King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part two

I first read this book seven years ago and gave a reasonable summary of its content in a blog post.

Now I’m rereading it after reading three other books which cover at least part of the same subject matter, Frank McLynn’s Hearts of Darkness and Tim Jeal’s biography of Henry Morton Stanley and group biography of the five British explorers involved in the quest for the source of the river Nile. This blog post records impressions from reading Hochschild’s book second time round.

Leopold and Stanley

For a start, it’s quite a long time till the account of the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo Free State kicks in. The book has about 320 pages of text and it’s only around page 130 that we begin to hear about the increasingly rapacious organisation of the Congo state and its appalling police service, the Force Publique. In other words, nearly half the book consists of background and buildup. And this mostly consists of a lot of biographical material on the two central figures, King Leopold himself and the explorer Stanley.

Leopold

Leopold II’s childhood was lonely and cold: he had to make appointments to talk to either his father or mother, who didn’t care much for him, so the king grew up aloof, distant, socially maladroit and compensated by obsessing over the minutiae of royal protocol.

During the course of his researches Hochschild has obviously come to loathe Leopold and he clearly relishes dishing the dirt on him, revelling in the fact that the king was a regular visitor to a chain of high-class brothels which traded in young girls, some as young as 12, who were guaranteed virgins to be deflowered by the cream of British and continental society.

But what comes over in spades from Hochschild’s account is what a two-faced, calculating and cunning manipulator Leopold was of all around him, which included ambassadors from all the major nations as well as leading philanthropists. They all fell for his humanitarian rhetoric and pose of selflessness, but there is much more, Hochschild detailing the care with which Leopold and his fixers bribed and cajoled and pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians, journalists and missionaries, inviting them to his palace, flattering and smooth-talking them. When bad news started to leak out about the atrocities being carried out in his colony, Leopold’s techniques for managing the press and damage limitation would put a modern PR company to shame.

Stanley

But it’s the Stanley material which is more striking. Hochschild is accepts the ‘black legend’ of Henry Morton Stanley hook, line and sinker, giving the kind of relentlessly negative account which Tim Jeal set out to single-handedly overthrow in his epic biography. Hochschild takes at face value:

  • Stanley’s own accounts of the size of his expeditions and the number of personnel lost during them (which Jeal shows to both be exaggerations)
  • Stanley’s own accounts of his brutal punishments of deserters and thieves (which Jeal shows to the exceptions rather than the rule, and shows only took place on particular, unusual occasions)
  • the harsh criticism of Stanley by other explorers (which Jeal says were motivated by jealousy, for example Richard Burton’s rancorous envy) and by the British press (which Jeal said was animated by anti-Americanism)

Hochschild goes out of his way to claim that Stanley’s bad luck with a string of failed fiancées (getting engaged to several young women, then breaking it off when he disappeared into Africa for years) was a result of his pathological ‘fear of women’.

He returns to the theme half way through the book when he describes Stanley’s 1890 grand public wedding in Westminster Abbey in considerable detail, noting that Stanley was chronically ill on the day, had to be helped up the aisle, and spent the entire reception lying in a darkened room in agony from gastritis. Hochschild uses his wedding to write confidently about Stanley’s ‘craving for acceptance’ and ‘fear of intimacy’ before going on to repeat Frank McLynn’s speculation that Stanley’s marriage to the society painter Dorothy Tennant was never consummated because of the lifelong revulsion from sex he picked up during his miserable childhood in a public workhouse (p.151).

God, I’d hate to be famous for anything and know that before the earth is cold on my grave rival biographers would be picking over my relationship with my family and every single woman I ever went out with, speculating the character of my mum and dad, using bucket psychology to pin me with their tawdry labels, using every blog post, letter or diary entry I ever wrote to work up their cheap theories about my psychology and sex life. God. The poor victims of the modern biographer.

That it’s all complete speculation leaps out at you when Hochschild concedes that other biographers think that Stanley did consummate his marriage. Some do, some don’t. You might as well flip a coin.

And not only is this all utterly speculative bucket psychology but it’s all out of date, for when Hochschild describes McLynn as Stanley’s ‘most thorough biographer’ the reader realises his book was written before Tim Jeal’s epic biography of Stanley, which benefited from access to thousands of previously unexamined letters, journals and so on in the royal archives in Belgium and so is in a position to paint a much more subtle, nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Stanley the man.

I find it surreal beyond belief that a whole succession of grown men – professional academics and historians – have devoted so much mental energy to the issue of whether Henry Stanley’s erect penis ever entered Dorothy Tennant’s vagina. In the middle of a book about atrocities committed against millions of Africans this dogged speculation about Stanley’s sex life is bizarre beyond belief.

That Hochschild is simultaneously repelled and bored by Stanley is indicated by his dismissal of everything Stanley did with sardonic repetition:

  • Stanley’s usual two-volume thousand-page bestseller turned out to be only one of many books written about the Emin Pasha expedition…
  • Stanley threw his usual temper tantrums…
  • As always Stanley bungled his choice of subordinates…

But despite his strong anti-Stanley animus, Hochschild can’t directly implicate Stanley in any of the atrocities themselves. The opposite: he shows in some detail how Stanley was edged out of Leopold’s plans as the late 1880s turned into the 1890s, for a number of reasons. 1. Leopold knew Stanley was stroppy and opinionated and would be difficult to manage and manipulate, as he manipulated so many other world leaders, Belgian politicians, missionaries and journalists.

2. More importantly, France. As the 1880s progressed, it became increasingly important to Leopold to placate France, the imperial power which claimed most of the territory to the north of the Congo, represented by the charismatic explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Soon after completing his epic trek along the Congo in 1879, Stanley wrote letters and articles calling for Britain to take control of the Congo, a suggestion he repeated frequently, in public and which risked antagonising the delicate working relationship Leopold was forging with Paris.

The French were obsessed that Leopold’s amateur venture would collapse and that the hated British would then step in to run this huge area of central Africa and that this would amount to yet another slap in the face for the touchy Frogs.

Leopold managed to quell their anxieties for good by signing an agreement in law that if Belgian rule – and the companies he’d set up to manage it – collapsed, the French would legally have first dibs on the vacated territory. Not the hated British. The French were content with that and backed off, allowing Leopold to continue his plans his own way. But Stanley, far from being an accomplice of Leopold’s, represented a risk which is why the king kept him dangling on a retainer but never gave him the governorship he craved or any other significant work to do once the road was built by about 1884. Stanley was sidelined and out of the picture well before any of the atrocities began.

The post 9/11 perspective

As it happens I’m reading this book just after the Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021 and just as we all approach the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September.

King Leopold’s Ghost is littered with Hochschild’s easy sarcasm about Victorian Europe’s claims to be bringing ‘civilisation’ to barbarians, to want to set up schools for the natives, end the slave trade, create a transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Absolutely all of this reads very differently as I watch the TV footage of the last American planes leaving Kabul airport and of hundreds of locals desperately chasing after them as the West i.e. America abandons its attempt to bring civilisation to the locals, to set up schools, end the Taliban’s oppressive rule, improve the transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Hochschild writes with lofty American disdain for 1. the hypocrisy of the European colonial nations who claimed to be bringing ‘civilisation’ but instead brought only hard-headed commercial transactions and exploitation. 2. He says the Europeans rode roughshod over the native culture and the complex web of tribes and traditional political authority which covered the region in multiple complex forms. 3. And his central theme is how quickly so-called ‘enlightened intervention’ descended into barbarism and exploitation, as native uprisings prompted terrible crackdowns and massacres. His book reeks of smug condescension.

But every time he made another sarcastic comment about the discrepancy between the European colonialists’ high-toned claims of bringing ‘civilisation’ and the reality of the crude violence and exploitation they inflicted, I thought: Iraq War. 150,000 dead, at a minimum (Wikipedia). Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ including waterboarding. Extraordinary rendition i.e. kidnapping people and spiriting them away to permanent imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo Bay. The Sunni Insurgency. Improvised explosive devices. An entire nation plunged into violent anarchy for a generation, while a large percentage of the trillion or so dollars America allegedly spent on the country went straight into the pockets of American arms manufacturers and private  security contractors.

Americans show European colonialists how to bring civilisation and respect for human rights to a developing country

And I thought Afghanistan. $2 trillion spent. Vast amounts on training the local security forces to cope with insurgencies. 110,000 Afghans killed or injured, over 3,500 coalition deaths. As many as 30,000 American private contractors making a fortune out of government contracts. And in the end, what was it all for? The security forces which the allies spent hundreds of billions training collapsed like a pack of cards within days of the Americans leaving. And many locals had been permanently alienated from the West and its puppet government by random and unpunished American atrocities. How mass killings by US forces after 9/11 boosted support for the Taliban.

Not as easy as you thought, is it, going into a developing country, overthrowing its government and expecting the locals to love you.

When Stanley flogged members of his caravan who tried to desert or stole precious food supplies in the 1870s, he did it in an age when flogging was still a legal punishment in schools and in the army, such as the Confederate Army which Stanley served in during the American Civil War. When the Americans captured, imprisoned, tortured and waterboarded their Iraqi suspects in the 2000s they were doing it sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to have abolished such practices for ever.

The Wikipedia article about extraordinary rendition quotes former CIA case officer Bob Baer saying:

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.’

This is the mindset of the greatest military force the world has ever seen as it extended its grasp, overt or covert, across the Arab world after 9/11: kidnap, torture, murder and massacre.

All of this was being raked over on the TV and in newspapers and magazines day after day at the exact moment I was reading Hochschild telling me how wicked and hypocritical the nineteenth century European colonisers were, how bigoted against the Arabs, how quick to extreme violence, how hypocritical in cloaking their real commercial motives under high-sounding rhetoric.

While all around me the serious British media were reflecting on 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Which Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim nations have not benefited from the carefully planned and skillfully executed interventions of peace-loving America?

In this respect, Hochschild’s book is a good example of the hubris shown by so many contemporary historians who feel free to glibly patronise people in the past and point out their manifold failings on the assumption that we, in our super-digital 21st century, are oh-so-morally superior to our ancestors. But are we?

And it’s all the more vexatious when the historian patronising European colonialists for their wretched interventions in developing countries is an American, writing from amid the ruins of American foreign policy and the beacon of enlightened democracy which was the Trump administration.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

‘Arab’ slave traders?

Hochschild also deploys his trademark sarcasm whenever the subject of ‘Arab’ slave traders comes up. Unlike the McLynn and Jeal books, and all the passages about the wickedness of the Arab slave trade they quote from the writings of Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley – Hochschild goes out of his way to assert that hardly any of the slave traders were, in fact, Arab. He claims most were ‘Afro-Arab’ at best, ‘Swahili-speaking Africans’ who adopted Arab dress and Islam but ‘only some of them were of partly Arab descent’ (p.28).

Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious ‘Arab’ slavers – and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonised by someone other than Europeans. (p.28)

Note the tell-tale sarcastic swipe at European amour propre in the final sentence. Anyway, this assertion is completely contrary to everything I’ve read in the other books on the subject.

1. Consider the most famous slaver of the era, Tippu Tip. According to Wikipedia:

Tippu Tip, or Tippu Tib (1832 to 1905), real name Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī (Arabic: حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎), was an Afro-Arab ivory and slave trader, explorer, governor and plantation owner…His father and paternal grandfather were coastal Arabs of the Swahili Coast who had taken part in the earliest trading expeditions to the interior. His paternal great-grandmother, wife of Rajab bin Mohammed bin Said el Murgebi, was the daughter of Juma bin Mohammed el Nebhani, a member of a respected Muscat (Oman) family, and a Bantu woman from the village of Mbwa Maji, a small village south of what would later become the German capital of Dar es Salaam.

So Tippu had a soupçon of African blood in an otherwise solidly Arab geneology.

2. Zanzibar became the centre of the East African slave trade when it was annexed by pureblood Arabs:

In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town [on Zanzibar]. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession…Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. (Wikipedia)

3. Or take the famous massacre of some 400 Congolese women and children at the village of Nyangwe the river Lualaba which Livingstone witnessed on 15 July 1871. This was carried out by armed men at the command of the notorious Arab slaver Dugumbé ben Habib.

Hochschild may have germs of truth in that some or many of the slave traders might have had African blood. But all the accounts I’ve read and the three salient facts I’ve just quoted tend to confirm that the majority of the trade was solidly in the hand of Muslim Arabs, Arabs who, moreover, I’ve read quotes from saying how much they despised Africans, how Africans’ live meant nothing until they could be sold in the slave markets of Zanzibar, and scores of accounts of Arab slave caravan captains shooting, tying to trees or burning alive slaves too sick to make the long trek from the villages where they were captured to the coast.

So why does Hochschild go out of his way to make his claim that the Arab slave traders weren’t really Arabs and for the rest of the book refer to ‘Arab’ slave traders in quote marks? Because it allows him one more way of slagging off the European nations and the ‘white man’. The tendency of his sarcastic comments is that Britain’s anti-slavery rhetoric was a hollow sham dressing up the fact that it allowed the white man to indulge his anti-Islamic bigotry. It justified rampant Islamophobia. Of those wicked wicked nineteenth century Europeans!

a) This is so contrary to the quotes from Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and even Baker that depict in great detail the genuinely evil ways of what all the witnesses unanimously agree was the Arab slave trade that it comes over as a slightly ludicrous twisting of the facts to fit Californian Hochschild’s anti-European bias. Livingstone really was disgusted and appalled by the wickedness of the slave traders, he wrote heartfelt letters back to England saying something must be done to save the Africans, and this prompted thousands of brave missionaries and educators to set off for darkest Africa to set up schools and guilted the British government into doing more to crack down on slavery, including forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to close down its famous slave market.

b) His claim of anti-Arab bigotry sits oddly with the evidence that most of the British explorers and later colonial administrators were biased in favour of Arabs. Richard Burton spoke Arabic and admired the Arabs for their culture and religion, as did Samuel Baker, as did Sir Harold MacMichael, administrator of Sudan in the 1920s who respected the Arabs in the north and despised the Africans of the south – all part of a strand of pro-Arab British feeling which continued down to Lawrence of Arabia and bedevilled British attempts to manage their inter-war mandate in Palestine.

c) Hochschild’s defence of – by implication – the innocent ‘Arabs’ so horribly wronged in European accounts of the region reads very amusingly in a post-9/11 world, particularly in the early years after 2001 when you could read some very ripe comments from previously liberal and progressive American commentators about Arabs and Islam. Nothing any Victorian author wrote about Islam was as vitriolic as the opinions of scores of Yankee commentators after the twin towers were bombed.

