The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

I am a mask, concealing the real. Behind me, hidden, actuality goes on, safe from prying eyes. (Mr Tagomi, p.227)

An alternative history

The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962 in an America which lost the Second World War. Through the everyday lives and worries of a bunch of characters in San Francisco, and a couple in Colorado, Dick slowly drip feeds to the reader the story of how this alternative history came about.

Most alternative history have a ‘point of divergence’, the point where the fictional alternative branches off from actual history. Here it is the attempt of Italian immigrant Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara who, on 15 February 1933, to assassinate President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. In actual history Zangara got off five shots but missed the President; in Dick’s alternative version, Zangara shoots Roosevelt dead.

In ‘our’ history Roosevelt went on to mastermind the New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression and ensured she was ready to wage war in Europe and the Pacific after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. America’s economic and military might were decisive in beating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In Dick’s alternative universe, no Roosevelt, no New Deal, America was unprepared for war and so a) the Japanese successfully destroyed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour, going on to seize the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, and then the West Coast of America, leading up to Capitulation Day in 1947.

Meanwhile, Dick’s alternative history of the war in Europe has the Nazis seizing Malta forcing Churchill to resign (p.70). His successors are all non-entities who fail to rally Britain while the Germans a) decisively conquer North Africa before b) turning east to defeat Russia, pushing the surviving Russians far back into Asia and then c) sending a fleet across the Atlantic which conquers the Eastern United States. Due to their slow start, the Americans never develop the atom bomb, the Germans get there first and nuke Washington DC. Now the Germans run a unified Europe under German rule, Festung Europa.

As the novel opens the Japanese are smoothly administering what is now known as the P.S.A. or Pacific States of America, main city San Francisco where most of the action is set. Their rule is mostly benign, if very hierarchical based on race, so that everyone has a ‘place’, above or below everyone else: Japs at the top, Caucasians next, Mediterranean Europeans next, blacks at the bottom.

They rule with relative freedom and civilisation compared to the Eastern Seaboard, where the Nazis have implemented their anti-Jewish policies, which they have also extended into Central and Southern America. The Military Governor of the Eastern states was for a while Erwin Rommel, the victor in North Africa. It was only when he was replaced in 1949 that the full implementation of the race laws and the concentration camps kicked in.

We learn that Hitler is now a disease-raddled recluse and has been succeeded as Führer by Martin Bormann, with much gossip about the other Nazi leaders, Goebbels, Göring and so on.

One character admires the Germans’ technical know-how, exemplified by the way they have sealed and drained the Mediterranean (!), giving them a vast new area to colonise. But several characters are less keen about their attempts to solve ‘the African Problem’, which appears to have consisted in exterminating the entire black population. A high level Japanese briefing states that the Germans’ genocidal policies in Eastern Europe, and Africa, have been an economic catastrophe.

There are some readers for whom just the outlines of alternative histories are thrilling, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. It’s fairly standard procedure, but I’m still a sucker for the way the facts which I’ve summarised above, emerge in the narrative only through hints and casual references in the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. This makes the glimpses and hints of what has happened in this alternative view of world history all the more tantalising and intriguing.

The plot

So that’s the dramatic and large-scale historical background against which Dick sets his handful of more or less humdrum characters, and shares their private worries and concerns.

Robert Childan runs American Artistic Handicrafts Inc, a successful business selling senior Japanese officials authentic Americana and antiques, from Mickey Mouse watches to handguns from the Wild West. He is trying to pull off a deal with a Mr Tagomi and goes with great trepidation to his office in the Nippon Times Building. Childan has completely assimilated the Japanese idea of ‘place’, the notion that everyone knows their place in hierarchical Japanese culture. So Childan is alert to keeping the black porters in their place, trying to gain favour and place by bowing and scraping to the Japanese and so on. This assimilation of Japanese values even extends to thinking in a highly fragmented, truncated, Japanese prose style.

An appointment was made for two o’clock. Have to shut store, he knew as he hung up the phone. No choice. Have to keep goodwill of such customers; business depends on them. (p.10)

Not only Childan’s but numerous other characters think and even speak in the same truncated style. It is a bit weird but gives a verbal coherence to the book which really distinguishes it and which I enjoyed.

He held the squiggle of silver. Reflection of the midday sun, like boxtop cereal trinket, sent-away acquired Jack Armstrong magnifying mirror. Or – he gazed down into it. Om, as Brahmins say. Shrunk spot in which all is captured. Both, at least in hint. The size, the shape. He continued to inspect dutifully. (p.219)

Frank Frink is a Jew whose tour of duty in the army got him out of the East, now controlled by the Nazis. He’s been working at a factory run by a Mr Wyndam-Matson but has just been fired for speaking out of turn. But a colleague, Ed McCarthy, suggests they go into business together, manufacturing fake ‘antique’ guns. They blackmail Wyndam-Matson, threatening to expose the fact that he is himself manufacturing fake antiquities as a side activity to his ostensible metal working factory, unless he gives them $2,000. He coughs up, and the pair set up a workshop in a ramshackle basement and start producing a new style, of contemporary jewelry designs, calling the company Edfrank Productions.

