The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse edited by Valentine Cunningham (1980)

Val Cunningham was a tutor of mine at Oxford. He had a trainspotter’s enthusiasm for the poetry and prose of the 1930s and an encyclopedic knowledge of the journals, magazines, pamphlets, plays and poems and books written during and about the era, as well as an endless fascination with the letters and diaries and other texts which relate to them.

This enthusiasm comes over powerfully in this anthology which is huge and detailed and cluttered with editorial apparatus, including a preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, and three indexes, of authors, titles and first lines.

The ‘notes’ are, disappointingly, mostly lists of textual variants i.e. highlighting where words or phrases of a poem were different in different magazine or book versions, for example that in line 4 of Herbert Read’s Bombing casualties in Spain, ‘spatter’d’ was later changed to ‘spattered’. Fair enough, for scholarly completeness.

But God, it would have been so much better if he’d given useful factual notes about the myriads of place names and events which are mentioned in the poems and which, unannotated, have sunk into oblivion – a massive opportunity missed. For example, when Radio Burgos is mentioned in one poem (p.292) we have to guess from the context or look up on the internet to find that it was the leading propaganda station of the Nationalists. There are hundreds of occasions when decent notes would have helped the reader’s understanding and enjoyment significantly.

Preface

Cunningham claims his anthology is the first one ever to bring together all the worthwhile poems about the Spanish Civil War by British and Irish poets along with ‘supporting prose’ i.e. (some) letters, diary entries, essays and reviews. It is also a first in including quite a few translations, specially from the Spanish genre of the romancero, as well as dozens of new poems he’s dug up out of the dusty archives of, for example, the International Brigades of British communists who went and volunteered to fight in Spain.

As well as bringing to the fore ‘unfairly ignored’ poets such as Charles Donnelly, Ewart Milne, Clive Branson, Tom Wintringham and Miles Tomalin, Cunningham also wants to share his surprise at just how much Stephen Spender wrote about the conflict, in his ‘serious and sensitive, often anguished, always would-be honest’ way (p.17). Spender is represented by some 27 poems and translations, far more than anyone else (Auden 2, MacNeice 1).

Cunningham is not backward in mentioning the number of ‘personal correspondences’ he’s had with survivors of the era, who have ‘personally’ explained various events or works, or ‘kindly given permission’ for previously unpublished works to be included.

For example, he includes a passage from the Mass Declamation (i.e. a work written to be declaimed by a theatrical troupe) On Guard! sent to him by the work’s author Jack Lindsay. He mentions a letter to him which the poet Ewart Milne explains how the mood of the volunteers changed as promising writers started getting themselves killed.

The word ‘me’ occurs more often than you’d expect in a literary introduction.

Introduction

This is a weighty piece of writing, at 67 densely-written pages but, despite being packed full of facts and names and quotes and references to scores of books of memoirs and diaries and letters, it’s hard to make out any real ideas.

I think the first part addresses the ‘myth’ that the Spanish Civil War was a ‘poets’ war’ but you have to ask who would ever believe that in the first place. Only English students or fans of the poetry, presumably. Most other people surely think the Spanish Civil War was fought between the Spanish for reasons to do with Spanish history, culture and politics and that 99% of the casualties were Spanish.

Cunningham gives no explanation of the background or trigger for the war, no political analysis, nothing about Spanish history. Instead the introduction cuts straight to the response among the English, London-based literati and dives into a dense undergrowth of memoirs and memories and the literary and political arguments of the time.

We hear about the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the Communist Party of Great Britain. We read about its general secretary Harry Pollitt’s (apocryphal) advice to various leading writers, notably Stephen Spender, to go to straight to the front and get themselves killed – ‘the movement needs a Byron!’

In a roundabout way (i.e. they’re not the main focus) we learn some facts: that some 2,762 Britons volunteered and fought, of whom about 80% were working class (who on earth worked that out?), and 543 were killed. One of the really big features of the anthology is the number of poems by ‘amateurs’ who actually fought in the war and whose works are buried in fading copies of the Daily Worker or, in this case, the short-lived magazine Poetry and the People.