Overall it now reads like rich, fat hypocrisy for Hochschild to accuse the late Victorians of dressing up commercially-motivated imperialism under anti-Islamic rhetoric, given everything which his country has done in Iraq and Afghanistan over the 20 years following 9/11.

George Washington Williams (1849 to 1891)

Williams was a rare example of a free black man in nineteenth century America who made his mark in an impressive variety of professions and ended up hobnobbing with the president. During his 41 year life Williams managed to serve as a soldier in the American Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer.

He appears in this narrative because during the late 1880s he developed a plan for returning Afro-Americans who were suffering under the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of the American South back to Africa. The publicity surrounding the great philanthropist Leopold’s plans for the Congo spurred Williams to make the pilgrimage to Brussels (funding himself by contracting to write travel articles for an American magazine) for an audience with the great humanitarian himself who was, as usual, all smooth words and assurances.

So Williams then sailed on to the Congo which he travelled up slowly, taking extensive notes. What he saw shocked and horrified him. Scene after scene of violence, brutality and corruption. Many of the Congolese had been reduced to the level of slaves, whipped with the notorious chicotte and brutally intimidated into collecting what was, at that point, the colony’s key export, ivory.

From Stanley Falls Williams wrote ‘An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo’ in July 1890. Hochschild says it gave a good summary of the methods of exploitation and slave labour the Belgians were already using, as well as laying down the framework of criticism which was to be used by all later campaigners: that everything was done in the king’s name and so he was completely responsible for the mass mutilations and murders. Williams called for an international commission to investigate.

His letter was published as a pamphlet and caused a furore (p.112). Hochschild shows how Leopold set his tame pets in the press and positions of power to rubbish all the accusations. Travelling back to Europe up the Nile, Williams became ill in Cairo, and managed to get as far as Blackpool in north-west England where he died on August 2, 1891, aged 41. By that time over 1,000 Europeans had visited and worked in the Congo but Williams was the only one with the guts, and morality, to be horrified and tell the truth.

And he was, contrary to Hochschild’s sarcasms about the hypocrisy of the Western Christian concern for the African, a Western Christian, a devout and earnest Baptist, for it was Protestant missionaries who were to provide most of the testimony and evidence for the global campaign against Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo which I will describe in my next blog post.

Notes and details

I’d forgotten that after the Mahdi and his army of Islamic fundamentalists took Khartoum (in January 1885), killed General Gordon and massacred the city’s army garrison and civilian population, he went on to rule the city and region uninterrupted for the next 12 years. And that – here’s the thing – soon after the conquest, the Mahdi sent a message to Queen Victoria demanding that she come to the Sudan, convert to Islam and submit to his rule (p.97).

Now that is a counter-factual scenario worth imagining! I’d love to see a painting in the realist late-Victorian style of a fat Queen Victoria kneeling and bending her forehead right down to the ground before the magnificently robed Mahdi who graciously accepts the obeisance of the queen-empress and the conversion of all her peoples to the True Religion.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003)

This is the first novel in what became known as the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy. I was wondering what Blue Ant would turn out to be, my mind alive with images of mutating insects, or maybe it was the nickname of some groovy digital weapon, or a piece of cyberspace code.

But no, my heart sank when I learned that Blue Ant just refers to a fictional advertising agency set in the contemporary world i.e. turn of the century New York and London and Tokyo. And that the lead figure in the book is a ‘brilliant’ young logo expert, 32-year-old (page 2) Cayce Pollard who is a freelance fashion spotter, ‘an actual on-the-street cool-hunter’ (page 32), ‘a very specialised piece of human litmus paper’ (page 13):

  • ‘What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognise a pattern before anyone else does.’ (page 86)
  • All the time she’s spent on the world’s various streets, scouting cool for the commodifiers. (page 195)
  • ‘I find things, or styles, for other people, companies, to market. And I evaluate logos – trademark emblems.’ (page 231)

Just like the character Count Zero in the Neuromancer trilogy or Colin Laney in the Bridge trilogy had special, almost supernatural gifts for spotting trends, nodes and emerging meanings in the endless flow of data in cyberspace, so Cayce is credited with a special, almost supernatural gift to spot new fashion trends –

She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backwards, asking the next question. She’s that good! (page 32)

Except that Count Zero and Laney were dealing with the genuinely weird, visionary idea of dataflows, set in interesting futures, whereas Cayce has a special ability to spot… the latest trends in footwear. Or shirts. Or handbags. It feels like a crashing descent into the banal.

In the first 150 pages of this book the one piece of actual work which Cayce performs for the Blue Ant agency is they show her a new logo designed for a client which looks a bit like a sperm.

‘They wanted me here to tell them whether or not a new logo worked.’ (page 190)

She doesn’t like it so it’s sent back to the designer (Heinz) in Germany, who amends it to more of a squiggle – which she does like. That’s it. That’s how her supernatural abilities are put to use. Felt pathetic, to me.

The novel opens as Cayce arrives in London for a meeting with the Blue Ant advertising agency with a bad jet lag.

She’s here on Blue Ant’s ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering carnivores. (page 6)

The prose from the get-go is whip-smart and street savvy and cool and all those other adjectives, but cannot conceal what for me, as a person completely indifferent to fashion, is the crushingly dull and vapidly narcissistic world of fashion and marketing. And this is the first novel in which the real thinness of Gibson’s plots became clear.

Characters

The book is cleverly constructed and has a number of strands. Cayce is staying at the flat of a mate of hers, Damian, who is off shooting a documentary in Russia. The Blue Ant agency was founded and is run by the preposterous Hubertus Bigend, who drives a fast car, wears a stetson hat, looks like Tom Cruise with big teeth, and has advanced views about how advertising bypasses the rational mind and goes straight for the primitive hippocampus, the basic mammalian stem of the brain (page 69). Just, in fact, like all the pretentious, high-talking heads of all advertising agencies are ‘visionaries’, ‘gurus’, ‘geniuses’, prophets, intellectuals, blah blah blah.

Hubertus Bigend and contempt for the reader

Calling his central character Hubertus Bigend struck me as being a gesture of contempt by Gibson. In the third of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, Hannibal (1999), written some time after the smash hit success of the Anthony Hopkins movie version of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Harris has a scene where the psychopath moves amid the crowd in the London Dungeon and freely expresses his loathing and contempt for the shallow philistines who love being titillated by gruesome murders. Peasants! Plebs! It seemed to me that Harris was deliberately gobbing in the face of the people who bought his books and paid to see the movies.

Something comparable struck me as happening here. It seems to me Gibson that is taunting his readers, saying if you can believe in a character I’ve named Hubertus Bigend, you’ll believe anything; if you swallow this stupid, insulting name, it just goes to prove what gullible mugs you are, falling over yourselves to associate yourself with my shimmering street-savvy prose, to slip on a leather jacket and shades and a ripped t-shirt and pretend to be in on the latest thing, in a pathetic attempt to hide from yourself how middle-aged and white and boring you are.

In fact it’s not only Hubertus Bigend who has a stupid name, they all do:

  • Cayce Pollard
  • Hubertus Bigend
  • Damian Pease (page 104)
  • Boone Chu (page 100)

In the Neuromancer trilogy Gibson really did feel like he was writing about gutter punks strung out on future drugs as they hacked in and out of cyberspace in gorgeously whip-sharp prose. You are totally in that world.

The Bridge trilogy which followed felt to me more contrived: its focus is on solidly lowlife types, or people bumping along the bottom of society – a security guard and ex-bike courier and rasta shopkeeper and a damaged teenager – giving the impression of a world which is fly and sharp and cool and street and happening, man. It’s only when the story refers to the authorities who actually run all the amenities of post-earthquake California – for example when the fire brigade gets called in to put out the climactic blaze on the Golden Gate bridge – that you realise that beyond Gibson’s handful of street types and scandi noir assassins, there is actually a great big world of grown-ups, where taxes are gathered to pay for schools and hospitals and police and fire brigade, where bureaucrats and businessmen commute to work every day and get things done. Where people aren’t lowlife drifters, living in cardboard boxers, mixing with cool assassins in long black coats.

Suddenly, the story felt…well… juvenile, wilfully focusing on a handful of rather pathetic outsiders with no particular redeeming qualities or features, certainly in no way representative of the wider world.

The Blue Ant novels feel like they continue this downward arc – that what began as something genuinely subversive and new in Neuromancer has metamorphosed into something shiny and empty and corrupt. The triumph of style over soul. It feels like he’s sold out. The Clash lyric, ‘Huh, you think it’s funny – turning rebellion into money’ kept coming to mind (The Clash are actually quoted on page 130 and the novel features Gibson’s usual clutch of supposed rock stars and fake rock bands).

When you’re a kid you think the music and look of your time is the big deal which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order. Then you watch as the record labels and promoters and stadium bookers and the TV pundits and fashion journalists and style gurus turn it into just another brand, and next thing you know it’s being sold back to you at extortionate prices, marketed and advertised by would-be cool, creepy, slimey, 40-something sell-outs in designer leather jackets.

That’s what this book felt like to me: a creepy exercise in cynical box-ticking set among a jet-setting international advertising and media elite who know all the right people and who are all so fabulous – fabulously well dressed, fabulously well connected, fabulously stylish, and so fabulously interesting, dahhhling, Hubertus has just got the most fabulously interesting theory of why advertising works, dahling, you must hear it, the man is a complete genius!

Absolutely fabulous characters

Cayce, as is repeatedly pointed out, is supernaturally gifted at spotting fashion trends, and this is one of the obvious examples of pattern recognition which crop up throughout the book. Her father was Win Pollard, a leading security expert who made American embassies round the world secure. He had many wise words and sayings like a good father should, well, certainly in an airport thriller.

He advised her to always ‘secure the perimeter’. He warned her against apophenia which is the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things when there are none. It is a way of overdoing pattern recognition, a form of paranoia. (It crossed my mind, reading this, that creating patterns out of human activity is, in a broad sense, the core approach of all narratives.)

Cayce’s mother, Cynthia is equally as interesting and eccentric, a gen-you-ine Virginia eccentric (page 31) who lives in a nutty community who all believe in Electronic Voice Phenomena, a form of pattern recognition gone wrong (page 115).

Cayce had a therapist, Katherine McNally (page 253) (later this turns out to have been a string of therapists). She goes to a café in Camden and bumps into the famous Billy Prion, lead singer in the famous band, BSE. Her friend Damian is off in Russia making simply the most amazing documentaries ever.

In other words, her life is just so effortlessly glamorous, dahhling. It’s a Sunday Times Style supplement version of cool.

The shiny people in their black leather jackets, black Fruit of the Loom t-shirts, black skinny 501 jeans (page 2) and black shades, collars moodily turned up on their long black coats, or black leather and shiny nylon and squared-off shoes (page 153), smoking Gitanes like Albert Camus, drinking expensive Colombian coffee, hanging out in their cool redesigned interiors and stylish cars are like the pencil-thin, heroin-chic young things out of any number of indistinguishable fashion shoots from the last 30 years, or which populate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cynical, smooth, stylish, utterly empty car ads.

An ex-boyfriend of Cayce’s (oh, dahhling, how many have there been?) once compared her to a Helmut Newton portrait of Jane Birkin. Well, of course he did. A character she knows looks like Michael Stipe on steroids – ‘Oh I simply love REM, don’t you!’ (page 21).

Later Boone’s luggage is described as ‘one of those Filson outfitter bags that look like L.L. Bean on steroids’, page 172. In other words Gibson is starting to write in clichés and to repeat those clichés.

Cayce’s New York apartment is painted a shade of blue she discovered in Northern Spain and had the paint people mix from a Polaroid she took of it, she’s that good!

The book keeps up a steady stream of name-dropping, trailing any number of undergraduate cultural references from Tarkovsky to Baudrillard (page 48) because the book has intellectual pretensions as well, in much the way that high-end fashion magazines and style outlets like to quote Deep Thinkers, or at least put their faces onto t-shirts, turning them into yet another kind of shiny surface reflecting the characters’ bottomless shallowness.

They’re just names on labels, like all the other brands the text carefully namechecks – Tommy Hilfiger, Levi 501, Volvo, Agnes B, Molton Brown, Burberry, Gucci (127), Prada (188), Gap, L.L. Bean, Louis Vuitton (188), suede boots from Parco, Armani, Versace (271), Cartier (309), Hermès (310).

Everyone is just so fabulously fabulous, thus:

  • Hubertus is a philosopher king who founded the coolest ad agency anywhere (‘He’s brilliant, isn’t he?’ gushes a member of his staff on page 87)
  • Cayce’s friend Margot is doing a course at NYU in disease-as-metaphor (‘Oh how wonderfully Susan Sontag of her!’), as it happens, she is a former girlfriend of Bigend’s – small world, when you’re this brilliant and that good !
  • the text drops key names from an undergraduate media studies course like car keys – Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Jameson, August Strindberg, Andrei Tarkovsky (at least three times pp.146), Truffault, Peckinpah, Apocalypse Now (180), William S. Burroughs (186), James Joyce and Tennessee Williams (286), it’s a shopping list of rather dated intellectual ‘cool’
  • characters wonder whether the director of the fragments is some kind of ‘Garage Kubrick’ (page 47)
  • film-makers are all auteurs
  • Cayce is stopped in the street by someone who thinks he saw her at a fabulous event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (page 19)
  • not one but two of her former boyfriends were fans of Japanese actor Beat Takeshi, star of existential gangster films (page 167); of course they were, haven’t you heard of Beat Takeshi, oh dahling, where have you been hiding?
  • Cayce keeps bumping into rock singer Billy Prion, you all remember Billy Prion the famous rock singer, don’t you?