Wyndam-Matson has a mistress or girlfriend who irritates him, especially when she decides to tell him at length about the novel she’s reading, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It is an alternative history whose author, H. Abendsen, speculates about what might have happened if Roosevelt hadn’t been assassinated, but had brought America out of the Depression and pursued aggressive anti-Nazi policies, such that America and Britain had won the Second World War. Nonsense, Wyndam-Matson snorts.

Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana Frink left him some while ago, and now scrapes a living as a judo teacher in the Mountain Zone between the occupied West and East coasts. We are introduced to her as she handles two lippy lorry drivers at a truck stop café. She takes one, an Italian, home to bed. Next morning she discovers he fought for the Italian army during the war and Dick uses the Italian’s wartime experiences to gives us more alternative war history, specifically about the campaign in North Africa. They both agree about how fanatical the British became as it became clear the Allies were going to lose, and about the brutality of their use of phosphorus bombs and napalm once the Germans were advancing across England.

More to the point, this guy, Joe Cinnadella, is also reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and at points in their day Juliana picks it up and reads sections which lead to further comments on whether the right side won the wear, and why. Juliana happens to know that the author of the book, Abendsen, lives in the Rocky Mountain states, somewhere in Colorado, in a heavily fortified encampment which he fancifully calls The High Castle.

The Mr Tagomi that Robert Childan is so anxious to suck up to and sell a good quality piece of Americana to, himself only wants to buy it in order to give it as a gift to, and impress, a visitor from Europe, Mr Baynes. We watch Baynes fly across the Atlantic in one of the new atomic-powered airliners, and wind up a German he gets into conversation with and who turns out to be an unrepentant anti-semitic Nazi.

As the plot proceeds we learn that Baynes is not Swedish, as he pretends to be. His name is Rudolf Wegener, he is a member of the German Abwehr, and he has been sent by a faction of the German Partei to make contact with a retired 80-year-old Japanese general, General Tedeki, former Imperial Chief of Staff, here in San Francisco. Lots of heavy hints are dropped but it’s only at page 190 of this 250-page novel that we find out why.

In the office of Mr Tagomi, Baynes/Wegener reveals to General Tedeki that the German Wehrmacht are planning to create an ‘incident’ in the neutral zone of America, which will lead German forces to intervene, and which will be carefully arranged to draw the Japanese in, escalating diplomatic tension and then – the Wehrmacht are planning a sudden nuclear attack on the Japanese Home Island which will wipe them out. This top secret plan is named Operation Dandelion.

Barely has Wegener handed over a cigarette case full of microfilms proving his assertions when Mr Tagomi’s secretary rings up to announce that a number of Nazi goons are in the lobby throwing their weight around and demanding to be let up to Tagomi’s office. They have come to arrest Wegener. He gave himself away when he made contact with an Abwehr agent in a department store, who was being watched by the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst or SS.

To grasp this plotline it helps to understand that right from the start the Nazi state was divided into mutually loathing sections or departments, which competed and jostled with each other. The Wehrmacht is the army, the Abwehr which Wegener works for is the intelligence service, and the SS is staffed by psychopaths and sadists.

  • Dick has extrapolated the historical tensions which we know about from the history books, on for another 17 years after the end of the war, an intellectually interesting exercise
  • and dramatised these tensions, so that
  • we are witness to the contrasting attitudes of different Nazi officials, often deeply distrustful of each other
  • and, a t a higher level, as it were, we frequently overhear Japanese and American characters expressing their contempt for the endless internecine feuding of the unstable Nazi regime

This is where Freiherr Hugo Reiss, the Reichs Consul in San Francisco, comes in. He cordially dislikes his opposite number in the SS, Kreuz vom Meere, an officious thug. It is vom Meere who is overseeing the trailing and entrapment of Wegener. When he asks for co-operation, Reiss is inclined to delay and obfuscate. Until, that is, he receives a direct personal call from the new Head of the Partei, Kanzler Josef Goebbels. Who orders him to give full co-operation to the SS in the case of Wegener. Jawohl, mein Führer. He puts the phone down, shaking, while vom Meere watches with a brutal smile on his face.

