Remote People by Evelyn Waugh (1931)

How wrong I was, as it turned out, in all my preconceived notions about this journey.
(Remote People, page 97)

After weeks of reading heavy factual and often horrifying history about Africa, it was like getting into a warm bubble bath to read some Evelyn Waugh. He is a wonderful writer, clear and smooth – admittedly with occasional old-fashioned locutions and sometimes antiquated word order which makes you realise he was closer to the Victorians than to us – but he is nonetheless a deep pleasure to read because of his calm, clear, quietly cynical, drily humorous attitude. For his sophistication and style. For his combination of super-civilised manners and bright heartlessness. For his permanent alertness to the absurdity of life.

We sat in the open under an orange-tree and drank chianti and gossiped about the coronation, while many hundreds of small red ants overran the table and fell onto our heads from above. (p.72)

We saw a bridge being built under the supervision, apparently, of a single small boy in gumboots. (p.153)

[Jinja golf course] is, I believe, the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball by hand from hippopotamus footprints. (p.156)

Temporary correspondent

Waugh establishes his a) posh, country house party persona and b) all-important membership of the network of posh public schoolboys who ran everything in 1930s England, by telling us that he was travelling by train back to London from a splendid country house in Wales when he bumped into an old chum who worked for The Times and, by the time the train journey had ended, his chum had promised him a job as a temporary correspondent to cover the upcoming coronation of the new emperor of Ethiopia, scheduled for November 1930.

So that’s why the reader opens the book to discover Waugh aboard a steamship, the Azay le Rideau, which has sailed from Marseilles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and is now docking at Djibouti on the coast of French Somalia. The ship is packed with dignitaries, royal guests, diplomats, journalists and cameramen, plus a unit from the Foreign Legion down in 4th class, and even military bands, all heading for the coronation.

There is ample Carry On comedy about the behaviour of guests on the ship, fuss about porters and baggage, and endless complications about who’s going to get priority places on the very occasional train service which runs from Djibouti up to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie

A few words about Haile Selassie. He didn’t inherit the ancient throne of Ethiopia in a straightforward manner, by being the eldest son of the previous emperor, it was much more complicated than that. His most notable forebear was the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) who extended and consolidated Ethiopia’s imperial rule over its neighbouring territories and defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Menelik left no immediate male heir and was succeeded on his death in 1913 by young Lij Iyasu (Lej Yasu, in Waugh’s spelling), who was the son of Menelik’s eldest daughter.

However, Lij Iyasu quickly alienated the powerful Ethiopian aristocracy with his erratic behaviour and the last straw came when he abandoned the millenium-old Ethiopian Christianity for Islam. He was dethroned and replaced by his aunt, his mother’s half-sister, Zewditu (or Zauditu as Waugh spells it). (Waugh also mentions that many of Lij’s Muslim followers were massacred at the town of Harar, p.18.)

Zewditu is an interesting figure in her own right, the first female ruler of Ethiopia in its history, she ruled as empress till her death in 1930. However, long before that, she had appointed young Ras Tafari Makonnen her heir.

Ras is a traditional title in Ethiopia. It translates somewhere between ‘duke’ and ‘prince’, which explains why accounts of its history are full of people with ras in their names. Tafari is a personal name which means ‘one who is respected or feared’. Makonnen was his family name.

Tension arose between Empress Zewditu and Ras Tafari because she was a deeply conservative and devout Christian whereas the young Tafari though Ethiopia needed to modernise.  In 1928 conservative elements in the court tried to overthrow Tafari and have him exiled, but they were defeated by a majority of the more progressive aristocracy. Zewditu was forced to confer on him the title of Negus or king, confirming his position as regent and heir to the throne.

Renewing the feud, in 1930, Zewditu’s own husband Ras Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Negus Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency in spite of his wife’s repeated pleas and orders to desist. But Gugsa was defeated and killed in battle by the Ethiopian which Tafari had devoted the previous decade to modernising, at the Battle of Anchem in March 1930.

A few days later the empress died, whether as a result of long-term illness or from shock at the death of her husband remains a subject of speculation to this day. Either way the path was now clear for Ras Tafari to inherit the throne and he was officially recognised by his peers as Negusa Nagast which translates as ‘King of Kings’. It is this title which is usually translated into English as ‘Emperor’.