The text drops not only names but fashionable buzzwords, too, like a checklist from a student reading list of critical theory – liminal (54, 253), discourse, semiotics (‘semiotics of the marketplace’ 2, ‘a semiotic neutrality’ 89, ‘semiotic agoraphobia’ 264), hegemony, hermeneutics, God aren’t we clever and well-read.

As you can tell, I found Pattern Recognition unbearably pretentious, elitist and dull. It’s such a shame because in the Neuromancer novels Gibson seemed to have invented a dazzlingy jazzy, funky, street prose style to match the extraordinary goings-on in his digital future. But in a book like this, the style is broader, deeper and more accomplished, but now feels like it is dressing up distressingly lame, boring, fashion magazine material.

The McGuffin

All Gibson’s previous novels managed to cook up a sense of expectation and mild dread because they all contrived to have a Big Secret at their centre, a secret the characters slowly stumble across and which, in the case of the Neuromancer books, is genuinely mind-expanding (in the second novel a self-conscious, self-aware being emerges from the world’s data; in the third novel, it becomes aware that there are others like it out in space).

However, this entire Big Thing-at-the-heart-of-the-story strategy begins to run out of steam in the Bridge trilogy: in the last of those books we spend the entire narrative being promised that something big, really, really big is going to happen, something that is going to change the world forever, so we spend the entire novel on tenterhooks. And then… it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens at all. Well, the Golden Gate catches fire and then, er, is put out. That’s it.

The McGuffin in this novel is ‘the fragments’. Someone is releasing onto the internet brief fragments of what appear to be a movie. This cryptic procedure has spawned a community of obsessives around the world who have swiftly assigned themselves a ‘cool’ name, the ‘footageheads’, who have wasted vast amounts of time speculating what The Footage means, who took it and why and where it’s all going to end. Footageheads are obsessives and addicts. They think repeated watching of the various fragments, in various orders, gives them a sense of an opening into something, a universe, a narrative (page 109).

There are web communities devoted solely to analysing The Fragments, including one named F:F:F, which stands for Fetish: Footage: Forum, maintained by someone named Ivy, with about 20 regular posters including Parkaboy, La Anarchia, Maurice and Filmy, and where Cayce has been posting thoughts for some time.

As the novel begins and Cayce flies into London to undertake her brief job assessing the new logo for a Blue Ant client (why couldn’t the logo have been emailed or faxed or posted to her?) she is fussing and fretting over the release of the latest fragment, #135.

This silly idea really is the centre of this long novel, I kid you not. When, on the evening of her 1-minute logo-disapproving meeting, Cayce is invited out for dinner and then drinks with the swashbuckling Hubertus Bigend (‘Isn’t he brilliant?’), Hubertus takes Cayce to a cool designer bar in cool Clerkenwell (natch) where he springs on her the real reason he paid for her flight from New York — turns out Hubertus is a footagehead himself and is prepared to pay Cayce big bucks to find out who’s making The Fragments and why.

Before she knows what’s happening, Hubertus introduces her to a Chinese-American named Boone Chu. Cayce initially says no to the whole proposition, but, like Cayce herself, Boone is a genuine footagehead and his passion is contagious.

Tokyo

Cayce spends the first hundred and fifty pages mooching round the environs of her mate Damian’s flat in Camden i.e. up to the Lock, around the market, there are walks up Primrose Hill, she meets people in cafés, has a bizarre encounter in the street with three dudes who are buying and selling a suite of fake hand grenades which contain wind-up calculators (named Voytek and Ngemi), the nips over to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road. Then there’s all the taking of cabs to and from meetings at Blue Ant’s HQ in Soho. In other words, fashionable north and west London are given a good going over in Gibson’s slick stylish prose. Cool.

But via the community of footageheads Cayce has learned that there are various footage experts in Tokyo and so, once Boone Chu has helped persuade her to agree to Hubertus’s commission to track down the footage maker, she finds herself handed a Blue Ant Mac, ipad, mobile, credit card and plane tickets to Tokyo and whoosh! she’s aboard a British Airways flight to Japan. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

There’s quite a bit of reportage about what it’s like to arrive in Tokyo, deboard the plane, catch a cab into town, all the skyscrapers, the bombardment of foreign signs which every tourist since Roland Barthes has felt compelled to write a book about. The Blue Ant Tokyo office is terrifyingly prompt and efficient and, after she’s checked into a luxury hotel, arranges an hours-long pampering session with seaweed facials, wax and haircut. Then a new outfit, all in black, obvz.

Then, finally, we arrive at the point of the whole trip, which is some of her pals in F:F:F have identified a certain ‘Taki’, a Japanese footagehead, who claims to know of a ‘coven’ of other footageheads who have discovered a watermark on fragment #78.

Do you care? No, neither do I. Her friends then devise an elaborate scam which is to invent a horny, porny anime babe, call her Keiko, and persuade this Taki to a meeting on the promise that in exchange for his information, he’ll get a picture and contact details for this Keiko. I suppose they could have just rung him up and asked him or asked to meet for a coffee and asked him, But this way creates more cloak-and-dagger suspense.

So Cayce meets Taki in a seedy bar which he has chosen, he hands over the number he claims is in the watermark of fragment #78 and she hands over the bosomy photo of a made-up Japanese babe, goes for a pee and Taki is gone when she gets back.

Out in the dirty alley she is mugged by two guys dressed all in black (obvz) who seem to have Italian accents. But it turns out Cayce was trained in self-defence by her spy father (of course she was) and gives one of them a Glasgow Kiss before stamping on the other’s one’s shoe with her stilleto and running. At the end of the alleyway a lone figure on a moped is waiting, who lifts the visor of his helmet to reveal… it is Boone Chu! He flew out on the same plane as her and has been tailing her.

Long story short, he sweeps her off to a hotel, drinks and recovers and throws on new clothes (all black, natch), then a plane back to London.

Back in London

Boone and Cayce are collected by Hubertus in a cab, so he can debrief them about everything that happened. Boone does the talking and leaves out the mugging and his rescue of Cayce.

Back at Damian’s Cayce is disconcerted to discover Damian has returned to his flat from Russia, and brought along a moody sulky Russian girlfriend, Marina (dresses only in Prada, only in black, natch). Cayce crashes, the others go for meals, Camden is so cool.

Burglary I forgot to mention that after Cayce arrived in Damian’s flat she unpacked then went for a walk. When she came back she realised someone had been tampering with the laptop she uses i.e. had broken into the flat, but using the correct keys. This led to an outburst of paranoia which led her to barricade Damian’s door, then to get new locks.

Logophobia I also forgot to mention that Cayce has a severed phobia which is the other side of her having such a phenomenally good feel for fashion and logos, which is a phobia of logos. Thus a visit to Harvey Nichols upscale department store makes her nearly pass out, and conversation leads to the fact that the Michelin man, logo of Bibendum in Knightsbridge, gives her panic attacks. Thus it is no accident that when she gets back to Damian’s flat after some outing she finds a model of the Michelin man nailed to the door. She nearly throws up and has to detach it without looking directly at it.

Now, no sooner has she arrived back in London than she’s called to a meeting at Blue Ant with Hubertus. On the way in she almost collides with… the man who tried to mug her in Tokyo and is sporting a very broken nose. When she asks reception who he is, reception tells her that’s Dorotea’s driver, Franco (page 199).

Dorotea? Yes we met Dorotea Benedetti (page 9) in the early scenes. She is another freelance, this time an imposing executive, who had been liaising with the German designer about the sperm logo. Boone  explains that Dorotea was angling for a senior job at Big Ant and thought Hubertus had flown Cayce to London to consider her for the post i.e. to be a rival. And that’s why Dorotea commenced this barrage of psychological attacks against Cayce.

But in this new meeting at Blue Ant, also attended by Boone, Cayce now discovers that none of it was Dorotea’s idea, she was put up to it by a Russian who paid her, a tax lawyer based in Cyprus (described as being a centre of Russian money laundering, page 204). Not only did this Russian pay Dorotea to unsettle Cayce but someone passed on to her deeply personal information about Cayce’s logo phobia which she had only shared with her New York therapist. I.e. the Russians appear to have burgled Cayce’s therapist’s office.

So there’s some kind of deeper conspiracy against Cayce going on. When all this comes out in this boardroom meeting, Cayce is speechless with rage and calls Dorotea a ‘vicious lying cunt’ (page 203). But Hubertus stuns Cayce even more by announcing that he has hired Dorotea to Big Ant. Cayce reels out and goes to a Starbucks with Boone who explains that Hubertus doesn’t trust Dorotea but wants her on the inside of the tent pissing out.

Boone announces he’s flying to Columbus Ohio because that’s the location of a firm, Sigil, which specialises in watermarking movies. He thinks it might be them who placed the watermark on the fragment which they swindled out of Beat in Tokyo. So we’re back to The Footage, again, as providing the main narrative engine.

Bournemouth

Remember the oddballs Cayce walked past in Portobello Road, gathered round a car boot where she was astonished to see full of hand grenades till she went closer and discovered that they were only novelty calculators, one of the only hand-wound calculators in the world. To add a bit of grit, the story goes on to explain that they were designed by a Jewish designer Herzstark while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

Now we learn that the two guys gathered round that boot were collectors and aficionados, being Voytek the Slav, Ngemi the black guy. They were waiting for a potential purchaser, Hobbs Baranov to show up. But he didn’t, so they packed up and left, disgruntled.

Well, Voytek gets hooked up with Damian somehow I can’t quite remember, and is part of the ‘Camden set’. Cayce sees him a few times in Camden cafés, even round Damian’s place. Conversation reveals that Baranov is well connected as well as being a fanatical collector. He’s the son of a Soviet defector from the 1950s, possibly recruited to American intelligence (page 242).

We are told that a rare and valuable artifact, a prototype Curta calculator, went at auction to a Bond Street dealer, Lucian Greenaway. Cayce finds out the black guy Ngemi is catching a train down to Bournemouth to see Baranov the purchaser and asks Voytek to ask Ngemi if she can accompany him.

Yes. So Cayce catches a cab to Waterloo (with comic descriptions of British Rail announcements, sandwiches and English tabloid newspapers. Yuk.) Train to Bournemouth, borrows a car, drives out to derelict Ministry of Defence test centre, a handful of pitiful caravans, this is where Hobbs Baranov lives. He is very unpleasant but a fanatical collector of early computers and calculators.

The T diagram The F:F:F people continue to dangle the bait of a made-up hot Japanese footagehead babe in front of Taki i.e. continue sending fake emails from her to him and, having been given the photo Cayce gave him, he more than ever believes she is real and big-breasted and gagging to meet her if only he will hand over Footagehead facts. So Taki excitedly emails Cayce a diagram. It is an image which shows a sort of T-shaped piece of geography and written all over it are numbers. One of them is the same as the number watermarked into fragment #78 as revealed by Taki. So presumably they’re all watermarks to do with the Footage.

Now Cayce has come all the way down to this dingy caravan outside Bournemouth to show it to the collector and expert in the arcane, Hobb. She shows the image to Hobbs and he nods knowingly. Cayce makes Hobbs a deal. She’ll buy the Bond Street piece for him in exchange for information: she wants the email address to which the particular encrypted number Taki gave her was sent.

Back at Waterloo Ngemi tells Cayce that Hobbs, before he became a shambling alcoholic recluse, was something to do with setting up Echelon, an American system that monitors the entire traffic on the web. As so often with Gibson, this snippet is heavy with implied meaning, but light on actual content.

So Ngemi and Cayce go to this Bond Street dealer who is the epitome of superior snobbishness but sells them the Curta calculator, which they promptly hand to Baranov who was waiting outside with the email address Cayce wanted (stellanor@armaz.ru).

Cayce goes sits in Kensington Gardens where, on her iBook, she writes an email to the address asking who he or she is and what they’re aiming to achieve with the footage. (Email is written as e-mail throughout the book.)

Throughout the book she’s plugging her phone into her I-book in order to receive emails. Maybe this was cutting edge in 2002 or 3 but quite obviously it was to be completely superseded with the advent of smartphones by 2007 or 8.

Anyway, Cayce investigates the domain name @armaz.ru and discovers it’s owned by an Andreas Polakov based in Cyprus. She phones Bigend, asks the name of the Cyprus-based Russian lawyer who paid Dorotea to frighten off Cayce and it is… Andreas Polokov (page 259). One and the same man: so, Is the man who appears to be disseminating The Footage the same one who paid Dorotea to put the frighteners on Cayce? And if so, Why?

The guy at the other end of the email replies within half an hour saying he’s in Moscow. Cayce immediately gets Blue Ant’s people to buy her an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Moscow

There is the same kind of travelogue description of driving into the city from the airport which Gibson has already given us for London and Tokyo. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

The constant shifting of locale is like a James Bond movie and just like in the movies we get a lot of local colour and background information, almost like a tourist brochure.

We get descriptions of Moscow motorways, signage, the imposingly huge hotel (the President), the crappy hotel room, the poor cellphone reception, the rude staff, a couple of super-sexualised hookers hanging round in the lobby. It all sounds like notes Gibson has made on his travels promoting his earlier books.

Throughout the novel Cayce’s closest friend on the Fetish: Footage: Forum has been Parkaboy. He’s been avidly following her investigations into the source of the footage. Now in an email exchange he begs to be allowed to join her in Moscow.

Now, back when Hubertus originally hired Cayce to track down the Footage Maker, Hubertus said she could have anything she wanted, unlimited expenses, buy cars, take flights anywhere, stay in the best hotels etc. So Cayce now tells Parkaboy she’ll get him a plane ticket to Moscow, whereupon he tells her his name for the plane ticket, Peter Gilbert (page 278).

She gets another email from the footage guy telling her to meet him in a Moscow café. So she’s very surprised when the figure who weaves its way through the cafe to her turns out to be… a woman, introduces herself as Stella.

The big reveal

Stella explains everything, explaining the entire plot.

Stella was one of twin sisters, Stella and Nora born and bred in Russia. She and her sister were in a terrorist attack, a claymore mine stuck in a tree, which killed both their parents immediately, Nora was very badly injured with shrapnel lodged in her brain. She had been a film student in Paris. She had been working on several films which she cut shorter and shorter in line with her minimalist aesthetic.