This is the background to the armed goons who come to Mr Tagomi’s office to arrest him. However, they hadn’t bargained with Japanese pride, and in particular with Mr Tagomi’s fondness for authentic American antiques. Now that strand of the plot, which had been introduced right back at the start in Robert Childan’s antiques emporium, comes into play. Mr Tagomi takes an authentic Wild West Colt .44 out of his desk and points it at the door, with the evident approval of General Tedeki. When the SS men smash the door open and saunter towards Wegener, Tagomi shoots them both down. There will be consequences, but this is Japanese territory, so what precisely they will be…

Meanwhile, the scenes with Juliana Frink and her Italian lover, Joe Cinnadella, move on in counterpoint to the San Francisco scenes. First he accidentally on purpose misses the truck he was meant to be part-driving, which leaves without him. Then he suggests they drive to the nearest city, Denver, so he can show his new girl a good time. It’s on the way, in the car (her car), while he’s driving, that Juliana insists on reading out long excerpts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which leads to them discussing the national characteristics of the Italians, Germans, Russians, Americans and Japanese. In fact, suddenly and spontaneously she suggests that they drive on the hundred miles or so to the author’s supposed ‘castle’ redoubt up in the hills. Sure, says Joe, after we’ve had a good time in Denver.

But in Denver things turn bad. Joe has a haircut which reduces his hair to a close crop, and has it dyed blonde. He takes Juliana shopping but in a focused mechanical way. He makes sure she buys a low-cut blue dress and half-cup bra. They check into a swanky hotel and she is looking forward to a night on the town, when Joe brutally announces that they are going to dine early, then leave for the High Castle.

Finally, it dawns on Juliana that Joe is not Italian at all. He had been wearing a black hairpiece. He didn’t have a haircut, he simply removed the wig to reveal his blonde Aryan haircut. He is a German agent. He has been sent with a wad of cash to do whatever it takes to assassinate the author of the anti-German novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘So why do you need me?’ Juliana whines pitifully. Because this Abendsen guy has a fondness for sexy black-haired Mediterranean types. Like Juliana. Hence the low cut dress. They’ll get invited in. Abendsen will be attracted to Juliana, while Joe does his dirty work.

Back in San Francisco, someone has reported that Frank is a Jew. He’s having a smoke on the sidewalk outside their workshop when white cops arrest him, take him downtown, confirm that he’s a Jew, and tell him he’s going to be shipped out to the Nazi East Coast.

Probably the biggest event – the one which unifies all the characters in speculating about it – is the death of Martin Bormann, the current Führer. Characters speculate on who will succeed him, with Mr Tagomi’s superiors holding an interesting briefing at which an official runs through the possible successors – including Goring, Heydrich, Goebbels and so on- giving fictitious biographies for what they’ve been doing since the war ended in 1947. For those of us who like actual history, alternative histories like this are always interesting because of the way they shed fresh light and different perspectives on what actually happened.

So:

  • will Wegener and Tedeki escape alive from Mr Tagomi’s office?
  • will Tedeki manage to get the message about Operation Dandelion back to his superiors in time for them to approach the relevant sections of the German state in order to get Operation Dandelion called off?
  • will Frank Frink be deported back to the east Coast and gassed by the Nazis?
  • and will Juliana and Joe find the High Castle of this Abendsen guy, manage to get admission, and murder him?

Madness

In fact, what happens is several of the characters have nervous breakdowns. In response to being told she is being so comprehensively used as cover in an assassination attempt Juliana has a florid breakdown, asking for pills, delirious, getting into the shower fully dressed, stabbing Joe in the neck with a razor blade and wandering down the hotel corridor stark naked, until hustled back to her room by a maid.

Similarly, Mr Tagomi, the day after the unpleasantness in his office, wanders the streets of San Francisco in a daze, fetching up at Robert Childan’s emporium, who rather forcefully sells him one of the new piece of jewelry, which Tagomi takes to a park bench and tries to get to reveal its secrets, shaking it, threatening it, shouting at it, begging it to open the door of the meaning of life.

All the way through the book Robert Childan is on the edge of sweaty-palmed panic. And he only needs to be reminded that he’s a Jew for Frank Frink to fall into a funk of fear, justifiably so, as it turns out.

This is the ground bass of Dick’s fiction. Characters live with gnawing anxiety which sooner or later blooms into goes madness, nervous breakdown, hallucinations. His texts deal you plots and characters but, like an alcoholic sizing up every room for its stash of booze, is constantly manoeuvring the reader to a place where he can let rip with pages of delirious, drug-fuelled, nervous breakdown prose, delirium, bewilderment, hallucinations, confusion, hysteria.

I wish I understood, he said to himself as he moved along the busy evening sidewalk, by the neon signs, the blaring bar doorways of Grant Avenue. I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would. Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving. (p.232)

Ideas and issues

All the characters are considerably more self-aware, given to long intense internal monologues or to lengthy thoughtful conversations, than most people I’ve met in my life. Much of their thoughts and dialogue is devoted to ideas. They are all much more interested in history than most people I’ve ever met, which is fortunate for it allows Dick, through their conversations, to pass along all kinds of backstory information about the course of events of the previous 15 years or so.

It is a very self-aware book. Dick makes it clear to us he knows what he’s doing, and his lead characters are also painfully self-aware at almost all moments.