It took 6 months to arrange for the actual coronation to be organised. It took place on 2 November 1930. It was traditional that, upon his coronation, the emperor choose a regnal name and Tafari chose to retain the name given to him at his baptism, Selassie, and incorporate it into his full imperial name – Haile Selassie. In the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Haile means ‘power of’ and ‘Selassie’ means Trinity – so Haile Selassie means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

So much for his names. They’re just one aspect of the way that, the more you study it, the more the history of Ethiopia and Selassie’s place in it, become complicated and flavoursome.

Waugh at the coronation

Ethiopia was, at the time, more or less Africa’s only independent country, untainted by colonial rule. Italy had tried to colonise it in the 1890s but the Italian army was massacred at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 and signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia recognising its borders and independence.

Once news of this grand imperial coronation became known, the European countries sent their own princes and dukes to attend the ceremony of a fellow royal. There were also ambassadors quietly jostling for position, and the Americans sent business representatives to try and do deals with the new ruler. Hence the presence of the Duke of Gloucester (King George V’s son), Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey of France, Prince of Udine representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and representatives of the United States, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium and Japan.

This all explains the atmosphere of colourful and confused diplomatic parties and Ethiopian  ceremonies which were held during the official week of celebrations leading up to the coronation and which Waugh reports with glee and satire.

He emphasises the surreal atmosphere of posh Westerners in top hats and monocles walking through streets full of white-robed locals riding mules and wearing bandoleers and antiquated rifles.

Every man in Abyssinia carries arms; that is to say, he wears a dagger and bandolier of cartridges around his waist and has a slave boy walking behind with a rifle.

The nearest thing he can compare the ‘galvanised and translated reality’ of Addis Ababa in coronation week to is Alice in Wonderland. In fact surreal details crop up throughout the narrative, making the reader gasp. I was particularly struck when, later in the story he goes for a stroll round the shabby town of Harar and discovers that a lion in a wooden cage is kept behind the courthouse (p.83).

The text continually teeters on the edge of fiction. I mean it is continually turning into a novel. Presumably most of what he reports actually happened but Waugh’s account dwells on characters and incidents which feel like they’re from a fiction. Thus (characteristically showing off his intimacy with the  aristocratic Bright Young Things of his generation) he falls in with ‘old friend’ Irene Ravensdale, the fantastically posh Mary Irene Curzon, 2nd Baroness Ravensdale, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, and they go on trips together to local attractions. They spend an afternoon scrambling through the forest of Jemjem ‘in hopeless pursuit of black-and-white monkeys’ (p.71).

He also becomes friendly with an American professor – Professor W. – who is depicted as a comic character because he is supposedly an expert on Ethiopian history and culture yet doesn’t speak the language and consistently misunderstands what is going on – particularly at the coronation service itself where he gives a running commentary on proceedings which turns out to be wrong in every detail.

Despite this Waugh decides to go on a mini expedition with the professor, to Debra Lebanos, a remote monastery which has for four centuries been at the heart of Ethiopia’s spiritual life. The chapter describing this little jaunt exemplifies many of Waugh’s strengths as a traveller, observer, writer and, dare one say it, thinker.

First of all there are the colourful characters: the Armenian taxi driver they hire to take them on the long, gruelling desert journey, with his no-nonsense attitude and catchphrase, repeated at every crisis: ‘Ça n’a pas d’importance.’ The professor, who’s brought along a crate of empty Vichy water bottles to fill with holy water from the sacred spring but which keep rolling underfoot or falling out the car every time they stop. Then, once they get to the ‘monastery’ there are extended descriptions of the priests who turn out to be a pretty shabby lot, though not as shabby as many of the ‘monks’ who are, in reality, the sick and the halt and the lame who came on pilgrimages and stayed on to populate the place.

One aspect of these blunt descriptions is Waugh’s lack of pretence. About two things he has sentimental blind spots – the Catholic faith and a shamelessly sentimental, William Rees-Mogg-style fantasy about an Old England of enlightened paternalistic squires. But about everything else he is pitilessly, inexorably accurate.

Thus he doesn’t hesitate to describe the sacred monastery as a filthy dump, full of shabby undisciplined ‘monks. Even when they deign to take him and the professor up to the sacred stream, their guide gives a good indication of their general level of piety by pausing the walk to shuffle off into the nearby rocks and have a crap.