After the injury she spoke only to Stella and only in the special private language which twins often develop. Stella and friends bring Nora her film equipment from Paris which is the only thing which perks her up. She resumes editing her film and paring it down till it ends up as just one shot.

Then they notice Nora staring at the monitor showing closed circuit TV footage of the reception area of the hotel. She is entranced by it. So, hoping to aid her cure, one of the doctors hooks Nora’s recording equipment to the CCTV camera, she begins recording it and editing it. And that, children, is the origin of The Footage which has been dazzling and puzzling the worldwide community of Footageheads. Bit disappointing, isn’t it.

They part, Cayce goes back to her hotel and sleeps, has calls with Boone, Hubertus, then receives a long email about his archaeology project from Damian. Then Stella’s car comes to collect Cayce and take her to an abandoned cinema, which became a squat in the chaotic 90s and is now where Nora sits in a shawl obsessively editing and re-editing fragments of her ‘film’. And where Stella sits for hours watching the genius of her sister, the Creator, the Maker.

Dorotea in Moscow

In the middle of all this, Cayce is astonished when Dorotea turns up in the Moscow hotel. Dorotea urgently takes Cayce for a drink, telling her that the twins (Stella and Nora’s) uncle, the one Stella says is rich and powerful and has been protecting them, well he’s not happy that Cayce has discovered who Nora is. She also casually reveals that she, Dorotea, knows all about The Footage, in fact is the most irritating member of the F:F:F, Madam Anarchia.

But even as she explains all this, Cayce realises Dorotea has drugged her Perrier water and she starts to pass out.

Cayce kidnapped

Cayce wakes up in what feels like a hospital ward, in a hospital ward, strapped to a bed. She dozes, wakes again, is no longer strapped down, climbs out of bed, finds her bag with her clothes stuffed in it underneath, gets into them, goes tentatively out into a corridor, walks towards a door showing daylight, out into the grounds and away from the nasty 1960s building before anyone notices, down rough paths, going down, then up and up and eventually coming to a wire fence topped with razor wire, which she gets over (at the price of ripping her precious Rickson’s leather jacket) and walks on across bare red soil till night begins to fall. She has no food, no water, no idea where she is and no idea where she’s headed.

Parkaboy

When out of nowhere a helicopter with a searchlight comes swooping overhead, lands, and a guy with night vision goggles walks up, oh my God is it Russian Security, the FSB, the Mafia? Is he going to shoot Cayce, take her back for torture and interrogation, is he…

No. As in any Hollywood action movie the dark, helmeted figure walks right up to her to create maximum threat and… introduces himself as Parkaboy! Her friend! From Chicago! Who she helped arrange the plan ticket for.

Parkaboy gives Cayce water then bundles her into the chopper taking them back to the facility while he explains everything (it’s lovely how people do that in thrillers, explain everything. I wish they’d do that in real life).

Back in the hotel bar Dorotea drugged Cayce with rohypnol. But as she went under, Cayce went postal and attacked Dorotea, giving her a bloody nose and black eye. Ambulance was called. All this just as Parkaboy walked into the hotel bar. In one of her last emails to him, Cayce had sent Parkaboy Stella’s contact details so Parkaboy rang rich, influential Stella and within minutes an expensive car with private goons turns up. Cayce was flown to the establishment where she woke up and which she’s just escaped from. Parkaboy explains it is an experimental private prison run by Stella and Nora’s super-rich uncle, really rich, maybe the richest man in Russia. Of course.

Prison? Yes and what are the inmates of this model prison being paid to do? To watermark every frame of the fragments of the movie which mad Nora is creating. Why?

Parkaboy now amazes Cayce by telling her that he was in the room when Volkov and Bigend first met. And talked. He says it was like watching spiders mate.

All this during the helicopter flight. Now the chopper lands. Cayce is cleaned and showered, her bleeding feet tended by a doctor, dressed and taken up to the tower overlooking the facility where she is dazed to meet Hubertus Bigend – he gets everywhere, but then he is a genius! – who suavely introduces her to the oligarch Andrei Volkov.

Over dinner everything is explained

Volkov looks like Adolf Eichman, a non-descript middle-aged man except with a chunk missing from his right ear (page 334). Through a translator he apologises to Cayce for the trouble she’s been through, shakes hands, says something in French to Bigend and departs with his three security guys, flying back to Moscow.

Cayce is introduced to Volkov’s Polish head of security, Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal and Sergei Magomedov, as he, Bigend, Parkaboy and Cayce sit down at a cloth-laid table as an expensive dinner is brought to them and served up.

Marchwynska-Wyrwal takes up the explanation. Volkov is now the richest man in Russia. The claymore mine attack was an assassination attempt on him which failed but killed his brother, Nora and Stella’s father. From that point onwards, out of guilt for his dead brother, nothing was too good for his nieces, Nora in particular, and Volkov paid for an editing suite to be installed in her Swiss clinic.

As Nora created footage, her sister Stella wanted it to be conveyed to the world, but it was Sergei who developed the methodology of releasing it in numbered fragments, each containing watermarks, with a view to creating a cult following.

They monitored the various forums and chatrooms and groups which set themselves up as footageheads but it was a casual remark of Cayce’s, in her early days of posting, a casual throwaway remark that maybe the entire thing was the whim of a Russian mafiosi, which made all their security operations sit up.

Turns out Volkov had two security operations, a traditional KGB one and a web-based one. The traditionalists broke into Cayce’s flat and bugged all her devices. The less conventional ones hired Dorotea to sabotage Cayce’s career. Now, Volkov’s security guys already knew that Bigend had been making strides in discovering the footage creator, so when they learned that Cayce was going to join Bigend’s company the team went into overdrive and Dorotea was ordered to bug Cayce’s London base (Damian’s flat), then to try and mug her in Tokyo to get the watermark number which Taki had just given her.

All this is explained over this formal meal in a Russian prison-turned-hospital. As if all this wasn’t enough, Cayce’s father comes up in the conversation. For a moment I thought he was going to actually walk through a door and turn out to be a key player in this bonkers conspiracy to get a psychologically damaged young woman’s movie fragments out to a waiting world. But no. Volkov’s security people think Cayce’s father is dead, as she does. Nonetheless there is what is presumably meant to be a deliciously ironic toast to Wingard Pollard and men like him in the security services of the West who kept capitalism alive, for without him where would the oligarchs to today be? Lol.

Possibly this was wicked satire in 2003 but now it just reads like factual description of Vladimir Putin’s oligarch capitalism.

This bizarrely tranquil climax to the story prompts the thought that thrillers are ultimately comforting because, although a bunch of people might get shot or tortured along the way, things always turn out to be entirely comprehensible and loose ends are always neatly tied up like the ribbons tying up a fancy birthday gift.

It’s this childlike explanatoriness of thrillers, the neat tying up of loose ends, the complete explanations of the world, which makes them, ultimately, genre fiction and not literature.

Trouble is the explanations always happen right at the end of the text and are often contorted as hell in order to explain away the exciting but contrived scenes from earlier in the book, when it was still in ‘thrill mode’. As here. All those thrills and spills, burglaries and muggings and high-speed escapes, boil down to very little in the end.

Bigend walks Cayce to her room and explains that Dorotea was playing both sides. Only when Cayce used the .ru email address did Volkov’s security operation really leap into action, and Dorotea’s position become exposed. She flew to Moscow and was quizzing Cayce about the source of the email trying to identify who Cayce got that email address from (we know it was Hobbs) because Dorotea thought it would be a bargaining chip with Volkov’s people. But instead Volkov’s people arrived at the bar of the Hotel President to discover Dorotea assaulting the new best friend of Volkov’s nieces, so it was all up for her.

The long and the short of it is that nobody knows her current whereabouts. Best not to ask, Hubert advises. The implication is that Dorotea has been liquidated. Bigend bids Cayce goodnight, leading her to the small motel room she’s been assigned within the facility.

Immediately after dinner Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal had given Cayce an envelope. Opening it she sees it’s a summary of Volkov’s security people’s extended efforts to track down her father. But no joy. Missing presumed dead in south Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. So, once again, what has been  trailed throughout the novel as an exciting and mysterious disappearance of her father the senior American security official turns out to be… a damp squib.

And Cayce was given another envelope. It contains a stylish handbag containing lots of fresh cash. Parkaboy drops by with bottled water. She tells him everything and starts to cry about her father. He gives her a hug and says, Well, at least they found the Maker.

Epilogue

The short final chapter ties up loose ends.

Cayce sends the money she was given to Voytek so he can stage some mad art exhibition involving lots of scaffolding.

Billy Prion the former rock star she kept bumping into in Camden is chosen as the face of some new yoghurt drink.

And she sends some cash to her mum, which helps pay the lawyers who are establishing her father’s legal status as deceased so as to free up his pension and insurance.

Her friend Margot writes to say she just saw Bigend on telly with some oligarch.

Damien writes to say he’s finished shooting his archaeology documentary about digging up a Stuka on some Second World War battlefield. Cayce had gone to visit him and ended up down in the digging trench, shovelling mud and crying helplessly. For her buried past. For her dead father.

Cayce’s therapist is pleased to hear that her panic attacks, her logophobia, her abreaction against all kinds of branded consumer goods, seem to have disappeared, but offers her a few slots in the autumn. Somehow this whole crazy experience has been therapeutic. Cayce is cured!

The book ends with her lying in bed in Paris, spooned up next to Parkaboy aka Peter Gilbert, who, we learn, is now her boyfriend. She’s in no rush to go back to work. Which must be nice. Nice swanning round the world on other people’s expense accounts. But then that’s the life which, ultimately, this book portrays.

New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, expense accounts, upscale therapists and cabs everywhere, Cayce is a perfect epitome of the globalised, international, jetsetting advertising and media élite.

If you want a more realistic account of London advertising agencies try this.


9/11

Early on Cayce describes how her dad, Wingard Pollard, was in New York on the morning the twin towers were blown up. His family doesn’t know why, he didn’t live in New York. He left his hotel in lower Manhattan on the fateful morning and was never seen again (pages 185 to 187). Cayce’s dad was a security expert. Security. 9/11. Russians. The reader suspects there might be connections. The reader hopes there might be interesting and mind-stretching connections. But no.

Cayce herself was also in Manhattan that morning and saw the attacks from the room of a business contact she’d gone to see.

She looks up, then, and sees, borealis-faint but sharp-edged and tall as heaven, twin towers of light. As her head goes back to find their tops a vertigo seizes her: They narrow up into nothing at all, a vanishing point, like railway tracks up into the desert of the sky. (page 227)

Great writer, isn’t he, Gibson? Great creator of snappy, vivid sentences, acute imagery. Shame his plots can’t quite match his prose style.

Looking back to 2003, we can assess how 9/11 seemed so important for a long time. For quite a few years afterwards, it felt like it had ushered in an entirely new era, one of perma-fear and anxiety, periodically stoked up by further terrorist atrocities in England and across Europe. I suppose the book was written in the immediate backwash of 9/11 and that including it as a thread lent the book a kind of hyper-charged paranoia, giving a dark halo to the story about mysteries, espionage and paranoia.

But one of Donald Trump’s many achievements has been to bring America to such a verge of social upheaval that 9/11 seems like a tea party now. Al-Qaeda never got to storm the Capitol. Feels like the real terrorists are all-American patriots and the next bloodbath / atrocity might be carried out by guys wearing baseball caps or the American police mowing down an apparently endless list of unarmed black men. 9/11 was eclipsed by the war in Afghanistan and then by the massive fiasco in Iraq. And then the near collapse of the entire financial system in 2008, and… so on and so on.

Reading the 9/11 passages in this novel made me realise it will have been 20 years ago this September. 20 years. It feels well settled in the past, now, superseded by many more recent events.

9/11 references pages: 136 to 137, 185 to 187, 232, 348 to 349.

Black

Gibson has a really tedious obsession with black, the teenage colour of cool. Black jeans, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black sunglasses. He is, as my last review suggested, the Lou Reed of science fiction, the man in black wearing a black leather jacket, ripped t-shirt and black shades.

Except that, with this book, Gibson abandons science fiction altogether. But not the obsession with black as the colour of cool. On every page someone’s clothes or car or room is black, it is so oppressively ubiquitous that way before page 100 I began to wonder whether he was sending himself up, or maybe his readers; maybe he’s parodying himself.

The hotel room in Japan has all-black furniture. The replacement keys Cayce gets for his flat are black. Cayce has a black Rickson’s jacket, which comes folded in black tissue. Boone wears an old black horsehair coat. On the plane back to London she wears a black blindfold. Damian’s girlfriend Marina only wears black Prada. Damian wears a black hooded sweatshirt. Cayce wears black Levi 501s, black t-shirt, black shoes. Hubertus’s associated Bernard wears a permanently rumpled black suit. To dress for a meeting Cayce wears a black t-shirt, a black skirt, black leggings, black Harajuku Japanese schoolgirl shoes, a black leather jacket and a black East German handbag. Ngemi wears a black faux leather jacket. He wears black 4-eyelet Doc Marten boots. The make figure in the fragments wears a black leather coat. In dreams she sees her father holding a black Curta calculator. The cases passengers are wheeling towards the Eurostar terminal are black. Dorotea wears an entirely black Armani outfit. The German designer from whose apartment she watches the World Trade Centre burn wears black glasses (136). Cayce’s Pedipole at the Pilates gym includes black foam stirrups (247). Cayce wears a black nylon flight jacket (249). When Cayce first saw the Albert Memorial it had been black (253). Stella’s drivers wear black leather jackets. They drive black Mercedes (290). Cayce wears a black cardigan (297). When Dorotea turns up in Moscow she is dressed all in black (312). When Parkaboy turns up he is wearing a heavy black shirt (326). After the scene in the hotel bar three dudes with black leather coats turn up (327). Cayce’s blistered feet are put into black felt house slippers (332). Cayce has a shower and changes into her black cardigan (332). Parkaboy has a shower and changes into new black jeans (333).

Men in Black. Back in Black. Paint it black. Gibson’s obsession with black could be interpreted psychologically, as a form of displacement activity. As his plots became more complex but more contrived and, in the end, more trivial, so Gibson upped his concern with style and surface, and the growing obsession with black clothes and shirts and boots and shades is a kind of compulsive attempt to make the characters ‘cool’ even as the plots become more complex and inconsequential.


