Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

His previous two books Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

He knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door to door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick starts Pop Art and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and has been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).


New learnings

Fantasyland Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was just full of dead bodies, the peasants who died overnight in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because they couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this the public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as any reader knows – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then somehow went astray during the 1970s.

The last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice because it quite clearly makes the prison accounts of both books massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t, it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the camp.

Something confirmed by…

He says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East. (dream of empire)

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this in histories, but more impactful to read about its impact from someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb Here, as in Kindness it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification was as a tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: he respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures. He loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon He thinks Bacon is central though there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier and talking about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died; Ballard emphasises all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon
  • Michael Moorcock who became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives several overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together all the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction.

Science fiction It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights.

(although many of his short stories, including some of the best of them continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning. In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of the book, from his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Concs

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

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Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (1984)

Empire of the Sun is by far J.G. Ballard’s best known and most accessible book and was, of course, made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Cultural success doesn’t come much bigger than that. And, as a result, there are thousands of scholarly essays, as well as Brodie’s Notes and Wikipedia articles about Empire of the Sun, giving you the book’s plot and a standard account of its ‘themes’.

To avoid duplication, the aim of this review is to read the book as it sheds light on the nearly thirty years of Ballard’s science fiction novels and short stories which preceded it.


Empire of the Sun gave the game away. If you’d been reading Ballard’s novels and short stories during the 1960s and 70s you would have been bewildered by the intensity and weirdness of his imaginary world and the obsessive repetitiveness of his basic plot, in which a handful of people experience a catastrophic social collapse – either in a dystopian future or in an alienated present – becoming steadily more isolated from each other, pursuing their own psychotic fantasies in a derelict landscape of abandoned cities and empty hotels and drifting sand dunes, where maniacs try to turn themselves into birds or paint mandalas on the bottom of drained swimming pools in order to channel the voices of the universe, or try to fly microlight planes into the sun.

For nearly thirty years, from his first short story published in 1956 until Empire of The Sun was published in 1984, readers and critics had wondered where it came from, this unique, twisted and fiercely compelling psychic landscape which is the subject of most of Ballard’s best stories.

Then Empire of the Sun gave the game away. It describes how 11-year-old Jim, along with his mum and dad, a successful English businessman, experienced just such a social collapse and psychological extremes.

Jim and his family were living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in December 1941 when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbour, simultaneously attacking all the allied shipping in Shanghai harbour and moving swiftly to arrest all foreign nationals.

In the book, Jim escapes the initial roundup and lives for four months on the run in abandoned houses, eking a living from stagnant water and whatever dry food he can find in the empty larders of the once-rich International Settlement. He has weird encounters with a range of characters whose roles and identities have been turned upside down by the sudden collapse of Western values. Jim is finally caught by the Japanese authorities and spends the next three years in the living hell of Lunghua internment camp, just a few miles south-west of Shanghai, but a million miles from the pampered expatriate life he had grown up in.

So this is where it came from, the deep enduring and viscerally intense mood of world turned upside down and people starving in ruined hotels and abandoning themselves to psychotic fantasies, this is the origin of Ballard’s dazzling and distinctive subject and style!

Part one

Background The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the Japanese army quickly overran the Chinese Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek whose government retreated far into western China. Meanwhile, China’s coastal regions and ports were taken over and administered by the Japanese who treated the defeated Chinese with great brutality but allowed European and American merchants and officials to carry on their businesses, but with a growing sense of unease.

The narrative starts as 11-year-old Jim watches his parents and their European friends in the International Settlement trying to keep their spirits up with fancy dress parties, tennis tournaments and bridge at the club, and gives us just enough of a description for us to realise the grotesque contrast between the anyone-for-tennis cocktail parties of the pampered westerners and the filthy, teeming, squalid world of the Shanghai slums.

Until one day the disaster they all knew was coming arrives and the bottom falls out of their world. Timed to coincide with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941) the Japanese ships in Shanghai harbour open devastating fire on the British ships moored nearby, sinking them and shooting the sailors who try to flee (to be precise, the Japanese cruiser Izumo, the gunboat Toba and Japanese shore batteries in the French Concession opened fire at point-blank range on HMS Peterel which returned fire until it capsized and drifted from its mooring while the crew abandoned ship.)