Is alternative history a type of science fiction?

Being the very self-aware novelist that he is, Dick has two of his characters debate this very question. When he is invited to dinner with Paul and Betty Kasouras, the trio end up discussing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (in the clipped verbless style which dominates so much of the text):

‘Not a mystery,’ Paul said. ‘On contrary, interesting form of fiction possible within the genre of science fiction.’
‘Oh no,’ Betty disagreed. ‘No science in it. Not set in future. Science fiction deals with future., in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.’
‘But,’ said Paul, ‘it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.’ (p.109)

There’s plenty of alternative history fiction in the world.

Whether some, all, or any of it qualifies as science fiction is a topic for a different essay.

Alternative histories within the story

Given that the main story is set in an alternative universe, and that half the characters in it are reading a book which gives a further alternative history, the novel thus contains or navigates no fewer than three realities:

  1. ‘real’ history – the one we’re living through
  2. the alternative history of the novel
  3. the alternative alternative history described at some length by H. Abendsen

These three realities curl and intertwine throughout the text, a little like a piece of classical music, with its main theme, secondary theme, and variations on both, reappearing throughout like silver threads. Or, alternatively, like the person standing between two parallel mirrors who sees their reflections stretching into infinity in both directions.

Secrets and lies are a central theme. Or truth and falsehood. Or reality and fantasy. At one point Baynes / Wegener reflects:

Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. but the broad masses… what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth? (p.45)

Which sums up the broad streak of paranoia which runs throughout Dick’s work – that’s if you take his work very seriously. Or, if you are a tad more critical of his troubled worldview – this kind of thing (‘Look at me, see how I suffer, see how special I am!’) could be interpreted as the adolescent sense that I know this is all fake, but what of all the other poor ‘normals’? Immature.

Similarly, Dick and his characters are well aware of the power of fiction to lie and distort. Since almost every character seems to be reading H. Abendsen’s book, quite a few have extended dialogues or thought monologues about the uncanny power of fiction to create its own realities. These could be quoted to form the basis of a disquisition about fiction and fictions but… don’t we already know that? Isn’t that why people buy airport novels, so they can be completely transported on long haul flights or lying by the pool?

If you were an earnest literary type you could work this insight up into a profound discussion of the nature of fiction. Except it is a nature that pretty much everyone who’s ever read a novel is well aware of.

Childan and Kasoura, America and Japan

A prolonged thread is Childan’s on-again, off-again business relationship with a potential pair of Japanese clients, high-place Mr and Mrs Kasoura. He offers them a high value gift,in response to which they invite him to dinner, a scene which is a prolonged tour de force, describing with minute subtlety the wavering atmosphere and tone of the inscrutable orientals, as Childan desperately tries to be polite and submissive. His problems reach a kind of climax when he presents Mr Kasoura with an example of Edfrank’s new, modern, contemporary jewelry.

(In a painful earlier scene we had watched Frank Frink’s shambling, lanky partner, Ed, try to sell some of their new jewelry to Childan, and Childan’s deliberate humiliation of the salesman: here, as in every other aspect of his life, Childan is keen to maintain his place.)

In this ten-page scene (pp.168-179) Childan goes to visit Mr Kasoura at his office, to ask how his wife liked the new contemporary piece he had given him. Kasoura brings the piece from his deskdrawer and reveals that he never passed it on to his wife. He showed it tovarious colleagues who alllaughed at it for being a shapeless blob of metal. Childan feels justifiably humiliated. But then, Kasoura continues, he found himself becoming beguiled by it, attracted to its very formlessness and lack of design. After pondering why, he has come to the conclusion that is contains wu. At which Childan racks his brains to try and remember what the hell wu is. Is it even a Japanese quality or something else they’ve ripped off from the Chinese?

But, Kasoura continues, when he tried to explain this quality to his superiors, they still dismissed it but came up with a suggestion. The general population of South America is still mostly peasant, and they like good luck charms. One of Kasoura’s superiors has contacts with a man who manufactures and ships trinkets to South America by the tens of thousands. This piece might be a model for a new line of good luck charms and trinkets?

Dick is very careful to have Kasoura explain all this as if he himself is aloof and above mere business considerations. Childan, struggling to keep an absolute straight face throughout, suddenly realises he is being humiliated. Doubly humiliated. Not only did Kasoura start the conversation by saying the piece was junk. But then, having withdrawn that a little with the introduction of the concept of wu, has travelled all the way round to a new level of humilation, this time suggesting that not only is the piece junk, but that it would be appropriate for Childan to take part in an enterprise to mass produce and sell junk.

Childan is flooded with mortification and humiliation and begins to make his departure, promising to take up the contact Mr Kasoura has suggested. Does he read contempt in Kasoura’s eyes? Or professional satisfaction? Or lofty disdain for the whole business?