Credit

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 2003. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard (1988)

‘Well done, Jeremy!’

This is a very short book, a macabre and gruesome little shocker which is barely a novella, really just a long short story, just about stretching to 106 pages in the big-print Flamingo paperback version. It took me just an hour and a half to read it.

It’s a first-person narrative told by a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), in this instance, Dr Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser for the Metropolitan Police.

Greville has been called to help investigate a murder. Well, not so much a murder as a massacre. Early on the morning of 25 June 1988, all the adult inhabitants of a luxury, gated community for upper-middle-class professionals, named Pangbourne Village, were murdered in a variety of gruesome ways.

Some were electrocuted in their bath, or on their exercise bicycle, many were shot, some were stabbed to death, a couple were crushed against their garage by their own Porsche, some were shot with crossbow bolts. The phone cables to the outside world had been cut and all the cables from the estate’s numerous CCTV cameras to the central Security lodge had also been severed, and the security guard asphyxiated in a complicated kite-cum-tourniquet device developed by the Viet Cong in Vietnam.

Ten families lives in the community, each in a perfect, luxury home, many with indoor gyms and swimming pools and tennis courts in the grounds. All twenty of the parents were executed, along with twelve staff, including au pairs, tutors, gardeners and the two security guards.

And the thirteen children whose parents were murdered? Have disappeared. Vanished without trace.

The media go wild and there’s an explosion of theories as to what happened, from a random terrorist attack, to a mass suicide on the lines of the Jonestown Massacre, maybe an attack by Russian Special Forces at key managers of vital British infrastructure… all the way to the lunatic fringe who claim the parents were murdered and the children abducted by aliens. There’s always a few…

Greville sets about investigating the massacre systematically, and so does Ballard. The text is presented in a very neat format, divided into clear, precise sections chronicling events and developments, as Greville investigates – reviews a police video of the crime scene, reviews the history of the gated community, reads profiles of its residents, reviews all the theories, then visits the scene, where he is shown round by Sergeant Payne of Reading Police CID, has a breakthrough, tests his theory, and comes to his conclusions.

Structure

These are the titles (and sub-sections) of the (short) chapters:

  • The police video
  • Pangbourne Village
  • The Residents
  • The Murdered Staff
  • The Missing Children
  • The Massacre: Various Theories
    • Lone assassin
    • Thrill killer
    • A misdirected military exercise
    • The political dimension: Foreign powers
    • International Terrorism
    • Organised Crime
    • The Parents as Killers
    • The Domestic Staff
    • Bizarre Theories:
      • Soviet Spetznaz commandos attack the wrong location
      • Experimental nerve gas bomb falls on the estate by accident and drives the inhabitants mad
      • The parents were brainwashed foreign agents who, when their work was done, were triggered to murder each other
      • The parents were murdered by aliens from outer space who took the children as specimens
      • The parents were murdered by their own children
  • A Visit to Pangbourne: August 29, 1988
  • The Psychiatrists’ Home
  • Marion Miller, the First ‘Hostage’
  • The Television Film
  • Return to Pangbourne Village: October 17, 1988
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Evidence
  • The Pangbourne Children
  • The Great Ormond Street Kidnapping
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Murderers Identified
  • A Tentative Explanation
  • The Trigger
  • June 25, 1988 – The Reconstruction
  • Disappearance of the Children
  • POSTSCRIPT, DECEMBER 8, 1993

Spoiler alert

The kids did it. The thirteen children formed a tight-knit conspiracy, laid intricate plans, and then murdered their parents, house by house, over an intense half hour period starting at 8.15am.

they stated with the murder of Mrs Miller on her exercise bicycle, followed swiftly by the murder of Mr Miller, who is sitting in his bath when his 8-year-old daughter Marion plugs a hairdryer into a nearby power socket and drops it into the bath. While Miller’s body is spasming in electric shock, his son, Robin, stabs him to death with a kitchen knife.

The Miller children then signal to the children in the house opposite, who proceed to murder their parents, and so on in a domino effect throughout the estate, with the security guards taken out separately, and then all the ancillary staff – au pairs, tutors etc – cold-bloodedly shot dead.

These events are actually described twice – once at the start, when Dr Griffiths watches the police video of the crime scene which shows all the dead bodies splayed around their houses – and once near the end, when the narrator walks us through his detailed, grisly and disgusting reconstruction of the massacre.

I had begun to suspect it was the kids by page 10. When I read the long list of possible theories, the last one – that the kids did it – leaped out at me. Greville suddenly realises the kids did it on page 50 i.e. exactly half way through the book.

So there is an element of suspense for the first 40 or 50 pages, but that isn’t really the point: the point of the book is investigating the reason Why.

It’s because the children were pampered to within an inch of their lives and eventually rebelled in order to find some freedom.

Their parents sent them to posh private schools, but not boarding schools, day schools, so that the kids returned home every evening, and so that every aspect of their lives could be monitored and enthusiastically supported by this parents.

Their parents told them what to read, what they should watch on TV, and organised drama societies and chess clubs in which they supported and encouraged their children all the time.

In the seventeen-year-old Jeremy Maxted’s room Griffiths and Payne discover that the boy’s computer is wired up so that his parents can send him loving, encouraging messages at any time of day or night, especially about his favourite hobby, swimming.

Payne pressed the computer keyboard, tapping out a simple code. The screen lit up with a message dated May 17, 1988:
_47 lengths today!_
There was a pause, and then:
_Well done, Jeremy!

The members of staff who weren’t on shift on the fateful day and so missed the massacre, all testify that:

The murder victims were enlightened and loving parents, who shared liberal and humane values which they displayed almost to a fault. The children attended exclusive private day schools near Reading, and their successful academic records reveal a complete absence of stress in their home lives. The parents (all of whom, untypically for their professional class, seem to have objected to boarding schools) devoted long hours to their offspring, even to the extent of sacrificing their own social lives. They joined the children in various activities at the recreation club, organised discotheques and bridge contests in which they took full part, and in the best sense were guiding their sons and daughters toward fulfilled and happy lives…

And that is the point. As a psychiatrist, Griffiths speculates that the children were smothered – cribbed, cabined and confined by their own parents, with no possibility of escape anywhere from the utter smothering of every single instinctive or spontaneous feeling, thought or emotion.

This emerges powerfully during Griffith’s second visit to the village, when Sergeant Payne shows him evidence which sheds more light on the children. They all kept secret diaries or journals but it went beyond that. There was a newsletter – The Pangbourne Pang – just for the estate’s thirteen children, which, when you looked carefully at it, revealed an almost screaming level of boredom and frustration. Two of the girls, Gail and Annabel Reade, kept elaborate secret journals which described Jane Austen-style fine ladies and gentlemen, only with a lot pf pornography thrown in. Jeremy Maxted had a porn stash in his cupboard (what healthy 17-year-old boy doesn’t) but Sergeant Payne shows Griffiths that this was just a conventional cover. Hidden deeper was a collection of magazines about guns and weapons – they were Jeremy’s real pornography. But exhibit A is

the curious home video, filmed by Amanda Lymington and Jasper Ogilvy, which at first sight appeared to be a matter-of-fact documentary of daily life at Pangbourne Village. Some seventeen minutes long, it was made with the happy cooperation of the parents, and adopts the style of a real-estate developer’s promotional video. With its glossy colour and tableau-like settings, it depicts the parents sitting in their drawing rooms, having dinner, parking their cars. The commentary is warm and affectionate… There is a certain gentle leg-pulling at the parents’ expense – the camera lingers on Mrs. Sterling as she mistimes a swallow dive, and on Mr. Garfield as he drops his cocktail shaker. Extracts of the film were shown to the parents and often screened for the benefit of visitors.

However, the final version that secretly circulated among the children was very different. This carried the identical jovial sound track, but Jasper and Amanda had added some twenty-five seconds of footage, culled from TV news documentaries, of car crashes, electric chairs and concentration-camp mass graves. Scattered at random among the scenes of their parents, this atrocity footage transformed the film into a work of eerie and threatening prophecy…

There you have it. All the time they took part in the happy affectionate life of the community, the children were going mad with frustration. But it was much more than that and towards the end of the short text Griffiths attempts a deeper psychological explanation:

My own view is that far from being an event of huge significance for the children, the murder of their parents was a matter of comparative unimportance. I believe that the actual murders were no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world that had begun many months beforehand, if not years.

As with the Hungerford killer, Michael Ryan, or the numerous American examples of crazed gunmen opening fire on passersby, the identity of the victims probably had no special significance for them. More than this, I would argue that for such killings to take place at all, the deaths of their victims must be without any meaning.

By a grim paradox, the instrument of the parents’ deaths was the devoted and caring regime which they had instituted at Pangbourne Village. The children had been brainwashed, by the unlimited tolerance and understanding that had erased all freedom and all trace of emotion – for emotion was never needed at Pangbourne, by either parents or children.

Denied any self-expression, and with even the most wayward impulse defused by the parents’ infinite patience, the children were trapped within an endless round of praiseworthy activities – for nowhere were praise and encouragement lavished more generously than at Pangbourne Village, whether earned or not.

Altogether, the children existed in a state closely akin to sensory deprivation. Far from hating their parents when they killed them, the Pangbourne children probably saw them as nothing more than the last bars to be removed before they could reach out to the light.

I remember the experiments in sensory deprivation that I attended at the School of Aviation Medicine at RAF Farnborough, and the great dangers to the laboratory staff presented by these deeply desensitized volunteers. The attempt to help them from their soundproof immersion tanks could be fraught with risk. On numerous occasions the volunteers had injured themselves and even attempted to strangle the laboratory staff while under the impression that they were warding off stray equipment that had intruded into their zero world.

The same schizophrenic detachment from reality can be seen in the members of the Manson gang, in Mark Chapman and Lee Harvey Oswald, and in the guards at the Nazi death camps. One has no sympathy for Manson and the others – an element of choice existed for them all – but the Pangbourne children had no such choice. Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of the people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever within a perfect universe.

In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.

The cradle of terrorism

Is that it? No. There’s a Postscript written five years later. Griffiths had speculated towards the end of the initial text that fanaticism of the type necessary to bond these thirteen individuals in the worst crime known to humanity won’t just fade away. They have become fanatics, and fanatics obsessed with overthrowing authority figures, leading him to make a melodramatic statement to the much more phlegmatic Sergeant Payne.

‘The Pangbourne children are a Baader-Meinhof gang for the day after tomorrow.’

And so it is that, in this postscript, Griffiths shares with us the news that five years after the Pangbourne Massacre an assassination attempt was made on a certain woman Prime Minister who had retired to a luxury house in Dulwich (he must mean Mrs Thatcher although, possibly for legal reasons, he refrains from mentioning her). An armoured truck was driven at high speed through the gates of the house and there followed a massive explosion which rocked the neighbourhood. The ex-PM was miraculously unharmed, the blast was put down to a gas mains explosion, and the lady herself was photographed by the press handing out cups of tea to police and firemen.

But one of the ex-PM’s bodyguards gives a description of one of the attackers which matches perfectly with the appearance and strange mannerisms of Marion Miller, the only one of the children who was ever found and identified after the massacre and who was kidnapped by some of the other children in a daring armed raid on Great Ormond Street Hospital, which is described in detail in the middle chapters of the book.

Anyway, this incident is added so as to reinforce Griffith’s point that an excess of smothering love desensitises children and risks turning them into emotionless zombies. Children need risk, and risk involves failure, it involves disobeying parents and being told off, and learning to cope with it. It means being introduced to all the ups and downs of adult life. Which these pampered, over-loved children never had.

Comments

On the back of the paperback edition there’s a quote from a laudatory review by novelist Jonathan Coe, who writes:

As a malevolent gesture in the direction of facts which we prefer to ignore, it provides a salutary chill.

Many blurb writers and reviewers are given to describing Ballard as a ‘prophet’ (maybe because they don’t know how else to categorise him) but I bridle at this description, I don’t really think he is ‘prophetic’. What struck me about Running Wild was:

  1. how old-fashioned the book seemed
  2. how inaccurate its social analysis is

1. Old fashioned

By ‘old-fashioned’ I simply mean that many of the phrases, and the entire concept of the text being notes from a doctor’s diary about a world-famous ‘case’, come straight from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Here’s the opening of Running Wild:

So much has been written about the Pangbourne Massacre, as it is now known in the popular press throughout the world, that I find it difficult to see this tragic event with a clear eye. In the past two months there have been so many television programs about the thirty-two murdered residents of this exclusive estate to the west of London, and so much speculation about the abduction of their thirteen children, that there scarcely seems room for even a single fresh hypothesis.

Compare and contrast with the opening of a typical Sherlock Holmes case:

The Lord St. Simon marriage, and its curious termination, have long ceased to be a subject of interest in those exalted circles in which the unfortunate bridegroom moves. Fresh scandals have eclipsed it, and their more piquant details have drawn the gossips away from this four-year-old drama.

It is the same lofty, confident, educated, man-of-the-world tone, and it is the same fundamental structure: a well-balanced, educated professional taking us for a foray into the dark underbelly of society, as Dr Watson does in so many of the 60 Sherlock Holmes short stories.

Prophetic

1. I don’t deny that there’s a lot about Ballard’s contemporary ‘urban disaster’ novels (CrashConcrete IslandHigh Rise and this one) which feel urgent and relevant because they describe a highly urbanised environment, dominated by concrete flyovers and council high rises, which people many people now live in. It’s a worldview which is easy to subscribe to if you’re a troubled teenager, or an over-thoughtful student, or an academic paid to write papers and books about urban alienation, and yet…

When you look really closely, Ballard’s view is not really that ‘prophetic’, and on several levels.

At its simplest, there may well have been a steady increase in the number of gated communities for the rich all over the industrialised world over the past thirty or so years but, far from providing a cradle for psychotic terrorist, children brought up as the pampered children of the rich… seem to enjoy it. Is Ivanka Trump a psychotic murderer? No. The children of the rich turn out, by and large, to be living a fabulous, jet-setting, luxury yacht and Manhattan apartment kind of life, thank you very much.