They had no country but the hope of a new country.
They answered the secret radio in their hearts.
From the factories, fields and workshops of all nations,
From the millions shackled by greed, made less than human…

(from International Brigade by R. Gardner)

The first English volunteer to be killed was the Communist Party member, the painter Felicia Browne. Some of the earliest volunteers were in Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, which was intended as a protest against the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Germany.

John Cornford, later lionised for his commitment, actually fought in both his spells in Spain, for the POUM, the Anarchist militia who the Communists later suppressed during the violent May Days in Barcelona. Cunningham highlights the contortions the Communist party’s official organ, the Daily Worker had to go through in order to explain this embarrassing fact (he was young and naive, the POUM had not yet revealed itself in its Trotskyite, splittist nature etc).

Cunningham quotes from the article Spender wrote when he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain with great fanfare in February 1937 and examines in detail its textual provenance and tries to nail down exactly how long Spender was a member for (I hadn’t realised it was notoriously ‘brief’ period, a few months at most). Next to this Cunningham puts the passage from The God That Failed, published ten years later (1949), where Spender admits that both the urge to fight in Spain and to ‘unite’ with the workers were driven by personal doubts and anxieties. He was driven on:

by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.

Cunningham has an entertaining passage on the questionnaire part-drafted by Auden and sent to 150 or so of the most eminent artists, writers & intellectuals in free i.e. non-fascist Europe, asking them which side they were on, because it was ‘impossible’ not to take sides now that fascism was knocking at the door. I’ve always admired Evelyn Waugh’s response, which was to say that suggesting there were only two sides, and that people had to choose, was ‘mischievous’. There are always more than two sides, and nobody has to choose anything: that is the essence of the ‘free’ society they claimed to be fighting for.

Cunningham doesn’t really address the issue raised by Waugh’s reply which is – what if both sides were wicked?

1. The Republican / socialist side started committing atrocities as soon as hostilities broke out, burning churches and murdering nuns and priests. Waugh is correct to say that forcing everyone to choose between murderous fascists and murderous socialists is a mischievous choice.

2. Cunningham openly sympathises with what he calls the liberal-left (p.54) but it wasn’t liberal, was it? Spender, Cornford and many less well-known figures were communists, members of a party devoted to the violent overthrow of the existing democracy in Britain, the mass arrest of all political opponents, the seizure of all private property, the state control of all means of production and distribution and the establishment of forced labour camps for anyone who stepped out of line.

The Communist Party of Great Britain rigorously followed whatever line Stalin told them to, and we can be in doubt that this is the policy Stalin would have applied to Britain as he applied it to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania after the Second World War.

This wasn’t just theory. He quotes Franz Borkenau sauntering round revolutionary Barcelona just a month after the war started, August 1936, cheerfully pointing out that the factories have been taken over by the workers, the hotels and shops ‘expropriated’ and the churches gutted. The devastation of the churches is reinforced by a longer prose account by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the gutting of the churches famously upset Auden. Still, Borkenau goes on, young Spanish women, liberated from the patriarchy, were wearing ‘trousers’!

This is the kind of sexy politically correct detail which distracts from a harder look at the facts. What percentage of the population of Spain were devout Catholics? Well, you just alienated all of them by burning their churches (and imprisoning or beating their priests). What percentage was factory owners and their families and the cadre of suppliers and service industry professions like accountants and auditors and safety inspectors? Well, you’ve just thrown all of them into the opposing camp, too. And what percentage of the population are the owners of the hotels and shops? Well, do you think depriving them of their livelihoods is going to win them over?

This is the structural problem of the Left everywhere: it claims to speak for the masses and the majority, but its dreams of nationalisation and state ownership, expropriation, confiscation and collectivisation appeal, in practice, only to a small number of intellectuals and political activists (who are often motivated mainly by personal issues and liberal guilt, exemplified here by Stephen Spender). Meanwhile, all its policies taken together alienate the majority of any population.