Suddenly his soul revolts at the endless kow-towing and abasement he has to go through and Childan decides to stand up for his country, its artists and manufactures. Abruptly he changes stance and demands an apology from Mr Kasoura. There is a very long silence as both men stand stock still. Then, very slowly, Mr Kasoura apologises. They shake hands. What expression is in his eyes? Even now, Childan doesn’t know. He leaves Kasoura’s office with a shattering sense that he has no idea what just happened. Did he just throw away the business opportunity of his life? Or did he just proudly stand up for American craftsmanship? Was he tricked into making a foolish decision? Or has he just shown a Jap what spine and character mean? Does Mr Kasoura now respect him? Or despise him even more?

I thought this was a really brilliantly calibrated scene, and more than some of the more obviously thriller-ish moments, really drove home Dick’s central theme of anxiety and disorientation.

The I Ching

Several characters – Frank Frink and Mr Tagomi and Juliana – use the I Ching methodology to make decisions, and Dick explains it at some length – the sorting of the forty-nine yarrow sticks whose shape or number indicates a hexagram, which then has to be looked up in The Book of Changes, which then gives a very oblique analysis of your current situation, and obscure advice on what to do next.

I found this whole theme of the book pretty boring, except insofar as it dramatised the intense anxiety of several of the key characters (Childan, Tagomi). They might as well have been examining the innards of chickens or reading patterns in tea leaves or consulting the stars.

Obviously its inclusion adds to the Japanese and generally oriental flavour of much of the prose and subject matter. More interesting, for me, was the several conversations the antique salesman Robert Childan has with Japanese customers. In these Dick very effectively dramatises the vast gap between Anglo-Saxon common sense and the ultra-fastidious and refined tastes and manners of the Japanese.

Finally, Juliana arrives at the Abendsen house which she finds is a perfectly normal suburban stucco-fronted place, with a little drinks party going on. She confronts Abendsen and in particular accuses him of using the I Ching throughout. Eventually he confesses that at every point, the choice of subject matter, characters, plots and development he consulted the oracle extensively.

Juliana then insists on asking for Abendsen’s I Ching equipment and asks the oracle whether The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is true. The oracle says it is.

think what this means is Juliana, Abendsen and his wife all realise that the oracle is communicating to them from an alternative universe, from our universe – and that it has told them what really happened. In other words, the characters know that they are in an alternative, and secondary universe.

What’s odd, in the book, is how calmly everyone takes this, this interpenetration of realities. Juliana walks back to her car and the Abendsens get on with their drinks party, so calmly that I wondered if I’d completely misunderstood the ending.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

Other fictional alternative histories

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe
  • SSGB by Len Deighton (1978) – the Germans conquered England in 1940 and now, amid the ruins of London, Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer tries to solve a murder which leads him to a massive conspiracy
  • Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) – it is 1964, Nazi Germany won the Second World War, and in Berlin detective Xavier March investigates a murder which leads him to uncover the horrific fact at the heart of the German Empire

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel moves to England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twist

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


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Other posts about American history

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé

Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).

Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.

As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:

Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako

Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party

Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
  3. They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.

These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.

African tracks

Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.

This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.

And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.

Related links

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Part one – the conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swearing instead of analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is like this for page after page.

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

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

The deal

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

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

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

Salvo is disillusioned

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

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

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

Part two – back in London

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

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

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

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

Baptiste

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

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

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

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

Thorne the Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climax

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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


Blustering explanations

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

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

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

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


Appalling style

The poshest African

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

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

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

Our

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England versus America

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

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

Juggernaut by Desmond Bagley (1985)

I strolled in the night air over to the rig and stood looking up at the great slab of the transformer. Over one million pounds’ worth of material was being trundled precariously through Africa by a company on the verge of going bankrupt, with a civil war possibly about to erupt in its path, and what the hell was I going to do about it? (p.64)

This is the second of the two novels left in manuscript form at Bagley’s untimely death in 1983, and completed and published with the help of his wife, Joan.

Neil Mannix

It’s a pacey first-person action adventure told by Neil Mannix, an American troubleshooter working for big multinational corporation British Electric. BE have the contract to build a massive power station in the northern, desert region of the (fictional) west African country, Nyala. The first of the vast transformers involved in the build is already being shipped out there, and scheduled to be transported from the docks to the northern destination by the sub-contracting haulage firm, Wyvern Haulage.The flat-bed transporter will be pulled very slowly by three trucks accompanied by supply lorries and cars – quite a convoy. In addition the Nyalan government has tasked a platoon of soldiers in jeeps and lorries, led by a Captain Sadiq to guard it.