I’m not aware of the kind of massacre Ballard describes having happened anywhere in the world. It is a science fiction fantasy and exaggeration, for moralising or propaganda effect.

2. At a more grass roots level, Is the trouble with British society in 2020 that there are too many pampered children of the rich growing up in stiflingly loving families? Not really. Yesterday there was an article in the Guardian about the growing problem of child hunger and malnutrition, about the number of children who are now reliant on food banks and the larger number who are just above that level, but are still not getting enough food.

3. The book ends with the dramatic suggestion that it is from the children of the pampered middle-classes that the most ferocious terrorist groups emerge, and Ballard cites the well-known case of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, all of whom came from secure middle-class homes. But it seems to me that he is once again, writing about the past and not the future. The wave of middle-class terrorists who rocked Western Europe in the 1970s (the Angry Brigade, the Red Brigade, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof etc) had died off by the 1980s (although the independence movements of ETA and the IRA continued their bombing and shooting campaigns), but European middle-class terrorism had, for the most part, run its course.

What the world was trembling on the brink of was a new type of Islamist terrorism. Many people forget that the 9/11 airplane attacks on the World Trade Centre weren’t the first time the buildings had been attacked.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, carried out on February 26, 1993, when a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The 1,336 lb (606 kg) urea nitrate–hydrogen gas enhanced device was intended to send the North Tower (Tower 1) crashing into the South Tower (Tower 2), bringing both towers down and killing thousands of people. It failed to do so but killed six people and injured over one thousand. The attack was planned by a group of terrorists including Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Ahmed Ajaj. They received financing from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

To be blunt, the ‘psychotic’ element of Running Wild, the details of the cold-blooded mass killing feels sort of modern, but the format – the Sherlock Holmes-style casebook format – and above all the location and personnel – nice, middle-class professionals who are merchant bankers and TV producers – felt very dated. I live not far from Streatham High Street where two weeks ago a young Muslim man took a knife from his back pack and started stabbing all the passersby he could get to, before being shot dead by the police. British prisons are hotbeds of Islamic radicalisation. Every week Islamist murderers or plotters are released back into the community to resume their murderous activities, while at the same time, unprecedented numbers of British children need food aid just to get the basic nutrition they require to grow.

So in my opinion, Ballard isn’t ‘prophetic’ of any aspect of our contemporary situation. The reverse: his anxieties about the gated communities of the rich and the desensitising impact of cable TV seem distinctly quaint and old fashioned. I think the claim that he is ‘prophetic’ can only be made and sustained by humanities academics who, in this as in so many other areas of society, culture and politics, have been shown to be wildly out of touch with the actual reality of the society they live in.

Credit

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard was published by Hutchinson in 1988. References are to the 1997 Flamingo paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Art the from La Caixa Collection selected by Tom McCarthy @ the Whitechapel Gallery

La Caixa is a collection of contemporary art in Spain.

Throughout 2019 the Whitechapel Gallery has asked writers to make a personal selection from the La Caixa collection and accompany it with a new piece of fiction. The plan is to have four selections. This is the third selection, made by celebrated novelist Tom McCarthy (b. 1969).

It consists of just seven pieces, five in a gallery upstairs and two in the big underground space at the Whitechapel Gallery.

La Caixa

The La Caixa Foundation was set up in 1905 to do charitable works. It began collecting works of contemporary art in the early 1980s and in 1985 set up the La Caica Collection. The collection now includes more than one thousand works by leading contemporary artists such as Bruce Nauman, Cristina Iglesias, Doris Salcedo, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, Mona Hatoum, Dora García, Juan Muñoz, Antoni Tàpies, Cornelia Parker, Juan Uslé, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman and Paul McCarthy.

(The Foundation is connected to the the Spanish bank of the same name, in fact the full name appears to be the Fundación Bancaria Caixa d’Estalvis i Pensions de Barcelona, ‘la Caixa’.)

Tom McCarthy’s selection

Tom McCarthy (b. 1969) is a celebrated novelist who was invited to curate his personal selection from the La Caixa Collection.

He chose to base his selection on the theme of surveillance and control, and their malfunction and breakdown. McCarthy titled the show Empty House of the Stare, a quotation from the 1922 poem Meditations in Time of Civil War by W. B. Yeats.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare…

McCarthy is quoted as saying:

‘My selection from ‘la Caixa’s’ collection is based on two premises. Firstly, that we live in an era of mass-mediation, mass-surveillance, mass-control – technological and visual systems that form the architecture within which we dwell. Secondly, that far from being a streamlined, perfectly-calibrated system, this regime is prey to glitches, malfunctions and perhaps even general collapse. It tends towards implosion.’

The works – upper floor

The first floor gallery contains five works:

This enormous photo of a metal object lying shattered in desert sands could be the wreckage of a futuristic society or a leftover prop from a Star Wars film. In fact it is titled Fait #60 and is part of a series of 71 photos taken in Kuwait in 1991 after the First Gulf War by Sophie Ristelhueber (b. 1949, France).

Some of the photos are aerial shots showing supply lines, trenches, vehicles in transit. These are interspersed with images of debris shot at ground level. After looking at it for a while I realised Fait #60 is an upturned tank turret. It made me realise how the Gulf War is fading into ‘history’…

Fait # 60 by Sophie Ristelhueber (1992) Courtesy DACS

Leaning against the gallery wall are some functional, unlovely metal bookshelves which were found on a lower Manhattan street after September 11, 2001, collected and assembled as a sculpture by Isa Genzken (b. 1948, Germany) and, seen from a certain angle, might just about be interpreted as a kind of sculptural echo of the collapsing twin towers.

It was first displayed in a collection of similar found objects, all of which resembled falling towers and titled Ground Zero and I imagine the proximity of other, similar structures gave it a lot of power which, all by itself, it doesn’t quite have.

Bookshelves by Isa Genzken (2008) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Spanish artist Aitor Ortiz (b. 1971) specialises in photographs of modernist buildings, ideally in a state of dereliction or abandonment, as images of decline and fall, such as this one from the series Destructuras which he began back in 1995.

Impressive, isn’t it? Hard to believe it isn’t a small model. Ortiz chooses simple, essential forms which allow him to refine real, existing architectural structures into abstract and almost fictional images, playing with scale, space and illusion.

Destructures 069 by Aitor Ortiz (2002) © Aitor Ortiz

Pedro Mora, also Spanish (b. 1961) is represented by an imponderable and puzzling collection of reels of old tape – maybe the kind of tape they used in big computers from the 60s and 70s – gathered as if in an archive of something important.

And yet the reels are made from zinc and cardboard and would never work in any computer. Along the tapes are sprinkled what look like letters but in no known language. If these mysterious tapes contain any recordings, the information and messages are forever irretrievable…

Memory Exercise by Pedro Mora (1991) © Pedro Mora

To one side is a film made by Steve McQueen (b. 1969, UK) – Illuminer (2001) – of himself clambering into bed in an anonymous hotel bedroom and watching on the hotel TV a report about troops training for possible military operations in Afghanistan. Several layers of alienation. Information in a vacuum.

The ground floor gallery

Entered through a big heavy door, this feels as if it’s an underground grotto and contains two works:

The visitor is confronted by a big image of a radiant portal by Eugenio Ampudia (b.1958, Spain) that might offer illumination and clarity. Or not.

Habitable Space (Day) by Eugenio Ampudia (2003) © Eugenio Ampudia

Walk behind the wall this is hanging on to enter a big blacked-out space with a couple of benches and a projection screen. On this is playing a film by Eve Sussman (b. 1961, UK) about a worker in a horrible, bleak, concrete Central Asia oil town whose daily life is subjected to heavy surveillance.

Apparently, sequences of the film are rearranged at every viewing by a computer algorithm, in a gesture towards the notion that even what we see is controlled, but this passed a little over my head.

Instead I was just truck by horrible horrible horrible human beings have made so much of their built environment and the grim ad crappy lives they contain and confine.

Thoughts

This is the third of four selections from the ”la Caixa” Collection guest-curated by leading writers. Would be good to make it along to the fourth and final one.

Purely as aesthetic objects, the opening photo by Sophie Ristelhueber is by far the stand-out image, with a toss-up for second place between the mysterious abandoned building of Aitor Ortiz and the luminous golden gateway of Eugenio Ampudia.

Which one did you like best?


Related links

Artist websites

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

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

Superhero movies

‘Who are you?’
‘Someone like you.’
(Batman Begins)

‘Not all heroes wear masks’ (George Clooney as Batman in Batman and Robin)

Obviously, hundreds of millions of people have seen the superhero movies of the last two decades, bought the related dvds, games, books and merchandise, and many millions of these consumers are also experts and aficionados about every aspect of the films, as well as of the original source superhero comics.

I’ve taken my son to occasional blockbusters at the cinema, but to humour him (and understand half his conversation) I recently watched as many of these superhero films as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about the tropes and ideas which recurring in so many of them.

New York

  • All six modern Spiderman movies are set in New York because that’s where the hero, Peter Parker, lives.
  • Matt Murdock /Daredevil is born and bred in New York, the emblematic Chrysler building featuring in many of the film’s set-up shots
  • The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Baxter Building, is very obviously in New York
  • Batman’s ‘Gotham City’ is a noir version of New York and is the setting of all 11 Batman movies, including Batman Forever, in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is blown up by Two Face’s helicopter
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is transparently New York, featuring as backdrop to all eight Superman movies, and getting seriously destroyed in 2013’s Man of Steel
  • The X-Men movies travel adventurously all round the world but almost all of them gravitate back to Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted in Westchester, New York State – indeed the climax of the first X-Men movie is set right at the top of the iconic Statue of Liberty
  • Days of Future Past conveys its vision of the earth in a world desolated by war by opening in… which American city, do you think?
  • Iron Man 2 opens with a grand Stark Expo in Flushing, New York, which then becomes the site for a superbattle between Iron Man and a new breed of flying robot warriors
  • Captain Marvel starts in New York because that’s where the captain – real name Steve Rogers – grew up and, coincidentally, it’s the city the evil baddie, Red Skull, is planning to blow up at the film’s climax
  • Avengers Assemble builds to a spectacular climax in the streets and skies of New York as an army of aliens does battle with the six Avenger superheroes

If you watch any number of the films it’s impossible not to end up asking, Why are so many superhero movies obsessively set in New York City?

1. Because Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Julius Schwartz and many of the early and most influential comic-book editors, writers and artists were born and bred in New York City, loved New York and knew it very well. And since their ethos was to create superhero characters who lived in realistic places and had realistic problems, these writers set them in the place they knew best.

2. Both Marvel and DC, publishers of the leading hero comics, were originally based in New York.

3. In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with a population of 8+ million more than double its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 3.9m, and then Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.3m, San Jose 1m. So a threat to New York City is a threat to the biggest population centre in America. New York means big, it means lots.

4. Also, New York is packed with iconic sights and cinematic opportunities:

  • the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Central Park – New York has lots of iconic locations and sights which we’re all familiar with from countless other movies and TV shows
  • it has a huge bay and rivers running either side of Manhattan, which allows for the creation of spectacular water effects, things to crash into causing tsunami waves, or for monsters to emerge from
  • there’s a number of tunnels for car chases to happen in, or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, New York is home to a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between, or General Zod to turn into enormous toppling packs of cards

Think of the massive wave sweeping through the jammed streets of New York in The Day After Tomorrow. Film makers love destroying New York. Other American cities simply don’t have the population density, let alone the iconic buildings or the variety of natural features. They’re just not nearly as much fun to blow up.

San Francisco

San Francisco with a population of only 880,000 isn’t even in the top ten American cities population-wise, but it is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential afforded by the San Francisco bridge.

The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is lifted and bodily transported by Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. All those cables to run up and down, to snap and whiplash down onto the roadway, slicing cars and trucks in half!

And a bridge also means things can hang or dangle at their peril over the edge of it. Often these are buses. If you think about it, you need something long to dangle over an edge, like the coach at the end of The Italian Job.

A good choice is a fire engine, which is both long in itself and also has extendable ladders which can unravel right to their limit, with someone hanging off the end, yelling for help, as happens twenty minutes into Fantastic Four (2005).

Maximum points if you use a school bus full of screaming children, as at the climax of Superman: The Movie (1978).

(Screaming schoolkids never go out of fashion. Captain America and the other Avengers have to save a bus full of them at the climax of Avengers Assemble, 2012, and young Clark Kent saves a school bus which goes off the edge of a bridge and is sinking in a river, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Listen to those kids in jeopardy scream!)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed up, hit by spaceships, meteors, flown into by jet planes, punctured by superheroes throwing each other through them, devastated by General Zod’s terraforming machine, and so on.

But there is one particularly stylised way of damaging buildings which recurs again and again. This is where the building is raked along one floor, ripped open along the same storey, as if with a tin opener – by flying debris, girders, missiles, superheroes, silver surfers, giant monsters and so on.

This ‘horizontal rip’ allows the viewer to see into the building and gives a more terrifying sense of the vulnerability and terror of the people one minute working in a humdrum office, the next minute clinging to the walls as shattered glass, office furniture and other people come tumbling out and plunge to the ground hundreds of feet below.

Every time I see these sequences I think of 9/11 – tall buildings hit along one floor, debris and people falling into the streets of New York.

The reference is obvious but still repressed when the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other, but ultimately miss, at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014). It is out in the open at the end of 2014’s Man of Steel, and even more so at the start of its sequel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we are actually with someone inside a skyscraper which is blown up and collapses, spewing that terrible grey cloud of debris over Bruce Wayne running helplessly towards it. It is 9/11 by any other name.

Freud developed the idea of Repetition Compulsion. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, re-enacting the event or putting themselves in situations where the event is likely to happen again, repeating it over and over in an effort to assimilate it.

The obsessiveness with which these superhero movies (as well as the gamut of modern science fiction films) destroy tall buildings, over and over again, and so frequently in New York, seems to me like a compulsive attempt on the part of an entire culture’s collective unconscious to heal the trauma, to repair the wound, of 9/11.