3. Cunningham sympathises with the authors who made a saint and martyr of Federico García Lorca and used his appalling murder to show how fascists treat intellectuals and that is why all intellectuals must rally round the Republican. It was a disgusting murder and the fascists who did it were pigs, but Stalin. Stalin’s Russia. Stalin’s Russia’s way with liberals and intellectuals. Arrest, torture, execution, labour camps.

4. The argument goes that you can’t blame all these left-liberals because they didn’t yet really understand this about Stalin yet, that it was precisely as a result of the bitter disillusioning of the Spanish Civil War that anti-Soviet views became more commonplace afterwards, a process in which Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia holds a leading place – even though leading publishers like Gollancz turned it down because of its criticism of the Communists, and before the war it was poorly reviewed and sold badly.

Only a lot later did a really settled anti-Stalin mood take hold of the British intelligentsia, maybe not till after the war, maybe not till the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 turned a generation of intellectuals away from Communism.

5. The most fundamental objection to the English poetry of the Spanish Civil War is that they were tourists. They went, they dipped their toes in the reality of war and revolution, and then they ran back to Surrey. Orwell wrote a scathing review of Auden’s poem, Spain, which nails its lack of human sympathy and its attitudinising, and drew the general conclusion:

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. (quoted page 71)

Cunningham has several pages describing how desperate all these posh, upper-middle-class public schoolboys were to be down with the workers, and how this is always an easier delusion to achieve when you are in a foreign country and your accent and use of language don’t give you away, like they immediately did back in class-ridden Blighty.

From small beginnings mighty ends,
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught at public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles… (Edgell Rickword)

Spain, for many of these writers, was a holiday away from the prison of their wretched class-consciousness. That is why the frank handshake with the Italian anarchist at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia is such a massive moment for Orwell; it symbolised total unquestioning acceptance by a real working man of a kind he could never dream of or find in the country where they spoke his own language and instantly spotted him for the Old Etonian he could never cease to be. It was so important for him that he not only memorialises it in Catalonia but wrote a poem about it (p.309). If you’re in one mood it is a moving testament to revolutionary solidarity. But seen from a different angle, it is an unintentionally funny testament to just how desperately Orwell wanted to be accepted by ‘the working class’ and what huge, enormous, religious, almost sexual relief it brought him for this to happen, finally, after years of trying:

The Italian soldier shook my hand
Beside the guard-room table;
The strong hand and the subtle hand
Whose palms are only able

To meet within the sounds of guns,
But oh! what peace I knew then
In gazing on his battered face
Purer than any woman’s!

Cunningham’s introduction is long but leaves many basic questions unanswered. There is no sketch of the timeline of the war (even one page would have helped).

It may be useful to remind readers that General Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected socialist government, expecting to seize key locations and power within days, but that ‘the people’ and a broad coalition of left-wing parties rallied against the soldiers, seized key cities and what was intended to be a quick coup degenerated into a long, agonising civil war between the military, who became known as the Nationalists (aided by troops and arms from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), and the democratic government and all its supporters, who became known as the Republicans.

The Republican government was not supported by either France or Britain, who chose a policy of neutrality but banned arms sales or exports to it, much to the disgust of workers, students and writers everywhere, who volunteered and travelled to Spain to fight in what were quickly organised and titled International Brigades.

Although it took nearly three years of bitter fighting, the support given to Franco by the fascists, and the lack of support for the Republicans – as well as serious, fratricidal conflicts among the Republicans – eventually led to the complete triumph of the fascist forces by March 1939.

None of this is explained by Cunningham. Instead his introduction goes from a long consideration of the heroic outpouring of sympathy and the rush of poets and communists to enlist right at the start, to its abrupt end and everyone coming home disillusioned three years later, with not much explanation of what happened in between.

Above all there’s surprisingly little literary criticism. Cunningham has nothing at all to say about the poetry as poetry, about the range of genres and forms, the tones of voice and registers, the different types of imagery. There is a huge amount to be said about all this and he says nothing.