Mannix’s job is to cover every aspect of a multi-million pound operation like this, gauging risk and anticipating problems. As the operation gets under way, he discovers this is the haulage company’s first job – though the individual truckers are very experienced, they’ve only just formed the company; and it quickly becomes plain there are problems with the quality of maps, roads and bridges on into the remote desert region where the station is to be built. So a bit of worry…

Civil war

But all this is eclipsed when the political tensions Mannix has also got wind of suddenly erupt into full scale civil war, with the Nyalan air force attacking sections of the army and our heroes (Mannix, the 20 or so riggers and drivers and the 50 or so Nyalan troops) find themselves smack in the middle.

If this was a Frederick Forsyth novel we would be given a panoptic, God-like overview of events, with successive chapters taking us into the presence of the leaders of the coup, the head of the government and army, and a clinical analysis of the power politics involved. If it was a classic Alistair MacLean there would be an enemy agent in among the crew, and a big, game-changing surprise half-way through.

But this old-fashioned novel is a more straightforward adventure in the tradition of Hammond Innes: a competent but fairly ordinary guy is thrust into a perilous situation and has to cope with a series of crises which unfold with no higher scheme or rationale.

Thus almost immediately radio contact is lost with the outside world and Mannix is left in charge of the transporter and crew with no idea what’s going on. The result is a series of chaotic events: the town they are slowly heading towards, Kodowa, is heavily bombed by the Nyalan Air Force. When they arrive they find it on fire with plenty of dead and dying scattered around. A light airplane, damaged by army fire, crash lands in the scrub not far away and turns out to contain Wingstead, the head of the haulage firm who had been determined to fly up to be with his team, though his pilot Max Otterman, is badly injured in the crash.

They make camp just outside Kodowa and are astonished when a nun blunders into their camp, revealing that not far away is a hospital swamped with casualties. They drive the transporter over to the building so that its generator can supply power and their fridge be used to store medicine, but it is not a long-term solution for either party.

A mobile hospital

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the nun and black doctor in charge say there’s another hospital 50 miles north – along the route the transporter is taking anyway – could the rig itself and the accompanying tractors and trucks carry the hospital’s 100 patients and nurses and supplies to it? After a hurried conference our guys say yes and so the sick and dying are arranged over the transporter, tractors, lorries, cars etc and the now rather odd-looking convoy slowly lumbers off north. Only to discover the once remaining bridge between them and the northern hospital has been bombed and the river is impassable.

More discussions and they decide to turn south back to the bombed-out town and then west back into the edge of the jungle towards a fork on the big local river which forms the border with the neighbouring country. For two reasons: The village there has cotton warehouses which could be converted into some kind of building for the sick; our crew would then have the option of getting across the river and eventually being repatriated to Blighty.

Characters and confrontations

Unlike Night of Error there’s quite a large cast of characters, maybe 40 named people, who are initially a little hard to keep track of, but certain key players emerge. Mannix develops tremendous respect for the captain in charge of the Nyalan army unit assigned to protect them, Captain Sadiq; for the black hospital doctor, Dr Katabisirua (‘a man dedicated and inspired’ p.306), and for the tough-minded nun, Sister Ursula, who is assisting him.

He learns which of the dozen or so crew he can trust and which are twisters. Five crew rebel against Mannix’s decisions and leadership and, after harsh words, are sacked and told to make their own way to freedom. They leave after stealing some supplies but the next day four come crawling back. One returnee takes Mannix aside to tell him that the tough Irishman, McGrath, tracked them down, harangued them to return and, when the dissident ringleader refused, shot him dead on the spot. Mannix confronts McGrath about it and after some shouting, decides uneasily it’s better to have him working for the team than against.

Some oil riggers – two Americans, some Russians, a French – isolated by the bombed town and blown-up bridge attach themselves to the convoy. Mannix is forced to confront one of them, the angry and violent Russ Burns. In a showdown scene the two are squaring up for a fight in front of the rest of the men when McGrath appears out of nowhere, pushes Burns back against the transporter and starts to cut his throat until Burns swears allegiance to Mannix. Mannix has mixed feelings: McGrath is dangerous; but it’s very handy having him as his enforcer.

Juggernaut

All the time they are managing the slow (ten miles an hour or less) progress of the transporter covered with about 100 sick patients in makeshift beds under makeshift awnings, and slowly this begins to have a strange effect. In the background the bush telegraph circulates among the natives rumours of the giant lorry with a vast load, covered in sick people and white magicians performing healing and curing; and gradually the team acquires a following of blacks, of poor, homeless men, women and children who accompany the convoy on its tortuous route, stopping and camping when they camp, waking and moving on when they do.

The transporter comes to acquire a kind of magical importance, not only for the natives, but even for Mannix and his team: it becomes a psychological fetish, a symbol that will see them safe through the harrowing chaos of civil war. As one of the characters points out, rather like one of the big wheeled carts of the Indian god Juggernaut (Jagannath), under which his crazed devotees threw themselves to be crushed to death.