I thought of this all the way through the last half hour of Man of Steel in which the systematic destruction of New York by a Kryptonite ‘world-maker’, and the extraordinarily prolonged fight between Superman and General Zod which destroys countless buildings, vehicles and New York landmarks, has to be seen to be believed.

So many shiny New York skyscrapers, slowly toppling to the ground, so much concrete wreckage and grey ash, so many 9/11s – again and again and again.

Car crashes

In American action movies the narrative expresses its seriousness via car crashes and traffic pile-ups. After the climax of the Blues Brothers back in 1980, with deliberately absurd excess, piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago, you’d have thought that car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, a raddled empty cliché, but no – even though it is a really hoary cliche of these superhero/sci fi movies, they just keep on coming:

  • Superman II (1980) features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Penguin-guided Batmobile trashes a load of police cars in the awful Batman Returns (1992)
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins (2005)
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2012) in which scores of police cars, buses and so on crash into each other
  • the multi-car pile-up caused by The Thing in the first Fantastic Four movie
  • the host of police cars which congregate on the White House in X-Men: Days of Future Past only to be shredded and blown up by the superguns of the flying robot Sentinels
  • the impressive slow-mo action car chase at the start of Deadpool with plenty of big black vans (a very popular type of vehicle in blockbuster chases and crashes) cartwheeling and shattering along the freeway
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Incredible Hulk (2008) in which the Hulk and the Abomination fight it out mainly by throwing cars and buses at each other in the streets of Harlem
  • the spectacular blowing up of a car park full of vehicles by flying assassin robots in Iron Man 2
  • there’s a car pile-up in a tunnel in the first half of Avengers Assemble but that’s nothing compared to the amount of cars, buses and police cars blown up in the climactic battle in New York

And so on.

It’s as if American film-makers just can’t conceive of damage, can’t really take the idea of damage seriously, unless it’s expressed through a multi-vehicle pile-up. It’s as if the movies, lacking scale and power from the actors alone, have to call in energy from other sources – from destroying things – and from destroying the thing which is closest to most Americans’ hearts and imaginations – their cars.

Apparently, there are some 270 million vehicles licensed in the USA (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes), making it top of the world league table for motor vehicles per capita, with 910 vehicles per 1,000 people.

America is the most carred nation in the world.

Put it this way: although there are plenty of scenes of pedestrians fleeing from carnage and explosions, nothing really says TROUBLE like a whole load of New York cars, taxis and buses all piling into each other, whether because of Godzilla, the Sandman, the Silver Surfer, Electro or General Zod.

The impotence of the police and army

The smashing-up of police cars is closely related to another familiar trope – the notion that the police and/or army are completely ineffective.

How many times have we seen the cops turn up in scores of cop cars, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and some dope with a loudhailer thinks they can stop whichever radioactive mutant superbeing is the star of this particular flic, by a) asking him to and then b) firing off their puny handguns.

Sure enough, they then fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all. For example, when scores of cops armed to the teeth are easily beaten by the teenage X-Men in X-Men First Class, or when a small army of New York cops unleash a storm of bullets at Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with zero effect. Or:

  • the 14 police cars and trucks and scores of armed cops which are no use at all against Magneto in the first X-Men film
  • the street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the church in Daredevil and – completely fail to capture Daredevil
  • the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture anyone
  • neither the American SWAT team in Chicago nor the Chinese SWAT team in Hong Kong can prevent Batman doing just what he wants in The Dark Knight
  • in The Dark Knight Rises the entire police force and all the SWAT teams of Gotham City are tricked underground and trapped there… for three months!
  • in all three big action sequences in The Incredible Hulk the army – starting with machine guns, then mounted guns, then helicopter gunships, then a secret sonic weapon – completely fail to quell the green beast
  • as soon as you see fighter jets, helicopters and marines going in against the rogue Kryptonians in Man of Steel, you know they are going to be annihilated

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics team.

In the United States, SWAT teams are equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades, plus specialized equipment including heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, armored vehicles, night vision devices, and motion detectors.

It’s a long way from Dixon of Dock Green, isn’t it? For decades, now, U.S. TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in all these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with glaring head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it is absolutely guaranteed that they are going to be massacred or humiliated by the superhero or supervillain.

In film after film the conventional police, SWAT teams and even the army are shown to be impotent and dumb. They never get their man.

Cumulatively, this begins to have quite an undermining effect on the viewer, and begins to bleed into your perception of the highly armed American police, special forces and SWAT teams you see so often on the news. Are they really this gormless? Really this useless? Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

Which brings us to the whole issue of violence, the central theme of all superhero movies. Fighting.

To the grown-up viewer is liable to notice about these scenes is the extraordinary level of everyday violence in the contemporary American imaginative universe, and how it feeds off the actual violence of everyday American life.

25 years ago I remember then-president Bill Clinton pointing out that America is a far more violent country than most Americans themselves realise. These films depict the way that that everyday violence seems to have fed down into the most basic relationships in society.

Even within the close-knit groups of ‘friends’ or comrades, even within the Fantastic Four or among the X-Men or between Peter Parker and his best friend Harry, there seems to be an endless tendency to argue, arguments which swiftly escalate to bristling standoffs, then fisticuffs, and then the guns.

American rudeness and incivility

Americans, as depicted in these movies, just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other.

All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the common courtesies of life, have, in these films, disappeared from American life. Instead, young Americans, in thrall to a debased idea of slangy, ‘cool’, ‘street’ style, seem to operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being triggered.

Watching the inarticulate violence of many of the young people in these movies, the quickness with which they resort to bullying confrontations – at Peter Parker’s high school, or between the quick-tempered younger generation of mutants in the X-Men films – watching the way the ability to be calm and polite and well-mannered and to turn the other cheek has utterly disappeared from this culture; the way noone is capable of irony and nonchalance but immediately, upon the slightest disagreement, resorts to red-hot anger, to fists or, if they’re available, knives or guns – is terrifying.

Vide the first scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where some high school jock decides to flatten Scott/Cyclops for allegedly winking at his girl. I wonder if American high schools really are this unpleasantly confrontational and violent.

Nobody seems able to say ‘come off it guys, let’s go and play football’, or to make a joke to defuse the confrontation. Instead, square-jawed, buff, young Yanks seem to be constantly squaring up to each other while some skinny model is pulling the bully’s arm, wailing ‘Don’t do it, Brad.’

And rudeness is portrayed as prevalent at every level of American life. When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells the hundreds of upper-crust guests he’s invited to a glamorous ball to shove off, it is, admittedly, for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party and are threatening to blow it up) – but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies.

Almost the only person who is genuinely polite or considerate is Clark Kent and he is universally regarded as a harmless bumbling buffoon, whether played by Christoper Reeve in 1978 or  Henry Cavill in 2013.

#everydayrudeness

Screen violence

The scale of the fighting is quite staggering. I started watching these movies with my wife but she gave up along the way because she just couldn’t stomach the non-stop, stomach-churning super-violence.

If you desensitise yourself to the endless physical assaults, then it’s possible to be impressed at the skill and imagination of the fight choreographers for coming up with so any variations on what are, essentially, a small number of tropes.

My favourite is where one character seizes another by the neck and lifts them clean off the ground, generally as an interrogation technique. For example, when one of the Kryptonite baddies lifts Clark Kent’s mom simply with one hand round her throat, in Man of Steel. The camera always pans down the victim’s body to show their feet lifted clear off the ground. Wow! Ain’t he strong!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. If they’re a superbaddy, they throw the victim clear through the nearest wall.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville is more or less obliterated in his epic fight with the bad Kryptonites, and I lost count of the number of walls Superman throws them through or they throw him through, at supersonic speed.

Violence as sick humour

As the past two decades have progressed, the violence of these films has become more cruel and cynical.

When I saw the opening of The Dark Knight in the cinema I was disgusted by the nihilistic cynicism of the opening ‘joke’, namely that the gang of a dozen crooks who break into a bank have instructions to shoot dead each of their colleagues once he’s done his job. Bang bang bang, people are just shot dead at point blank range. In the olden days they’d have been tied up or knocked out. Now American crims just shoot anyone who gets in their way. And the script makes wisecracks about it. Ha ha ha.

Later, the Joker does a magic trick when he’s intimidating a roomful of crime lords. He blu-tacks a pencil to make it sticking upright on a table, and says his magic trick will be to make the pencil disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement, grabs the man’s head and baps it down into the table, the pencil entering the baddy’s eyeball and into his brain – so that when the Joker lifts the dead goon’s head and pushes his body away to collapse onto the floor, the pencil goes with it. He has made it disapear. Ta-dah! Funny, eh?

The first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies contain, I think, the most sickening violence of all the movies listed below. They don’t just ‘glamorise’ violence, they glamorise a particular type of sick, twisted, black humorous attitude towards violence.

Aware of the climate of sick, amoral, super-violence which these movies promote and revel in, it comes as no surprise to outsiders like us to read about incidents like this:

On July 20, 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire inside the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police responding to the shooting apprehended a suspect later identified as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes shortly after arriving on the scene. Initial reports stated that Holmes identified himself as ‘the Joker’ at the time of his arrest. (Wikipedia)

Does the continual, full-spectrum broadcasting of sick super-violence influence the epidemic of mass shootings in America which just seems to be getting worse and worse – or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

A  few seconds’ searching on the internet quickly tells you that:

  • a 2015 report by The Economist magazine found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985
  • there’s a Hollywood room at the National Rifle Association museum where guns used by stars like Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone are on display
  • if you’re in the gun-selling business, the best way to make a gun a best-seller is to pay to have it showcased in a big Hollywood movie

Gun crime, gun murder, gun massacres, are a big and pressing problem (for America) but whether there’s any causality between hyper-violent, super-cynical, mass murder in movies and in ‘real life’, or it’s just a coincidental correlation, as defenders of the films claim – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Kill all opposition

Admittedly, a small handful of characters preach what you could call ‘humanistic’ or even Christian values – like listening to each other, talking over problems, jaw-jaw is better than war-war or even, in wild moments, the notion of forgiving each other and moving on.

But these are momentary blips in a great ocean of violence. Instant anger between anyone who disagrees about anything quickly escalates to standoffs, insults, then punches, then knives, guns and – these days – Uzi machine guns. The extended ten-minute Uzi shootout with Yakuza mobsters in The Wolverine can stand as emblematic of a world of super-armed hyper-violence.

But the extraordinary level of armed violence is just a symptom, or surface symbol, of the deep structure of all these films, namely:

There is a good guy. There are one or more bad guys. The good guy can try to talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him. There will be encounters of growing menace and threat. But sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can lead to only one thing – an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – all talk proves to be pointless – ultimately, all you can do is exterminate the enemy.

‘There’s only one way this ends, Cal – either you die or I do.’ (General Zod in Man of Steel)

From school corridors to outer space, these multi-million dollar blockbuster movies promote the same lesson again and again and again – that talking is a waste of time, reasoned argument is waste of breath, that the only solution to even a mild conflict of opinion, is obliterating your enemy. Shoot them. Kill them all.

American high school

In these movies American high schools all look the same and appear to be populated by either stunning models or tough-guy bullies.

The rudeness, roughness, the bullying and intimidation, the lateness and sloppiness and disrespect for the teachers which is universal in these films paint a dismal picture of America’s education system.

The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker goes a long way to conveying to the detached viewer a culture of bullying and outsiderness which appears to be the seedbed for all the high school shootings that have become such a regular feature of American schools.

The movies depict a teen culture which is completely homogenous, in which everyone is a jock or a babe, drives cars, hangs out, strives to be ‘cool’ – and strongly convey that not to be part of this stiflingly conformist culture is to be lost.

The films convey such a stiflingly conformist ‘cool’ culture of jocks and babes, it comes as no surprise to learn that the real-life high school shootings are almost always carried out by the loners, the outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of ‘insiders’, the good looking handsome jocks and babes.

They may also just be deranged, with a history of mental problems, like Nikolas Cruz:

But whatever the causation, you’d have thought a culture which produces billion-dollar entertainments glamorising epic violence and psychotic mass killers might pause and reflect on the fact that its products are produced and consumed in a culture characterised – like no other culture in the world – by mass killings by psychotic killers.

Schools

In fact schools feature heavily in many of these films. The X-Men plots rotate around Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (i.e. mutants). All six Spider-Man movies rotate around the tiresome high school which Peter Parker attends.

As settings, schools have the advantage that:

  1. They relate directly to the films’ target audience – teens or those mentally in their teens
  2. They’re an excuse for lots of characters to live, work and face jeopardy in the same space
  3. There’s no need for the workaday world of jobs, work, parenting or any of the responsibilities that tie down real people and would get in the way of a lot of plot- all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc, just teenagers running round screaming ‘We have to save him’ or ‘We have to find them’

Scenes of supernatural fighting in these schools inevitably bring to mind the eight Harry Potter movies (2001 to 2011) which take advantage of many of the same features:

  • a teen audience
  • a confined space with lots of dramatic potential
  • no adult responsibilities

Adults pretending to be young and models pretending to be ordinary people

On the subject of depicting school children –

I found the two Amazing Spiderman movies insufferable because of Andrew Garfield’s stuttering, inarticulate portrayal of the central character. When he has dinner at his girlfriend’s house, he picks a fight with the parents; when he argues with his aunt in Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think it’s intended to be funny but his character comes over as inarticulate, rude and ill-mannered. He comes over as a graceless dick.

But I found a more profound problem with the films was the glaring discrepancy between the ages of the actors and the ages of the characters they’re meant to be playing.

In both Amazing Spiderman movies Parker has the same love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by actress Emma Stone. In AS1 both Parker and Stacy are meant to be 17 years old. In fact, the actress who played her, Emma Stone, was 23 and Garfield was 28. In AS2 they are both meant to be graduating from high school aged just 18, but were in fact 25 and 30, respectively.

It’s not just implausible but… a touch creepy, watching grown adults play children.

The same problem afflicts Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In this version Peter Parker is meant to be even younger (15) but the actor playing him was 20. Worse, Parker’s love interest, Liz, is played by Laura Harrier, who was 27.

27 playing 15?