Instead the introduction is a rambling exploration of the changing attitudes of poets and writers, with extended consideration given to the attitudes towards the war, the struggle, the working class and so on as demonstrated in the writings of – especially – Auden, Spender and Orwell.

Thus he has a couple of pages about the long poem, titled simply Spain, which Auden wrote for a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for the Republicans but focuses entirely on how the poem captures Auden’s attitude to the war, not on its merits as a poem.

Cunningham considers Spain a failure because it never engages with the subject matter but keeps it at a detached, academic distance. He goes on to say how even Auden’s close friends were disappointed by this chilly lack of emotion, and his enemies leapt on it as typical of upper-class dilettantism.

I.e there is a lot about the poet’s supposed attitude and the attitudes of his friends and enemies to his attitudes… but of the unique stanza form Auden invented for it, or the use of rhetorical devices or imagery, or Auden’s deliberately varied vocabulary, there is nothing.

I took away three parting thoughts:

1. Orwell and truth George Orwell’s experience in Spain – of the Stalinists lying and deceiving everyone, and then of English left-wing magazines and publishers willingly conniving in these lies – crystallised the concern absolute truth-telling which not only underpinned the huge amount of literary journalism he poured out in the remaining ten years of his life but, more importantly, led to the central concept of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

2. Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War spelled the end of English Socialist Realism. This idea is rather abruptly introduced, and it is a shame Cunningham doesn’t define anywhere what English Socialist Realism actually is – did anyone anywhere use that term at the time? He doesn’t say. He includes quite a few really long poems which are clearly to be read out loud or declaimed and so lack the subtlety of poems to be read – but nowhere relates their form or style to the tradition of agitprop poetry which developed after the Bolshevik revolution and spread across Europe in the 20s. Shame.

Anyway, you get the general idea. The entire generation of 30s poets thought poetry should be public, accessible and written in a political cause, the burningly important left-wing cause. Put simply, after Spain (General Franco declared the war over on 1 April 1939) the poets gave up. They retreated from the hundreds of manifestos and books and poems and declarations and essays about poetry’s social purpose and sank back into accepting poetry as the bourgeois activity of a pampered, educated class, and not even many of them.

3. War is war All these naive young writers had read the anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but thought that war in a good cause would be somehow different, different from the bad imperialist First World War.

Turned out it wasn’t, and Cunningham quotes letters from English volunteers, including even the firebrand John Cornford, pointing out that war is war – ugly, unromantic, a lot of boredom then intense periods of stress and terror, unbelievable devastation and pain, and death, lots of death. In his letters home, quoted at length, Cornford itemises the deaths of individual members of his unit, each one an irreplaceable loss. International Brigader Tom Wintringham also names specific comrades lost, and there’s a moving poem by Jack Lindsay, Requiem Mass, with a paragraph each devoted to thirteen fallen comrades from the International Brigade, including Cornford (pp.179-183).

This was another disillusionment the war brought, and it helps to explain why the conflict-virgin poets were able to write so many impassioned poems about the Spanish Civil War but, having had all their illusions burned down to ashes, failed to lift a finger when the real war, the Second World War, commenced in September of the same year. As the Australian writer and communist Jack Lindsay put it:

Having felt for Spain, what further can we feel?

By that time their leader, Auden, had left the country, the movement was over, by then everyone had to accept the sad truth embodied in Day-Lewis’s glum lines, from the tellingly short and tellingly titled Where Are The War Poets? (1941):

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

To the whole of the rest of the country it was obvious what the Second World War was about –  we were fighting a war of survival against an evil enemy. You had to have gone to a very expensive private school and been a member of a peculiar and insular intellectual elite, to see the war against Hitler as somehow a defeat and a failure even before it began. One by one the thirties poets abandoned all their former positions and beliefs and, in later years, were quick to disown them and, where possible, rewrote or even banned their poems from this period.


