neanderthal Man was discovered (though the cliffs and cave where he were discovered were long ago demolished for construction material). Neanderthal man (Homo neanderathlensis) existed as a branch of the Homo genus for at least 10,000 years from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago. All the evidence is that, wherever populations of the more ‘advanced’ Homo sapiens appeared, Neanderthal man soon after disappeared. As Chris Stringer discusses in his book, The Origin of Our Species, was he pushed or did he jump? Was it environmental change which did for the Neanderthals or some form of warfare with our ancestors or both which led to his extinction?

The chapter is titled ‘the madness gene’ because one scientist contrasts Neanderthals with Homo sapiens – particularly in regard to adventurousness. As far as we can tell Neanderthals made the same stone tools without any development or improvement for 100,000 years, whereas modern man’s culture evolved quickly. The cave paintings in the Dordogne region of France were made by modern man, whereas nothing comparable exists for Neanderthals. Above all, modern man spread far and wide, and the ‘madness’ idea comes in when you consider the urge, the adventurousness, the recklessness of the peoples who set off in primitive ships 2,000 years ago into the vast empty seas of the Pacific with no maps and no guides and no certainty of finding anything but ended up populating Hawaii and all the other Pacific islands, thousands of miles from the mainland. What is that if not reckless adventurism bordering on madness!

Chapter thirteen features the last trip, to San Diego Zoo which has a facility for deep freezing remains of nearly or extinct species – nicknamed the Frozen Zoo. Kolbert views vials full of deep frozen organic matter from various defunct species and wonders – is this what it will come to, will thousands and thousands of life forms survive only as sketches, photos and tubes of frozen gunk? And the reader who has followed her this far on her deeply depressing journey is forced to answer, Yes.

She pays lip service to the good intentions of the millions of nice people who support the Worldwide Fund for Nature or the National Wildlife Federation or the Wildlife Conservation Society or the African Wildlife Foundation and so on and so on. In this she makes what I regard as the classic liberal error of believing most people are like her, or us, educated middle-class, concerned, white people. As the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in Britain should have shown these kind-hearted liberals – most people are not like them. Most people in the West did not go to private school or attend university and didn’t study the humanities and don’t work in white collar professional jobs. Many are struggling to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads.

And that’s without going further afield into the Developing World where the majority of the population lives in dire poverty, without access to clean water, sewage facilities or nourishing food, and don’t give a damn about the future of the Panamanian frog or the greater mouse-eared bat or the black-faced honeycreeper, let alone the thousands of insect and plant and fungi species Kolbert’s scientists are so concerned about.

There is no great conclusion. Read it and weep. In the book’s last pages she gives a few token reasons for hope and briefly references those sad people who think it will all be OK in the end because humankind can always go off and colonise the moon, or Mars, or other solar systems. Right. She doesn’t even comment on such expensive fatuousness. a) All attempts to live in artificial atmospheres or biomes have failed because we underestimate the complexity of the ecosystem which keeps us alive. b) We can’t even run this planet, what gives anyone the idea we’d do better somewhere else. c) Are we all leaving for Mars, then? All 7 billion of us?

Words and ideas

  • Hibernacula – a place (cave, mineshaft) where creatures seek sanctuary from the winter, often to hibernate.
  • The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient – the closer to the Tropics, the more species are found in ecosystems, thus the tropical rainforest is the most varied and densely speciated environment on earth. There are some thirty different theories why this might be. The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient
  • Psychrophile – a cold-loving fungus.
  • The Signor-Lipps effect – since the fossil record of organisms is generally incomplete, this makes it hard to be confident about the ends or beginnings of taxa or families. In practice it makes what may have been sudden extinction events look long drawn out. The Signor-Lipps effect
  • The Species-Area relationship – the larger an area you sample, the more species you find. The Species-Area relationship

Summary

At first I thought it was a gimmick that each chapter focuses on one particular species and goes to one particular location (sometimes two) where she meets one or more scientists working on a particular aspect of the massive issues raised.

But after a while I realised how cleverly Kolbert was dovetailing into each chapter not only snapshots of current research, but also key moments in the history of the discipline, going back to explain the early theories of a Cuvier or Lamarck, a Darwin or Humboldt, to give her reporting a historical dimension and to explain how theories about life on earth arose and have developed over the past century or two.

And I ended up respecting and admiring the skill with which the narrative moves forward on these multiple levels at the same time – all leavened with a dry American sense of humour and an eye for evocative similes (the thin layers of slate at the K-T boundary which she is shown how to handle, fall apart like the pages of an old book; stroking the tough hide of Suci the rhino is like running your hand over tree bark, and so on.)

If you’re new to the subject, this is an excellent, very readable, fascinating, wide-ranging and first-hand account of work going on all around the world. That said, most of us are by now very familiar with this subject. And all of us know in our hearts that things will only get a lot, lot worse.


Credit

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2014. All quotes and references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

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