The chapter makes a more general point about travelling, or about the kind of travelling Waugh is doing, to very out of the way places – which is he doesn’t hesitate to show that a lot of these ‘legendary’ places turn out to be nothing like they’re cracked up to be. It is refreshingly not the tourist brochure or movie version, but a pitiless gaze at the impoverished, scrappy reality. Same goes for the various coronation scenes and religious ceremonies he witnesses which are often chaotic and shabby.

Then there’s broad comedy, epitomised by the honey scene. Waugh and the professor have brought with them a hamper full of choice Western delicacies (jars of olives, tins of foie gras, crackers), but when the priests offer them food they can’t, of course, refuse.

At first the priests insist that they sacrifice a beast, either a sheep or a goat, despite our heroes’ protestations. It takes the Armenian driver to make them understand that the priests exist on a very scanty diet and so killing a goat for visitors is a big treat for them, the priests. It is typical sly satire that, even when he knows this, Professor W.’s high-minded Boston principles – he is a vegetarian – make him refuse the gift, to the priest’s obvious disappointment.

But what happens next is brilliant. The priests offer to put them up in the only spare room they have, which they describe as a great honour, so Waugh and the professor are horrified to discover it is a filthy shack full of lumber and junk and pullulating with fleas.

Worse is to follow for the priest then returns with some traditional food, namely some rounds of disgusting local soggy grey ‘bread’ and, worse still, a jar of local ‘honey’. This is not the honey you buy at Harrods; it is authentic Ethiopian honey collected the traditional way, scraped off the trees where wild bees have their nests. And so the jar of translucent gloop visibly contains bits of bark, dead insects and bird poo.

Our heroes are horrified but the priest hunkers down and then looks on expectantly, evidently waiting for his honoured visitors to tuck into the monks’ bounty. Stymied and refusing to touch the poisonous viands, our heroes are at a pass, until the professor overcomes his scruples and feigns an attack of severe stomach upset, holding his tummy, pretending to be faint, mimicking throwing up.

Suddenly all attentive, the priest goes to fetch some water, then makes sure they are comfortable for the night, condoling with the poor professor. As soon as he’s left the squalid little hut, our starving heroes tear open their hamper, pull out tins of grouse and bottles of beer and have a feast – being very careful to tidy every scrap of evidence back into the suitcase before the priest returns a few hours later (pages 63 to 64).

And the last point to be drawn from this chapter, is that on occasion Waugh rises to the level of really serious insight. Not allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery to watch the priests perform their hidden rituals, Waugh has an epiphany. He realises the enormous contrast between the obscure, secret and hidden rites of the pagan East and the bright, open, public ceremonies of Western Christianity. He spends a page explaining how Roman Christianity performs its rituals in the open, in the light, for all to see and participate in and, the corollary of this, how its liturgies and theology give clear, hard-edged verbal definition to the hazy, murky intuitions, the holy terrors and ecstasies of the East.

Obviously whether this is precisely true is debatable, but it’s a big, thought-provoking idea and it arises naturally from the bed of pitiless observation and dry comedy which he creates for it. The unflinching gaze, the comedy and satire, are all based on deeper ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which provide a serious, substantial foundation for the comedy.

Gentlemen of the press

Waugh is well aware he is masquerading as a foreign correspondent aware that he has no experience of such a role and nothing to qualify him except the self confidence inculcated at a jolly good public school and Oxford. He is alert to the ridiculousness of his own position but also to the farcical aspects of the job. For example, the assembled press cohort realise that the coronation itself is going to take place too late for their copy to make the first editions. Waugh gives a comic survey of the way the entire press corps responds by deciding to make up descriptions of the coronation and gives us choice excerpts of detailed descriptions of the exotic ceremony which were published in various British newspapers and which were entirely fictional. There are also grace notes, as it were, describing the unruly pushing and jostling of the cameramen, especially the one and only film crew in attendance (from America, of course).

The point for Waugh fans is this sets the tone for the even more farcical description of the press and foreign correspondents which he gives in the book’s sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and which formed the basis for what is often described as the funniest satire ever written about the British press, the magnificent comic novel Scoop (1938).

Harar

The assignment to cover Selassie’s coronation forms the first part of the book but it is only the start of an odyssey in which Waugh takes the opportunity to visit a number of British colonies in East Africa. All in all, the trip was to take 6 months (p.84) and take in an impressive list of countries, namely Aden, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Belgian Congo and South Africa.