At the same time Japanese soldiers are sent to the luxury houses of the International Settlement, and rounded up all nationals of the countries Japan was now at war with, starting with the British and Americans. Germans and White Russians were left alone for the time being, though traumatised by watching their friends and neighbours be hustled out of their nice big houses and loaded up into army trucks and driven off to God knows where.

Jim and his dad happen to be on the quayside when the Japanese ships start shelling the British ones, and Jim watches his dad jump into the water, along with some other Brits, to try to help the survivors from the sunk British battleship stagger ashore onto the harbour’s stinking mud. Jim jumps in to help. The survivors are taken to Shanghai hospital, with Jim being put in a children’s ward by himself. A few days later, when Japanese lorries arrive and the walking wounded are hustled into them and driven off, Jim escapes from the hospital and makes his way through the teeming streets, dodging a Chinese teenager who tries to mug him, walking all the way back to the International Settlement.

And what does he find? A world in ruins. A dystopian landscape of empty houses, all power and lights disconnected, defrosting fridges, draining swimming pools and gardens rapidly becoming overgrown. In a key scene, Jim approaches one of the many mute and submissive Chinese servants who had worked in his parents’ house and is now looting a sofa from it, and the man simply punches Jim in the face.

Too stunned to speak or think, Jim retreats and hides, finding refuge in these abandoned, dark and dangerous places, formerly the scene of so much jollity. The narrative shows Jim hiding out for weeks, initially enjoying himself riding his bicycle indoors, up and down the empty hall and into all the empty rooms, until the weeks become leaden, eventually turning – we are told – into four months, scraping a living on cocktail olives and cheese biscuits, drinking increasingly rancid water from brackish water tanks, growing thinner and more feverish.

Aha! So this is where it comes from. Ballard’s lifelong obsession with the ruins of the contemporary world, with abandoned hotels and empty cities and derelict shopping centres and the obsessive, recurring image of The Drained Swimming Pool.

In a flash all his many fans and critics realised that – although many of his novels and stories are set in the future and feature futuristic plot paraphernalia – environmental catastrophe or strange new ‘space sicknesses’ – in fact Ballard’s fiction was always about the past, that like any victim of severe trauma, he was obsessively revisiting the shock, ordeal and suffering of those crucial, decisive boyhood years.

Towards the end of the 160 pages of part one, Jim falls in with a couple of American chancers, Basie, a confident rat-faced man, formerly a steward on passenger liners, who’s made a base in a ruined tanker in Shanghai harbour and sends bigger, tougher Frank out on chores. Jim gets co-opted into their eerie and often pointless survivor lifestyle. Basie makes Frank collect and polish ship’s porthole brasses, though they never manage to sell one. In one scene they go to busy Hongkew market where, Jim realises, they are trying to sell him to the Chinese, but he is by this stage so obviously malnourished, skinny and covered in running sores, that no-one is buying.

Part one ends when they take Jim out for a drive in their truck and he realises they’re simply want to find somewhere to dump him. Jim persuades them to drive to the abandoned houses of the International Settlement, luring them with the fact that one of Jim’s neighbours was a dentist who kept lots of equipment in his house. Maybe there’ll be some gold teeth somewhere in it. But they are caught by Japanese soldiers who are camping out in the abandoned houses and quickly surround the truck, pulling Jim out onto the road, while they surround and batter Frank, and beat Basie with their bamboo staves.

Part two

Part two opens three and a half years later. Jim, who was 11 in part one, is now 14 (p.165). To be more precise, the events of part one were kicked off by Pearl Harbour (December 1941), whereas when part two opens, not only has Victory in Europe day happened (May 1945, p.174) but the Japanese have surrendered at Okinawa (late June 1945) and this section ends with the detonation of the second atom bomb at Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. So it covers a few weeks in July and August 1945.

Anyway, part two (pp.163-260) finds a Jim who has survived three and a half long years in the Lunghua internment camp and been utterly changed by it. It describes in excruciating detail the permanent malnutrition and thirst, the obsession with food, and the countless petty humiliations the internees are prey to. Everyone is thin and emaciated, most can barely be bothered to walk or talk, Jim helps Dr Ransome (another in a long line of doctors in Ballard’s fiction) who not only tends the sick (with no medicine and barely even any water), who also uses the contents of the septic tank to try and grow a few sparse vegetables.