The rebels

The civil war finally catches up with them and the convoy is seized by rebel army forces. About fifty men and two Saracen armoured cars led by a callous Colonel Maksa – the kind of African soldier who wears enormous shades and enjoys intimidating people. Just before their arrival Captain Sadiq and his men withdraw silently into the jungle and Mannix tells his people to act innocent as the rebels enter the camp. Despite this the soldiers aggressively round everyone up into the cotton warehouse, bullying and poking the sick on the transporter – we later learn they kick to death Max the wounded pilot. They are brutal. It is scary. Mannix notices McGrath has managed to elude the round-up.

Colonel Maksa wants to know where Sadiq and his men are, and questions each one of the crew in turn. When the argumentative Russ Burns foolishly says he won’t be pushed about by some goddam rebel, Maksa simply shoots his head off. A nun faints, one of his crew throws up, Mannix is petrified with fear. At that moment McGrath appears, shoots Maksa and, in the confusion, the only soldier accompanying Maksa inside the warehouse is overpowered and knocked unconscious.

Now McGrath comes into his own, planning how they’ll lure the remaining officers into the warehouse by pretending to be Maksa, and take them out one by one. Then they’ll fan out across the compound to take on the soldiers, while he and one of the crew take one of the tractors (whose back panels are made of steel and concrete to give them ballast, making them more effective at pulling the transporter) and drive it backwards towards the remaining Saracen holding the small nearby bridge.

McGrath had liaised with Sadiq so that at an arranged signal Sadiq’s men will begin lobbing mortars and firing into the rebel troops. And this is what happens – though it turns out more confused and chaotic than it sounds, with both sides firing wildly and mortars going off all over the place. But McGrath does manage to ram the 10 ton Saracen with the 40 ton towing tractor, Sadiq’s mortar and gunfire decimates the rebel soldiers who, deprived of any officers (lying unconscious and trussed up in the warehouse) turn tail and run across the bridge and off west.

In the morning our guys bury the dead – soldiers, three of our crew, some of the African patients, the murdered pilot. Then they hook up the damn transporter, tend to the patients still positioned all over it and in the lorries, and set off at the customary crawl along the road west, towards the river and the border followed, as usual, by the crowds of native worshippers. These had melted into the forest when the soldiers came; now they reappear to worship their god, Juggernaut.

About page 240 of this 320-page book the bizarre caravanserai finally arrives at the junction of rivers, so wide it looks like a lake. Mannix and the other leaders discuss with some locals the best way to cross into the neighbouring country. They think their troubles are over…

The raft

They aren’t. Turns out the official ferry is a few miles downriver and in the hands of the rebels. The road they’ve followed leads down to a primitive pontoon at the riverside. Back along the way is a general store run by a scared local who tells them about the nearby dumps of old oil cans, tyres, bits and bobs, along with a repair shop for fixing the pontoon and boats which run from it.

Sizing up all the resources, Mannix gets excited: with boyish enthusiasm he sketches out to his audience of truckers, riggers, mechanics, electricians and fixers how they could probably create a raft from the drums, rope, and planks and use it to seize the proper ferry by attacking at night from the river. Once secured, the ferry could take the crew and all the patients across the wide river to freedom. What, about it lads? Shall we give it a go? They say yes and set about designing and building a raft and the text is full of details about the design, buoyancy calculations, raw materials, fitting and shaping and hammering and roping together which are involved.

Men working together as a team. Male camaraderie. Problems arise, are discussed and solved; relevant experts make suggestions and improvements to what turns into a production line. Technical specifications, tools, processes for building and assembling. The text conveys the simple warm feeling of men working together on a technical task…

Manliness

Most novels feature novelists, writers, journalists and associated soft trades. But this adventure yarn features ‘real men’: Mannix is an action man, his job to sort out everything that can happen on dangerous and demanding assignments in extreme environments and the men he’s working with are tougher than him, physically and mentally – truckers, oil riggers, soldiers, good at fixing and repairing heavy machinery, able to look after themselves in a fight.

When the crisis strikes Mannix appoints himself top dog and has no hesitation confronting the rebel soldiers, stroppy civilians, and beating down claimants to his throne among his crew. He is very much the alpha male, as the big confrontations with McGrath and Burns and sundry smaller fry continually affirm.

From one point of view it is like a wildlife documentary about a pack of lions or other big predators: only by continually facing down his rivals can the alpha male establish and keep his position. Seen this way the narrative has almost zoological or anthropological interest.

Key among all these rivalries is the ambiguous relationship which grows between him and McGrath, ‘the odd, unwanted rapport that I sometimes felt between us…’ (p.259), ‘the common thread that sometimes linked our thoughts and actions’ (p.292).