He explains how, once he had filed the requisite number of reports via telegraph back to The Times his contract came to an end and he was a free man. In London he had booked passage by boat from Djibouti to Zanzibar, but now finds he has ten days to kill and is uncertain what to do. Until, that is, the British Consul in Harar, Mr Plowman, kindly invites him to come and stay.

In fact the consul has to remain a few more days in Addis, so Waugh decides to make his own way overland to Harar, travelling by train and taxi. Harar was the first Ethiopian town visited by the famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and one of the first territories conquered by the warrior emperor Menelik II. It was the town where the caravans met between highlands and coastal lowlands; where Galla, Somali and Arab interbred to produce women of outstanding beauty.

Or so Waugh fantasised. In reality, he finds it to be a dingy medieval town. He is visited by the bishop of Harar and quizzes him about the French poet, the boy wonder Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here after he fled France and became a gun runner to the emperor Menelik II. He is disappointed to learn that the bishop remembers him only as a solemnly serious man, who took a native wife and had a gammy leg (p.79).

The owner of the hotel where he stays, the Leon d’Or, is ‘an Armenian of rare character’, Mr Bergebedgian, who has a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. The Armenian takes him to all the shops in the town, where he incites himself in, has a coffee and chat with the owner, moves on, telling Waugh all the gossip of the town, shows him the town prison and courthouse (the one with a lion in a wooden cage behind it).

In an aside Waugh says he grew to really admire this man’s character: he thinks he is the most tolerant man he has ever met. Bergebedgian takes him to a hilarious local party at the governor’s house, and then on to a wedding party, which he only dares visit when fully armed and accompanied by two armed police.

Slavery

Last point about Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie ascended the throne, slavery was still legal and common in Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million of the population were slaves. As a modernising ruler the King of Kings moved quickly to abolish it but, inevitably, it lingered on in remote rural areas for decades.

First nightmare

This is the name Waugh gives a short 6-page section describing his unbearable tedium at missing a train connection and so being marooned in the dull dusty town of Dirre-Dowa and then, when he did manage to get a train to the coast, just missing the steamship to Zanzibar and so being marooned in Djibouti.

It is a dithyramb on the excruciating dullness of being stuck in a tropical town with nothing to do and no-one to visit. His attempts to alleviate the boredom are accurate and funny, including a painstaking  attempt at reading the complete works of Alexander Pope which he has (for some reason) brought with him. When he gives up Pope, he is reduced to reading through a small French dictionary in alphabetical order. Then he sits staring out the window in a state of stupefaction. As he accurately notes, most travel books don’t honestly recount the amount of time that is spent in boredom and inanition and frustration and, occasional, depression.

This short chapter certainly rang a bell with me, reminding me of many moments of boredom and loneliness on my various foreign travels. It’s another aspect of Waugh’s unflinching truthfulness.

Aden

It is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assume the moment one begins to travel. (p.120)

His description of Aden as a shabby rundown dump is a masterpiece with many laugh-out-loud moments. He meets the usual cast of eccentrics, or people who, in his novelist’s hands, become eccentrics, such as the two enterprising young German engineers who are working their way round the world. He finds the bachelor world of chaps dining at their clubs very congenial. After all, he says, it’s the womenfolk who ruin colonies, insisting their menfolk stay at home in the evenings, indulging in ferocious snobbery and pooh-poohing the natives.

Waugh describes going to the open air cinema where, a few minutes into the black and white comedy he realises almost everyone around him has fallen fast asleep. He attends a scout meeting where the patient British scoutmaster hopelessly tries to teach Arab youths how to build a fire or the ten rules of scout law.

He attends a council of local Arab chiefs and goes into great detail about the social and political situation of Yemen and southern Arabia. It was barely ten years since the entire area was taken over by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which had run it for centuries. There is a detailed analysis of the complicated rivalries among the tribes, exacerbated by Ottoman rule and now complicated by British attempts to bring peace between internecine feuds. The council is a jurga hosted by the Sultan of Lahej and attended by Sir Stewart Symes, Resident at Aden from 1928 to 1931. He gives detailed insight into the challenges of trying to manage such a fissiparous people.

The tendency of Arab communities is always towards the multiplication of political units.

Disintegration, tribalism, feuding, rivalry, enmity and war. Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1967. Since September 2014 (seven years and 2 months) Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war in which about 380,000 people have died, including some 85,000 children who have died of starvation. Still. Independent of the ghastly British.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar turns out to be an ordeal. Sweltering oppressive heat and the subterranean prevalence of black magic. December is the worst time of year to visit. He spends all day sweating, only achieving peace a few times a day for a few minutes under a cold shower.