If part one – Jim’s experience of camping out and searching for half-rotten food in the abandoned houses of the rich – lies behind all those Ballard protagonists who camp out and scrape an existence in the derelict buildings of abandoned civilisations, then part two – where Jim watches all the rich and powerful and impressive English ex-pats he’d known from the Settlement slowly decline into malnutrition, fever and mania – lies behind the countless protagonists of his novels and short stories who deteriorate into mumbling psychotics.

Jim lives in a quarter of a bedroom in an abandoned training college which e shares with Mr and Mrs Vincent and their permanently ill six-year-old son. For three years there has been psychological warfare as Mrs Vincent tries to force him out or, at the very least, pushes the sheet they’ve hung as a partition between their three-quarters and his quarter of the space nearer to him.

Beyond the wire perimeter fence is the Lunghua airport and Jim venerates the beautiful fighter planes he watches taking off and landing, and admires the spirit of the steady stream of suicide fighter pilots who carry out their brief ritual of dedication to the Emperor before flying off to fly their planes with their huge bombs directly into the American navy ships in the South China Sea.

In the latter part of this long gruelling section, the Japanese soldiers round up all the internees and organise them for a march. It is quite clear that many of the camp’s 2,000 or so inhabitants are in no fit state to move, but the Japes move them out anyway, a crowd of pitifully thin scarecrows clutching on to their hurriedly packed belongings. Jim is surprised how many seem to have clung on to their tennis racquets and balls all through the three long years of privation.

The march takes a long time and after each rest, there are large numbers who can’t get up. Jim is in a close but strangely dissociated state with Mr Maxted, one of his parents friends, who is in the final stages of emaciation. Eventually, after a long march of intense suffering, the survivors are hustled into the old stadium at Nantao, built on the order of Madame Chiang in the hope that China would host the 1940 Olympics (p.257). Now it is packed with goods the Japanese have looted from the houses of the Westerners, starting with long rows of shiny American cars lined up by the running track, but going on to include all manner of household furniture piled up in the stands and, the presidential box,

where Madame Chiang and the Generalissimo might once have saluted the world’s athletes, was now crammed with roulette wheels, cocktail bars and a jumble of gilded plaster nymphs holding gaudy lamps above their heads. Rolls of Persian and Turkish carpets, hastily wrapped in tarpaulins, lay on the concrete steps, water dripping through them as if from a pile of rotting pipes.

Worn beyond endurance Mr Maxted lies down on the ground and starts to die. Jim dips his fingers in nearby puddles then puts them in Maxted’s mouth which postpones the inevitable for a little. Other British prisoners, right on the edge of death, feebly call for his help. Eventually, Jim, too, squats on the ground patting the earth and dumbly repeating his name over and over. Irritated by this a passing Japanese soldier makes ready to kick Jim, with the casual brutality he has witnessed so many times when all of a sudden… there is a flash of unusually intense white light from the north-east. They all pause, waiting for the sound of the bomb but none comes. Although he doesn’t realise it, Jim has witnessed the blast of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Part three

Part three follows directly from the end of part two and describes what happens after the Japanese surrender. Jim comes to consciousness to discover it is hailing. He tries to capture and drink the water, then stirs himself and totters over to the stands. Slowly he realises the Japanese soldiers aren’t there any more. No-one is guarding them.

A Eurasian soldier enters the stadium, circulating among the dead prisoners and it’s he who tells Jim the Japanese have surrendered. But Jim soon discovers that freedom is far more violent and unpredictable than imprisonment. Life in Lunghua was full of reassuring rhythms and timetables. It was for the most part peaceful. Now they are all entering into a period of unpredictable anarchy. The Japanese simply stop administering anything, many of them taking to wandering the countryside at random or retreating into buildings waiting reprisals. Later Jim is to find a Japanese guard at Lunghua who the released British have tied to a camp bed and bludgeoned to death. Later still, a Japanese fighter pilot savagely bayoneted to death.

Quickly the Chinese Nationalist armies approach to liberate Shanghai, but there also large numbers of Chinese communist bands, as well as forces loyal to various warlords and then and fourth element, small groups of freelance survivors of all nationalities. Violent anarchy.