The latter is clearly no ordinary trucker and, in his several confrontations with this laconic and violent man, it dawns on Mannix that the Irishman is on the run from ‘the Troubles’, probably a former member of the IRA. Certainly his fearlessness allows McGrath to take complete control during the firefight with the rebels, though (sardonically) acknowledging Mannix’s ultimate authority. His plan and his fearlessness win the day – but leaving Mannix to wonder how and when McGrath will finally rebel, and whether a violent confrontation with this scary man can be avoided…

It dawned on me that Mannix’s respect for McGrath’s total ability but fear of his amorality has a Freudian or psychological aspect: McGrath is Mannix’s id, the unstoppable, amoral, super-violent man Mannix could become, or deep down, is; and on the other side is his superego, the quiet capable figure of the African doctor, Dr Katabisirua, avoiding all conflict, superhumanly committed to his patients. But it’s the Mannix-McGrath dynamic and its strange ambivalence which drives the book:

Despite myself I felt a nagging touch of understanding of McGrath and his ruthlessness. He’d manoeuvred us into doing the one thing he knew best; fighting and killing. He’d done it all for the most selfish of reasons, and without compunction. And yet he was brave, efficient and vital to our cause… I would never know if he had killed Ron Jones, but the worst of it, and the thing that filled me with contempt for myself as well as for him, was that I didn’t care. I prayed that I wouldn’t become any more like him. (p.233)

In fact McGrath embodies the manly virtues of total efficiency in the name of killing, maiming and triumphing over rivals, which are vital to humans to survive situations of war and chaos – but must be risen above, expunged and repressed, if the hero is to return to ‘civilised’ society.

McGrath was a maverick, intelligent, sound in military thinking and utterly without fear. I felt that he might be a useful man to have about in a war, but perhaps on the first day of peace he ought to be shot without mercy… (p.233)

Death of the juggernaut

Our boys finish making a raft big enough to carry a lorry – the one belonging to the French man they picked up outside Kodowa – which has a load of gelignite aboard. In the dead of night they float the raft down to the ferry station, approaching from the river and taking the (it turns out) handful of disorganised rebels by surprise, driving them off and seizing control. They free the pilots of the ferry from their makeshift prison in a shed, and over the next few hours bring the enormous transporter-cum-hospital lumbering round by road from its hiding place, along with its crowd of devotees.

For the next few hours they load onto the ferry all the patients, the nuns and nurses and doctors and supplies, and watch it set off on the several mile journey across this wide wide stretch of African river to the free country on the other side. It’s at this moment that another group of rebel soldiers attack, shooting mortars and firing guns at the ferry though, mercifully, it is just out of range.

But they capture Mannix and our boys and overpower Sadiq and his men. How are they going to get out of this one? It’s at this moment that the unstoppable Principle of Action McGrath appears behind the wheel of the gelignite lorry, driving it off the ferry and through the mass of confused soldiers, while Mannix and others attack and overpower the rebel officers. Up through the shooting soldiers McGrath drives to the edge of the road overlooking the ferry point where the transporter is parked and where the lorry explodes. The blast fatally undermines the poor local road which gives way and the enormous transporter with its vast transformer slowly tips sideways and then comes tumbling, rolling over and over downhill onto the panicking soldiers, crushing them to a pulp, just like the original Juggernaut, the angry god of vengeance, crushes his devotees in his native India.

As the dust settles Mannix realises he and most of his crew are alive; most of the rebel soldiers are dead, as is their leader. And McGrath himself, the spirit of Total Violence which must be exploited but then dismissed before Civilisation can recommence, is also obliterated.

Before the big ferry set sail its pilots showed off their toy, a six-wheel amphibious truck or DUKW. Mannix rounds up all the survivors into the DUKW and they set off across the river to freedom.


Common decency

This unreconstructed, unquestioning attitude to masculinity has a dated, not unpleasantly old fashioned feel.

But maybe the biggest thing which sets it apart from more modern thrillers is the simple acceptance of the notion of decency among the male leads. Mannix beats up Russ for referring to the natives as ‘niggers’ and bans all insulting language. He and the haulage boss, Wingstead, unquestioningly go to the  aid of the hospital, put their supplies, food and fridge at the disposal of the local doctor: race doesn’t enter the picture, there is an obvious humanitarian need and these men unhesitatingly go to help.

More modern thrillers (books and movies) revel in the way these moral values have collapsed, enjoy describing the most cynical betrayals possible, celebrate treachery, corruption, decadence, unpleasantness and evil. The terrifying 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria during a coup, portrays rape, torture and dismemberment. What makes Juggernaut, set in a similar situation, feel so old fashioned is – despite some of the awful scenes it depicts – the fundamental decency and moral innocence of its lead figures.

Map

A lot of time in the text is spent discussing the options of where the convoy should go next, north, west, to which town, crossing which rivers etc. I appreciate Nyala is a fictional country but a map would have been good.

Novels about African coups

  • A Man of The People (1966) by Chinua Achebe ends with a coup
  • The Dogs of War (1974) by Frederick Forsyth
  • The Coup by (1978) John Updike

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.

Plot

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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