The general point he makes about Zanzibar is that it was taken over by the British with the express aim of abolishing the long-standing East African slave trade run by Arabs, which had increased in volume after the Sultan of Oman relocated his court to Zanzibar in 1840.

Now, in 1930, Waugh sees all around him evidence of the decay of Arab rule and ownership and the steady buying up of everything by merchants and businessmen from India. Waugh overtly likes the old aristocratic Arab culture and deprecates the ascension of what he sees as the ‘mean and dirty’, lower middle class merchant culture of the Indians (p.128) (but then he dislikes the sharp-elbowed middle classes of every race).

Kenya

He has an unpleasant experience with two officious British passport control officials at Mombasa on arriving at the Kenya coast, but once he gets to Nairobi he starts to have a wonderful time. It is Race Week and he has letters of introduction to top chaps, such as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, and spots various chaps and chapesses he knows from school and London (the benefits of being part of that network of public schoolboys and their sisters, wives and girlfriends), and so is swept away in a whirl of race meetings, parties, gambling, cocktails and nightclubs. It is London’s Bright Young Things nightclub society recreated on the equator.

This chapter contains a long serious section about the race issue in Kenya, about race and imperialism and the problems of the white settlers. It is fascinating to read an account from the period, as he grapples with what, to him, are recent developments, such as the government White Paper on the future of Kenya published in 1923.

Basically, Waugh comes out strongly in favour of the colonial settlers. He thinks they acquired the land legitimately, by buying it at fair auction. He thinks most of the land was waste and uncultivated before white farmers invested their life savings to buy it, then reinvested their profits to develop it. He accepts at face value the idea that the whites have a special ‘love’ for the country and its people.

He brings in the broader argument that all of human history has been a record of mass migrations and so the white settlement of the best parts of Africa is just another form of migration and time will tell whether it works out or not.

And finally, he makes the case that many of the white settlers represent a model of the traditional English squirearchy which has died out in the motherland, that they represent something fine and noble, with a patriarchal concern for the natives who they are slowly lifting out of savagery and into civilisation.

More than that, he thinks the way the mindset of the white settlers is so at odds with the socialising ideology of the modern they live in that they have a sort of special connection with the figure of The Writer, who is also at odds with his time.

Hmm. He’s wrong and the settlers were wrong. They might have had legal right on their side, but it was a system of law imposed by the conquering empire, a system which, notoriously, took no account of the African natives.

Waugh’s account is valuable and interesting because it isn’t an out-and-out racist, white supremacist argument, it’s much more mixed and nuanced than that. He happily criticises the whites, saying Anglo-Saxons are peculiarly prone to paranoid fears of other races. He says the appropriation of Masai land was a great injustice. He dislikes incidents of overt anti-black racism when he sees them. But, at the same time, his depiction of the white settlers as country-loving squirearchy is laughably sentimental and rose-tinted.

His account is valuable because it takes you into the complex dynamic of the situation circa 1930. There are:

  • the hard-working white settlers and farmers
  • the white professionals living in Nairobi and the towns who have made a killing out of property speculation
  • the distant government and civil service in Whitehall who all the settlers think don’t understand them and are gagging to sell them out
  • the colonial government on the ground in Nairobi which tries to mediate between London and the settlers, while also taking into account the interests of the natives
  • the native Africans who remain almost completely invisible and silent in Waugh’s account
  • much more visible and vocal are the Indians, successful businessmen who outnumber the whites, are often richer and more successful than them, but are infuriated at the way they are excluded from all aspects of white colonial life by a solid colour bar

In this account it is the Indians who are subject to pronounced racist attitudes. Waugh gives a tendentious account of three Indians he has a conversation with in Mombassa who get very heated. They are angry that they have no rights in Kenya, no legal or political rights and are discriminated against. Then they get angry about Indian independence. Waugh clearly dislikes them.

But they’re in the right. And he acknowledges the fact when he spends half a page dwelling on the hysteria which perfectly ordinary Anglo-Saxon people are driven into when abroad, when part of this absurd empire and their white privilege is threatened. He finds it incredible that the merest speculation that the governor might amend the law to allow Indians a vote in the Kenyan government has hot-headed whites muttering in their clubs about kidnapping the Governor and staging an anti-London protest similar to the Boston Tea Party.