In the rice paddies surrounding the sports stadium Jim is in the last stages of malnutrition when, in a scene which beggars belief, huge American B29 aircraft fly overhead and drop… not bombs but food packages, hundreds of them, gently falling from the air on their blood-red parachutes. They burst open on landing and spill a treasure of tins of spam, powdered milk, chocolate and copies of Reader’s Digest magazine, all freezing cold having flown for hours miles up in the frozen air, hence the title of this chapter – The Refrigerator in the Sky.

His body sustained by this totally unexpected bounty, Jim staggers back towards Lunghua camp which isn’t in the end, all that far away, but discovers changes: it has been taken over and barricaded by psychotically violent and angry British prisoners, firstly to keep out the growing number of starving Chinese who sit patiently outside the main gate, but also because they know about the increasing numbers of marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Jim argues with a man he knew named Tulloch, the chief mechanic at the Packard agency, and Lieutenant Price, a British soldier who’s been driven mad by years of imprisonment and torture – his body is covered with cigarette burns – on the edge angry all the time ready to kill anyone. Eventually Tulloch lets Jim into the camp when Price isn’t looking and Jim goes and holes up in his old quarters, staying out the way, eating spam and chocolate, carefully arranging the magazines included in all the B29 airdrops in chronological order.

Part of Jim’s uneasy existence with psychotic Price & Tulloch is telling them about the treasure at Nantao stadium and, eventually, a week or so later, the pair and their crew set off towards Shanghai in a truck loaded with food, drinking heavily from the jars of rice wine they’ve bartered with some of the locals for tinned food. On an impulse at the last minute Price veers off the main Shanghai road towards the stadium, where they ask Jim again about the supposed treasures contained inside, park the lorry, get out and walk towards it when…

Suddenly a bunch of men with guns come charging out of the stadium entrance, and next thing they know are firing – Tulloch is shot dead, Price is beaten to death, just like that, just like so many of the random shifts of mood and inexplicable deaths Jim has been exposed to for three and a half years. Some of the armed group are Eurasians, some Chinese, some whites… a Chinese finds Jim in the back of the lorry and is just about to kick him to death when Jim recognises Basie in the oddly dressed, pomaded and talced American sauntering nearby. Basie’s presence just about saves Jim’s life and he lives on in a precarious relationship with them, till they too take off towards Shanghai, leaving Jim once again to travel across country to Lunghua, having further hallucinatory encounters, not least with a dead Japanese soldier who has been severely bayoneted and fallen off an embankment into a reed-filled canal, where Jim blunders into him.

Back at Lunhua Jim discovers the base has been taken over by Americans, who are refitting the runway, landing Mustangs and other planes, and he discovers Dr Ransom didn’t die on the death march after all, but has been fed and restored and is working as a doctor. The cemetery has been razed to the ground as if it never existed.

Part four

It is two months later and everything is disconcertingly back to normal – Jim has returned to the family home in Amherst Avenue to discover his mother and father are still both alive, though, of course, much changed after three and a half years in the Suchoo internment camp – Yang the chauffeur has returned with a limousine. Now Jim is being packed off with his mother to England, the small damp country he’s read so much about but never seen. Traveling to the docks he gets a panoramic view of Shanghai which has returned to its pre-war days, packed with gangsters, criminals, prostitutes and corrupt officials. Above them all are huge screens onto which the Allies insist a never-ending loops of Pathé newsreels tell the story of the entire war, its heroes and villains, in fast-moving black and white images set to rousing music. As Jim boards the steamer which will take him to England he looks down and sees in the water one of the many many coffins which the Chinese consign to the Shanghai river slowly floating around the ship in its corona of soaked flowers.


A boy’s eye view

It is crucial to the book’s success that we see this grim panorama of atrocities through the eyes of a boy. The book brilliantly conveys the way that, although Jim is intelligent for his age, he simply doesn’t understand half of what is happening or why. He reports everything he sees with a kind of wide-eyed candour. He doesn’t filter, he isn’t hindered by good manners or good taste. He tells you what he sees, and half the ‘tragedy’ or emotional aspect of the book comes from the way the reader so forcefully sees how Jim’s values and view of the world have been deeply corrupted. He simply takes it for granted that Chinese peasants are publicly beheaded, Chinese criminals publicly strangled in the street.

Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd. On the way home from school Yang would often drive by the Old City. The public stranglings were held in a miniature stadium with a scrubbed wooden floor and rows of circular benches around the teak execution posts, and always attracted a thoughtful audience. The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else.

He develops a highly tuned understanding of the strange Japanese mentality, how to pause, stop, bow and show respect, in order to avoid beating, although even then the standard Japanese response to almost everything is anger and beating or kicking anyone more vulnerable than themselves.

This starkness and clarity of vision, a kind of bright-eyed candour, underpins the attitude of most of the characters in Ballard’s fiction to whom often quite drastic things happen before they have any kind of emotional response. Maybe the therapists would say that almost all normal emotional response was burned out of Jim long long ago.

But there’s something else Jim’s character embodies which echoes and re-echoes throughout his stories and novels, which is the way the protagonists are often simply puzzled. They don’t understand other people. They can’t grasp other people’s motives. His stories are littered with the notion of ambiguous and uncertain motives, in fact the characteristic attitude of any of the protagonists towards other people is simply no understanding them.

You wonder whether, at some level, the shock Ballard received as a boy prevented him ever developing a properly socialised understanding of other people, and whether this explains the air of puzzlement all his characters display when they try – and generally fail – to interact with other people. Other people aren’t, pace Sartre, hell – they are just unknowable.

A clear-eyed style for deranged events

The very powerful upside of all this, or strongly connected to it somehow, is the striking clarity and limpidity of Ballard’s prose style.

Ballard’s style in this book is beautifully, beautifully clear and expressive and to the point. The lush exoticism which I pointed out in his earliest novels has been burned away, the psychotic extravagance of the urban disaster novels has been left behind and instead Ballard’s style is clear, grammatically correct and tremendously focused. Sentence after sentence conveys just the right amount of information to make you see the scene and understand Jim’s boyish thoughts. And his style doesn’t need to be florid, because the reality of what he’s describing is so innately colourful and bizarre.

A field of paper flowers floated on the morning tide, clustered around the oil-stained piers of the jetty and dressed them in vivid coloured ruffs. A few minutes before dawn Jim sat at a window of his bedroom at the Palace Hotel. He wore his school uniform and was keen to start an hour’s revision before breakfast. As always, however, he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the Shanghai waterfront. Already the odour of fish heads and bean curd sizzling in peanut oil rose from the pans of the vendors outside the hotel. Tung-stained junks with eyes painted on their bows sailed past the opium hulks beached on the Pootung shore. Thousands of sampans and ferry-boats were moored along the Bund, a city of floating hovels still hidden by the darkness.

The surrealism of the everyday

In every paragraph Jim observes the colourful scenes, the smells, the noise and hustle of this third world city which are already full of hundreds of dazzlingly surreal images – or what, for us, living in our boring western cities – are things amazing to contemplate.

The most notable of these are the streetside executions, the stranglings and beheadings. Small crowds gather to watch some Chinese wretch be forced to kneel by several Japanese soldiers, while an officer wielded his ceremonial sword and cut off the offender’s head. The tram lines run red with blood. The streets packed with endless queues of rickshaws and carts and peasants are also lined with corpses.

In many of Ballard’s sci-fi stories the plots, such as they are, seem contrived and forced, or are strangely implausible. But in Empire of the Sun the weirdness arises naturally from the subject matter because the world Jim inhabits is weird, it’s all weird beyond belief, almost every moment brings a tumbling of strange and uncanny images and impressions.

All this Jim reports in his clear lucid way. It’s the world he grew up in. He takes it as normal. And it’s the simple, blank acceptance of the weirdness all around him which really grips the modern reader – the combination of Jim’s matter-of-fact style and Ballard’s clear prose and the astonishments surrounding him. Remember the first hundred or so pages describe everyday life for an expatriate in Shanghai and much of it is exotic and strange enough.

The mania of war

All that’s before the war even starts and Jim enters a world of permanent malnutrition, infection and fever. From this point onwards the reader is given permission to accept the strangeness of what Jim reports or sees, and Ballard is able to get away with some extraordinary sequences and an increasing scattering of his trademark visionary sentences, because it is understood that he is feverish, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating.