The poems

Cunningham makes a very wide selection, including 201 poems and a dozen or more prose pieces from no fewer than 85 authors! He divides them into 14 categories:

  1. The map of pain
  2. Junker angels in the sky
  3. He is dead and gone
  4. The crime was in Granada
  5. Prisoner
  6. Ballads of heroes
  7. Romanceros
  8. The internationals
  9. Heroic notes
  10. Insensible at such a time
  11. That fighting was a long way off
  12. Photogenic war
  13. Talking bronco
  14. But some remember Spain

Two sections stand out.

Prisoner consists entirely of 17 poems by Clive Branson (most of them previously unpublished) who, as the title suggests, was fighting for an International Brigade when he was captured by the Nationalists in March 1938 and held as a prisoner of war at the Nationalist camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. He had the freedom to paint and sketch the camp and many of its inmates, apparently at the request of the authorities (this is specifically mentioned in one of the poems) and some of this work survives in the Marx Memorial Library in London. His poems are so-so.

A delicate breeze sufficient to stir
Light dust, a little leaf, by an insect’s wing

Dance music on the wireless; between prisoner
And a girl dressed like a rose, a smile.

A leaf, a frog, a shadow, a piece of paper
A trickle of water, reading, writing

These things on a stillness deeper than all
Took a whole afternoon to drift with the canal.

(A Sunday Afternoon by Clive Branson, 1938)

A romancero is a type of Spanish folk ballad, whose lineage stretches back to the early Middle Ages. The form was revived during the war as a popular and accessible genre appropriate to the Republican cause. Section 7 of this anthology consists of 21 romanceros in translations by contemporary British poets.

Day of metal, day of masses,
Day of cannon, day of churchbells,
Day of shrines and day of bullets,
Strewn with fresh blood and with blossoms –
Such the day the fascists looked for
On that morrow of that nightfall
When they took Madrid.

Day of metal and of masses –
All the fascist drums foretold it,
All the parrot voices hailed it.
Not tomorrow? Well, the next day,
Wednesday, perhaps, or Thursday
(All are one to Radio Burgos).

Then the morning’s light would lighten
Under the triumphal archway
Franco stepping from the chariot;
Then the Moors would swing their sabres
And the Spanish heads go rolling;
Then the Archbishop of Burgos
Would bestow an ample blessing
On the Arabs and the Bedouins,
On the Nazis and the Ethiops,
On the frizzled and the smooth-haired
Saviours of Spain…

(from El dia que no vendra byJosé Herrera Petere translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Prose It was a very good decision to include some key prose texts. Thus we have short prose works about their time in Spain by:

  • Auden in Valencia (pp.100-102)
  • Orwell in Barcelona
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner in Barcelona, particularly penetrating about the gutted churches and the commandeered villas of the rich (pp.136-141)
  • ten pages or more of the letters John Cornford wrote to his girlfriend Margot Heinemann (pp.118-128)
  • Heinemann’s own recollections of him
  • a couple of pages in which Louise MacNeice describes his flying visit just before Barcelona fell to the Nationalists
  • Spender’s review of a volume memorialising Cornford which came out during the war (pp.263-266)
  • a moving testimonial to his colleagues in the International Brigade by Tom Wintringham (pp.307-309), and a separate piece vividly describing what it is like to be bombed (pp.315-322)
  • Spender very sensitively explaining why heroising the war (they died like heroes) is a way of hiding the reality of dying alone, in great pain and terror (pp.334-338)
  • a terrifyingly intense short story by Ewart Milne describing the narrator looking after a wounded young man on a long rattling train journey, till the man gets up saying he needs to go for a pee, and simple steps out the train door, falling off cliffs to his death (pp.342-349)
  • another long passage from Ewart Milne (pp.355-364)
  • Spender, travelling as part of the International Writers Congress, being shown how carefully the Republican government was safekeeping its art treasures (pp.415-417)
  • Spender’s review of Picasso’s painting Guernica shrewdly points out that conveys the experience not of being there when the bombs exploded, but of reading about the bombs exploding; it captures the nightmare of reading about terrible experiences (pp.418-420)
  • Spender’s review of Roy Campbell’s book of poetry, Flowering Rifle (pp.440-443)
  • Roy Campbell’s bombastic ranting reply to Spender’s review (pp.443-446)

A lot of this prose is much more evocative than the often rather samey poetry. It has more range and flexibility. Here’s Tom Wintringham who saw plenty of fighting:

The loaded bombers crawling across the skies reach the senses in a faint trembling of not-yet-noise, like the trembling of a baited deep-sea line. (p.317)

It is extremely useful to have all these sources in one handy paperback volume. Very.