He concludes the 4 or 5 pages he devotes to the subject by saying the entire colonial thing is an experiment. It’s perfectly possible that in the next 25 years the whole thing will be swept away. And, of course, eerily enough, that is just what happened. The entire ants nest of squabbling interest groups was swept away in the great tide of African independence which reached Kenya just 30 years later in 1963, to be replaced by an entirely new dynamic of tribally based political parties and much more severe problems.

Race and class

It comes as no surprise that a public schoolboy travelling the British Empire in 1930 occasionally betrays a condescending and patronising tone towards the ‘natives’. The two obvious things to go on to say are:

1. That he regularly expresses more or less the same condescending criticism towards Europeans, royalty, the English middle classes, colonists and so on, in fact about the entire enterprise of Empire which, like so many of his generation, he finds endlessly ridiculous. When he has dinner with a Quaker doctor and his wife there was ‘no nonsense about stiff shirts and mess jackets’; they eat dinner outside in their pyjamas.

2. For every negative comment about this or that group or tribe, there are plenty of positive remarks about other groups or nations or races or tribes.

For example, he goes out of his way to remark that the two most impressive and congenial people he met in his entire 6-month trip were Armenians and gives extended descriptions of their characters.

When I came to consider the question I was surprised to realise that the two most accomplished men I met during this six months I was abroad, the chauffeur who took us to Debra Labanos and Mr Bergebedgian, should both have been Armenians. A race of rare competence and the most delicate sensibility. (p.84)

No white supremacy there. He is full of admiration for the beauty of the women of Harar. And what prompted me to write this little section was a remark he makes à propos of his time in Zanzibar.

The Arabs are by nature a hospitable and generous race… (p.128)

He very much enjoys the company of a Turk he met on the boat to Zanzibar, enjoys discussing history and hearing history from an intelligent man born and bred entirely from the Mohammedan point of view (p.124).

The dividing line for Waugh isn’t race, as such: it is the line between civilisation and barbarism. Black men who can read and write, are educated, or maybe neither but still have manners and decorum are, for him, civilised. The Arabs demonstrate tremendous courtesy and hospitality. His two favourites among the hundreds of people he met were Armenians for their tolerance and capability. So it’s not to do with race, it’s to do with culture and civilisation.

On the other side of the line are what he calls the savages, the uneducated, illiterate, filthy and threatening natives, the ‘savages with filed teeth’ with long hair glued together by rancid butter dressed in rags. And then the homicidal behaviour of natives remote from all townships, who murder strangers on sight, sometimes eating them. For Waugh it’s not about skin colour as such, but behaviour and values, and these can be shared by anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity.

There is a third category which is the pushy, angry, Indian merchants and the occasional Jewish entrepreneur he encounters, and who he takes an instinctive dislike to. But again this isn’t necessarily about race. He just dislikes money-minded merchants of any culture: he is reliably contemptuous of British businessmen, especially lower-middle-class shopkeepers, and deprecates the commercially minded Yanks who hang round the emperor’s coronation. It’s not racism, it’s snobbery.

Alert and malicious

One contemporary described the young Waugh as having the appearance of ‘an alert and malicious faun’. Exactly. He is always alert. He notices (or invents) details which give his descriptions and accounts a tremendous specificity.

But this alertness of observation only ‘exists’ because of the way it is embodied within the text by the preciseness of his vocabulary and the timing of his phrasing, which themselves enact the aloof, scrupulous, alertness of attitude.

After a profoundly indigestible dinner, Mr Bergebedgian joined us – the unsmiling clerk and myself – in a glass of a disturbing liqueur labelled ‘Koniak’. (p.80)

I’m not claiming Shakespearian mastery of the language for Waugh, but pointing out the accuracy of observation and description. The way he casually mentions that the dinner was ‘profoundly indigestible’ is funny, continuing a theme about the general poverty and dirtiness of most of the places he stayed in, indeed the hotel kept by the affable Armenian Mr Bergebedgian is described in the only travel book of the region as one to be avoided at all costs.