Not only that, but Harrier is a model who has done a fair share of ‘glamour’ modeling i.e. wearing only her underwear or less. She has the lean, muscular body of a young woman, not a girl of 15. Maybe I’m being way too serious, too much the middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter myself, but I find it creepy that a woman who’s nearly 30 years old and has modeled half-nude, is cast as a 15-year-old in a wildly popular teen movie.

Do 15 year-old girls need to feel under any more pressure than they already do to conform to soft-porn, adult fantasies of what women should look like – impossibly skinny, half-dressed, thrusting boobs, pouting towards the male viewer? Is this helping or making things worse?

You have to trust me

In almost every movie there comes a moment where one character asks another to trust them. In the audience we’re all screaming ‘Just tell him what goddamm happened,’ but that’s not the point. They never explain. They’re always in too much of a hurry, the cops are coming, the bad guys are only seconds away. ‘You have to trust me.’

As a trope it maximises tension. Instead of non-stop chasing, it creates a kind of crux or tipping point, it creates a mini-climax. And in terms of character ‘development’, often it’s two characters who haven’t got on very well, now being forced to bond.

If movies are designed to serve up thrills and spills, this is a classic moment of tension and suspense. That said, I can’t think of a single occasion when the character didn’t trust the one asking.

  • The Gambler to Wolverine: ‘You need to trust me. We have to go.’ (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 1:34:20)
  • Quicksilver to Wolverine: ‘How do I know I can trust you?’ (X-Men: The Days of Future Past, 0:38:40)
  • Magneto to his wife: ‘I trusted you then. I need you to trust me now.’ (X-Men: Apocalypse 0:29:50)
  • Tony Stark to James Rhodes: ‘You got to trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ (Iron Man 2 0:44:00)

‘Trust’ or lack of, is the central issue coming between George Clooney’s Batman and his new sidekick Robin, in 1997’s Batman and Robin, repeated in almost all the dialogue between them.

Rogue government agencies

In how many of these kinds of movies does it turn out that there’s a secret government agency carrying out illegal experiments or a top secret scientific programme, generally to build the ultimate weapon?

The X-Files TV series was based on the idea that the government was concealing its knowledge of alien activity and – and this is the point – was prepared to go to any lengths – which meant murdering anyone – to keep it secret.

The premise of the Jason Bourne movies was that Bourne had volunteered to be turned into the supreme killing machine, a perfect assassination machine, by a top secret government programme, but had then been badly wounded and lost his memory. The entire suite of movies is dominated by the homicidal determination of the agency doing this research (Operation Treadstone) to murder anyone who stands in its way.

The backstory of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a classic example of the trope: Wolverine (original name Logan) was experimented on to create a super-human killing machine. In that movie this program progressed to develop an even more violent super-killer, X11, which becomes known as Deadpool.

Rogue corporations

‘Sir, we have a situation.’
(Line used by a flunky to the evil CEO in both Daredevil and Batman Begins)

And if it’s not a rogue government department, it’s a rogue corporation. How many of these are there?

  • Cyberdyne Systems is the private corporation which devises the technology for the Terminator robots
  • Oscorp Industries is the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation which develops the technology responsible for Spider-Man and his enemy the Green Goblin
  • It’s Von Doom Industries headed by the bullish Victor von Doom which transports four scientists to its space station to observe a mysterious power source passing close to earth and which instead gives the Fantastic Four their superpowers, while also mutating von Doom into the imaginatively named Dr Doom.
  • William Stryker appears in several of the X-Men movies running rogue programmes – In X-Men Origins: Wolverine he runs the ‘Weapon X’ project which embeds Wolverine’s body with the indestructible metal, adamantine, before going on to create an even more lethal human weapon, Weapon XI, who will go on to become known as Deadpool.
  • In Deadpool the movie, the plot is changed to that the ‘hero’ acquires his superpowers after being subjected to horrific treatments at a private facility run by ‘Ajax’.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past is centred on a rogue programme being run by scientist Bolivar Trask at his Trask Corporation to create anti-mutant robots, or ‘sentinels’.
  • In Logan the Transigen Corporation has bred a cohort of test tube children made from captured mutant DNA with a view to breeding them as weaponised soldiers, supervised by creepy ‘doctor’ Zander Rice.

Corporate-level science is depicted throughout these movies as hi-tech, evil and sadistic.

This trope is taken to a new level when the rogue corporation in question happens to be owned by the very hero of the story.

  • In Iron Man Stark Industries is taken over behind Tony Stark’s back by evil Jeff Bridges who creates a super-evil robot man.
  • In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne’s own corporation (the imaginatively titled Wayne Enterprises) is not only taken away from him by the scheming CEO but used to fund his enemies

Broadly speaking, anybody functioning above a high-school romance level of existence – whether they be lawyers, doctors, scientists or businessmen – is portrayed as wicked and corrupt. This makes sense when you reflect that the comics were always targeted at nerdy teenagers.

Heterosexual

These movies are crashingly heterosexual, in a number of ways.

1. Romances They involve lots of romances, good, clean, heterosexual romances. Half the narrative of the Spider-Man movies is made up of Peter Parker’s endlessly on-again off-again romance with Mary Jane Watson (in the Toby Maguire trilogy) or Gwen Stacy (in the couple of Amazing Spider-Man films) or Liz (in the MCU reboot). The Wolverine character falls in love with a Canadian teacher in X-Men: Origins but this can’t eclipse the strength of his love for Jean Grey, played by the unreally beautiful Famke Janssen. It is disappointing that Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Tony Stark’s secretary in the Iron Man trilogy, inevitably falls in love with him.

These movies teach that all people are heterosexual and randy, so that any man and woman working closely together will end up ‘falling in love’, or be compelled to notice each other as potential partners / sex objects. Not a good attitude, is it?

2. Marriage The Fantastic Four movies (2004, 2007) are among my favourites because they grasp from the get-go that these films have to be funny to survive (a comedic tone successfully copied in the Iron Man series). Thus the Silver Surfer movie is punctuated by the comedic attempts of the stunningly good-looking Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd to get married, the ceremony continually being interrupted by threats of the end of the world which only they can avert – and we all know how distracting that can be.

3. Models A dismaying number of modern American ‘actors’ – male and female – started their careers as models. I.e. despite all the feminism and political correctness to the contrary, looks looks looks are what count in Hollywood. ‘Acting ability’, second. As a selection from the movies I’ve watched recently.

  • Jennifer Connelly – model then actress (Hulk)
  • Nick Nolte – model then actor (Hulk)
  • Chris O’Donnell – model then actor (Batman Forever)
  • James Marsden – Versace model then actor (The X-Men)
  • Kirsten Dunst – model then actress (Spider-Man)
  • Tom Welling – model then actor (Smallville)

4. Buff The men in these movies are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to superhumanly muscular and ripped. Any other male character who gets his top off similarly displays an awesomely defined set of musculature (e.g. Christ Evans who spends half the Fantastic Four films topless in order to showcase his awesome six pack). Even supposedly 15-year-old Peter Parker in Spider-Man: The Homecoming pulls his shirt off to reveal an impressively ripped, toned, hyper-muscled, super-athlete body. Henry Cavill gets to be topless early in Man of Steel, revealing a quite awesomely ripped torso.

And then there’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor:

Bloody hell.

5. Hot The women in these movies are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them started their careers as models and many still do modeling gigs i.e. looks looks looks is what counts – the ability to be able to walk and speak at the same time, a lot less important.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s a noticeable sub-type of ‘buff’ or ‘hot’, a distinctive ‘look’ which is unusually common in these films. The actors are slightly cat-looking, with eyes far apart and cat-like.

Possibly, it’s more noticeable in the men:

It’s a look pioneered by David Keith, who came to fame in 1982’s An Officer and A Gentleman – a square face with a strong jawline and wide apart, narrow, slit-like eyes.

Of course, not all the actors in all the movies look like this – but enough of them do for it to be a noticeable trend.

And it’s even more obvious in the TV spin-offs. In the same shops where I bought second-hand superhero movies I kept seeing covers of the TV vampire series Angel (1999-2004) which starred the hunky, square-faced, lynx-eyed David Boreanaz.

Or box sets of the popular show Smallville which features model-turned-actor, moody and magnificent Tom Welling.

You don’t have to have model good looks to be a Hollywood star – but it certainly helps.

Feminism and superheroes

In this respect it’s amazing that feminists appear to support and encourage this preposterously unreal world of skinny, busty, youthful models posing as actors. I genuinely don’t understand why this image on the London Underground sparked such a storm of protest:

for being a degrading, objectifying, sexist and sexualised way of portraying women, which adds to the oppressive culture of body perfection and body shaming which afflicts so many young women (my daughter included)… and yet pretty much the same impossibly thin and airbrushed-to-perfection, sexy body shape as demonstrated by model-turned-actress, former Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman in 2017 –

was praised by feminists as ’empowering’.

Slender model in figure-hugging skimpy clothes is a) degrading b) empowering. Which?

And it’s a little mind-boggling that, in 2018, the Wikipedia articles for all of these superhero movies consistently describe the lead women in them as the ‘love interest’ of the men.

In the deep conception of these films, in their stories and characters, the men are always the focus of the narratives, the centres of strength, integrity and endurance, the only ones with characters worth undergoing crises and development.

The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even bother to have names, since their role is mostly to pout and be skinny enough to attract the hero – after a bit of resistance, to give in and kiss him – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then to be rescued by the hero leading up to the cheesy Happy Ending.

I’ve just watched Thor in which the creators probably thought they were ’empowering’ Natalie Portman’s character by making her a clever scientist who understands long words – but her actual behaviour is a rehash of any 1950s brainless dolly bird.

First, she’s portrayed as a comically useless woman driver who keeps running the hapless Thor over in her camper van. She thinks he’s weird until she catches sight of him topless, flexing his awesome musculature, at which point she is abruptly smitten like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Then, when Thor kisses her hand like a perfect gent, she realises she is in lurv with him, like a bimbo out of Clueless.

And then, when this enormous, tall, ripped gentleman turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster – she succumbs to full-on, helpless hero worship.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, in its characterisation of the breathless man-worship of the central female character, it might as well have been 1958?

The changing American accent

The American accent seems to have changed during my lifetime i.e. the past 50 years, in terms of sound and speed.

1. More gutteral The sound has become more gutteral and strangulated, making it often difficult to understand what characters are saying. Compare and contrast the full articulation of a British actor like James McAvoy, with the strangulated articulation of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, in the second trilogy of X-Men films. Younger Americans seem to create consonant sounds right at the back of the throat as if they’re swallowing them rather than projecting them outwards. It’s related to a speaking style which was identified as ‘Valley Speak’ back in the 1990s and seems to have spread, at least throughout films.

In this clip listen to the way actress Anne Hathaway moves between fully articulated voice and strangled voice at points like 2:20 (‘Don’t condescend Mr Wayne, you don’t know [and here she begins to strangle the words] a thing about me’) and 2:46 (‘Once you’ve done what you had to [switching to strangled] they’ll never let you do what you want to’).

Is it just the way movie actors and young Americans speak now? To my ear it denotes an attitude of cynicism or nihilism. She strangles her words in order to convey a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Along with a strong, exaggerated emphasis on the ‘r’ sound, this strangulated style of speaking conveys a ‘who gives a shit’ mindset, perfectly in tune with the prevailing violence and wanton destruction of the films.

2. Fast The other element of American English’s ongoing evolution, is the speed with which young Americans speak. I found it difficult to understand much of what Jennifer Lawrence (27) was saying in the X-Men films, but almost impossible to understand what Jacob Batalon (20) was saying in Spiderman The Homecoming, because he just speaks so fast.

Here are three ‘young’ actors from Spider-Man: The Homecoming trying to express themselves. My point is not about them and the interviewer coming over as idiots – which they do – and more about their manner of speaking: the speed and strangulated articulation seem to be turning American English into a new language in front of our ears.

Surely there are academic studies about the ways young American English is mutating away from its British source.

Money

Movies make a lot of money. In 2017 Hollywood’s domestic turnover was $11.1 billion, with global revenues of $39.9 billion – giving a neat total of $51 billion.

Below is a list of the most high profile superhero movies of the past twenty years, along with budget each one cost to make, and each one’s gross revenue.

Maybe fashion, in its widest sense, taking in every element of popular style, as well as hair styles and cosmetics, is the most far-reaching cultural influence on the world.

But arguably nothing has the same high-profile impact on global culture as American films. And, among films in general, these high-profile ‘blockbuster’ movies surely have the biggest reach of any films, in terms of marketing, hype, merchandising and viewers.

And they teach two fundamental lessons:

  • worship of an unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again promoting the idea that the only kind of dialogue which men with even slightly differing views can have must consist of hard-ass confrontations swiftly leading to super-violence

Superhero movies mentioned in this review

1978 Superman: The Movie ($300 million gross on a $55 million budget)

1980 Superman II ($190 million gross on a $54 million budget)
1983 Superman III ($80 million gross on a $39 million budget)
1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million gross / $17 million budget)

1989 Batman ($411 million gross / $35 million budget)
1992 Batman Returns ($267 million / $80 million)

1995 Batman Forever ($336 million / $100 million)
1997 Batman & Robin ($238 / $125 million)
1998 Blade ($131 million / $45 million budget)
1999 The Matrix ($464 million / $63 million)

2000 X-Men ($296 million / $75 million)
2002 Blade II ($155 million / $54 million)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million / $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million / $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million / $125 million)
2003 Hulk ($245 million / $147 million)

2003 The Matrix Reloaded ($742 million / $150 million)
2003 The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million / $110 million)

2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 million)
2004 Hellboy ($99 million / $66 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)
2011 Green Lantern ($219 million / $200 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 Assemble ($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 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Avengers: Infinity War

People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.)

In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on.

One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers.

There’s a copy of the letter of protest Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. This exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued for an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000.

The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011).

There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition also features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

This uncomfortable question is addressed in the final room (more accurately an alcove or bay) where a large TV screen shows a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War).

From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade another foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what?

And the protests didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

So none of the interviewees can give any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any mass protest of the past 100 years.

3. Community

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause.

For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon.

But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled for domestic consumption i.e very carefully. Wars in future:

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost them the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result was that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

From the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they always have been.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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