Women Worth pointing out, too, that even back in 1978 (when his preface is dated) Cunningham was making an effort to include more women’s voices. Thus we have poems and prose from Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kathleen Raine, Charlotte Haldane, Aileen Palmer, Valentine Ackland, Blánaid Salkeld, Elizabeth Cluer, Nancy Cunard of all people, and Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann who, in Cunningham’s selection, emerges as a pretty impressive poet in her own right.

Here she is lamenting the death of her man and trying to address the nagging thought, spoken by friends, or in her own head, asking why why why the best and most passionate seem to be the ones who die. Up to ‘so loved’ it is the (inner) accuser and the tormentor in her head speaking. From ‘Yes’ she refutes its argument. Sidney Carton was the wastrel layabout who redeems his life by exchanging himself for the much-loved hero of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. Carton goes willingly to the guillotine so the young hero can go free and be reunited with his true love. In this poem Heinemann dramatises that wish: if only ranks of losers and layabouts died in war instead of the pure and true, instead of her man.

In our long nights the honest tormentor speaks
And in our casual conversations:
‘He was so live and young – need he have died,
Who had the wisest head, who worked so hard,
Led by his own sheer strength; whom I so loved?’
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rates,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.

(from Grieve in a New Way for New Losses by Margot Heinemann)

‘Whom I loved so’ – when you really grasp the import of that phrase, you realise how terrible her loss must have been, and how bravely she’s trying to face it in this poem.

Browsing One of the points of an anthology is you can dip and browse and notice something different each time. Ignoring the famous poets (Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice) there’s a lot of pleasure to be had exploring the far less well-known poets Cunningham has made a point of including.

Commitment For many of these lesser or amateur poets the pleasure is mixed in the sense that, it might not be great poetry, but you can sense the passion and the commitment, and that has a psychological interest of its own. This poem combines unashamed use of traditional stanzas and rhythm with a kind of honest statement of commitment, which I found moving.

Brave sons of liberty, fallen in battle,
Fallen that we, their successors, might live,
Bravely they faced the machine-gunner’s rattle,
Giving so bravely all they’d to give.

Hurriedly, carelessly, rudely, we buried them,
Buried them quickly, beneath the brown soil.
Hurriedly, quickly, we gave them our blessing,
Then we returned to our heart-breaking toil.

Theirs is no splendour, the fallen in action;
Theirs was no pomp, neither glory nor show,
They were the cream of the Communist fraction,
We were the reapers but they went to sow.

Shall we forget them who never forgot us,
Defending the workers, while fighting in Spain?
Shall we stay passive while fascism threatens us?
Shall their great effort be made all in vain?

Never forget them, the lesson they taught us,
Think of their travail, their suffering, pain.
Raise the red standard and help us, support us,
Lest we see in England what happened in Spain.

(For the Fallen by W.B. Keal, published in The Daily Worker, October 1937)

Conclusion

So:

  1. The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse is an unprecedentedly thorough collection of poetry and prose relating to the Spanish Civil War.
  2. Despite the lack of logic and key information in the introduction, the book as a whole is packed with new information, insights and angles on the subject.
  3. In among this huge collection there are gems and pleasure a-plenty.

It is a book to browse amid, and look up things, and refer back to, and read bits again and generally live with, participating, even at a distance, in the passion, the comradeship, the idealism and the disillusion of that now-distant time…

British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, 1936


Related links

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

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 their 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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