But it’s the placement of the adjective ‘disturbing’ which made me burst out laughing. The unexpectedness but preciseness of the word. And then it is also part of the stylised vocabulary of the public school Bright Young Things. It is part of the pose they are trained in to underplay disasters and setbacks. ‘Oh I say, how unfortunate / how regrettable / how simply ghastly’ they say as their plane falls out of the sky, canoe goes over the falls, or the roast beef is a trifle overdone. ‘Disturbing’ is typical of that public school understatement: why say something as crudely explicit as ‘disgusting’ or ‘unpalatable’ when you can achieve humour and mastery of the situation with English understatement? So this one word raises a host of connotations. It is a complex effect delivered with immaculate timing, and it is the combination of a) surreal detail described with b) English understatement c) with perfect timing, which are a key part of Waugh’s reliably entertaining style.

On other occasions it is just the sheer beauty of his descriptions. On the ferry across Lake Tanganyika he is forced to make a rough bed on the deck, all the cabins having gone to the savvy passengers who had bribed the captain:

As we got up steam, brilliant showers of wood sparks rose from the funnel; soon after midnight we sailed into the lake; a gentle murmur of singing came from the bows. In a few minutes I was asleep. (p.170)

It’s not the most dramatic scene, but he describes it with such smoothness and style, having taken a few overnight ferries I recognise the mood, I felt I was there. When it is appropriate to be simple and descriptive, he is.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is the extended caricatures of the people he meets.

Soon after five the captain appeared. No one looking at him would have connected him in any way with a ship; a very fat, very dirty man, a stained tunic open to his throat, unshaven, with a straggling moustache, crimson-faced, gummy-eyed, flat-footed. He would have seemed more at home as the proprietor of an estaminet. (p.168)

Variety and innocence

This leads into my last point which is that the book contains a great diversity of characters. Alright, there aren’t any speaking parts for Africans once he’s left Ethiopia; but this large caveat aside, I found it wonderful that wherever he went, there was this diversity of races and nationalities: the two Armenians stick out, but plenty of Italians, French, Belgians, Germans, the Indians in Zanzibar, the Arabs and Jews in Aden.

And it’s not just nationalities, but a florid variety of characters and types, ranging from the shabby ship’s captain mentioned above to the most correctly dressed Governors and ambassadors, via Quaker missionaries in pyjamas, the monks of Debra Labanos in their filthy tunics, Kikuyu serving ‘boys’, Abyssinian bandits dressed in white gowns and riding donkeys, the historically-minded Turk, any number of demoralised Greek hotel keepers.

It has the same abundant mix of nationalities and types all rubbing along together which you get in the Tintin books of the 1930s and 40s. One of the things I loved about Tintin when I was a boy was the way all the characters are so colourful, come from different countries, speak different languages, cook different cuisines, are so wonderfully varied. The argumentative sea captain, the dotty professor, the dignified butler, the unstoppable opera singer, her timid assistant, the piratical South American dictator, the nitwit detectives – how unlike the very boring, samey suburban English people I grew up among, what a wonderful escape into a realm where everyone is a vivid and distinct character.

The same variety is evident right from the opening scenes of this book on the cruise ship bringing Waugh to Djibouti with its colourful cast of passengers, from princes to Foreign Legionaries.

I’ve just read half a dozen books about African countries where, at independence, almost the entire European population fled (Congo, Angola) or, soon afterwards, was expelled and all their businesses nationalised (Zaire, Uganda).

Buried in the chaos of the Second World War were huge ethnic cleansings and attempted genocides. The Cold War saw ideological differences stop being entertaining and become murderous. In Africa (and South America and South-East Asia) communist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered foreigners, dictatorships ran death squads, the world became a much more dangerous place. In Africa, specifically, successive nationalist regimes nationalised all foreign businesses and expelled their owners. The Greek hotel owners, the Armenian taxi drivers, the Russian who runs a hide company in Addis Ababa, the other European oddballs who’d fetched up in remote corners and, of course, the large Indian business communities in many African countries – all expelled, all banished, all swept away. Replaced by much more homogeneous societies, 100% black, 100% African.

I think that’s what happened. By the time I went a-travelling in the late 1970s it felt like the colourful bricolage or personalities you regularly encounter in Tintin or pre-war travel books had vanished: in Egypt I met only Egyptians, in Thailand only Thais, in Turkey only Turks, in Greece only Greeks.

The colourful world in which you pulled into an Ethiopian or Ugandan town to find the only hotel run by a morose Greek and the only taxi in town driven by a cheerful Armenian taxi driver and got chatting with a jolly Turk happy to explain the Mohammedan view of history – that colourful world of real variety and diversity had gone for good.


Credit

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1931. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

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Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


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