He fell asleep on his friend’s bed, under the endlessly circling aircraft that swam below the ceiling like fish seeking a way out of the sky.

There are lots of sentences like that in the book, visionary sentences made up of the simplest components, simple vocabulary, simple grammar, and the power to transport the reader to another plane of experience. Some are simple similes which make the entire situation spring into horrible life.

The hospital patients lay across each other like rolls of carpet.

At one point there is yet another rest break on the long death march to the Nantao stadium, where an exhausted and malnourished Mr Maxted rests on the running board of an abandoned wagon, and:

Mr Maxted reached out and held Jim’s wrist. Gutted by malaria and malnutrition, his body was about to merge with the derelict vehicle behind him.

It is all clear and factual until that final phrase which shifts into an entirely new realm, of hallucination, of drugs, a perception beyond normal human cognition, telling us something important about the infinite malleability of reality.

Recurring themes

Calm Repeatedly other characters are made to say ‘calm down Jim’, or slap him in the face to snap him out of his hysteria, or give him a hug, or tell him to remember he’s British i.e. to keep a grip on himself.

‘Jim…Jim…’ Tulloch placed his hand on Jim’s head, trying to steady the over-excited boy. ‘It’s time you found your father, lad. The war’s over, Jim.’

These repeated injunctions serve to warn us that Jim spends almost the entire book in a state of nervous over-excitement.

Before the war a small English boy would have been killed for his shoes within minutes. Now he was safe, guarded by the Japanese soldiers – he laughed over this so much that the Dutch woman reached out a hand to calm him.

Dr Ransome reached out and gently pressed Jim’s hands to the table, trying to calm him.

In my reviews of Ballard’s stories of the 1970s I had begun to notice how many of his protagonists need calming, are feverish and delusional or become over-excited. Was it Ballard’s own feverishness spilling over into his texts or is it something about his entire attitude to fiction: that it is, by definition, about over-excited people.

Intoxicated by the fermenting potato, Jim giggled at the thought of the deity trapped in the bowels of the earth below Shanghai, perhaps in the basement of the Sincere Company department store. Mrs Philips held his hand, trying to comfort him.

Distilling water In Lunghua Camp, the narrator explains how, in the early days of the internment, a group of British men were tasked with boiling the water taken from ponds in the camp in order to sterilise it, but eventually let the habit fall into desuetude, preferring to get dysentery than expend so much energy. The ceaseless effort involved in boiling water to make it drinkable resurfaces in part two of The Drought where entire communities have to boil seawater to produce fresh water, for me the most haunting story Ballard ever wrote.

Cramped living space In the camp Jim shares a room in the unheated hall of residence of a former training college, with a young British couple and their six-year-old son. They, especially the mother, really resent his presence and rig up a partition carefully defining his quarter of the space. This stifling claustrophobia resurfaces in Ballard’s classic short story Billennium, set in a grossly overpopulated world of the future.

Old American magazines Jim likes to pore over old copies of Life magazine which the American, Basie, gives him, just as Wayne, the central protagonist of the novel Hello America, pores over old Time and Life magazines in the ship carrying the European scientific team to the dead New World.

AMERICA Young Jim adulates everything to do with America, addicted to their magazines, in love with their huge stylish cars, Packards and Chryslers and limousines. When he sees the B29 bomber planes fly overhead it is immediately obvious that nothing the Japanese have can compete with it.

The adulation of America and American culture, at the same time as satirising it, is something you see in British artists from the late 1950s through the 1960s, a notable example being Richard Hamilton and then, in the next generation, David Hockney. (Hockney became famous, at one point, for his vivid depictions of the lush, lazy swimming pools of Los Angeles; insofar as he obsessively depicts abandoned, derelict, drained swimming pools, Ballard is a kind of anti-Hockney.)

America was so obviously the winner of the Second World War, and the explosion of consumer goods it developed after the war was so much the envy of the world, especially in wartorn, exhausted Europe, that maybe it was impossible to resist. Certainly an obsession with Americana drives The Atrocity Exhibition which, on Ballard’s own admission, was presided over by the assassination of President Kennedy, and features a floating population of American consumer goods and Hollywood movie stars, just as the plot of Crash drives towards the mad protagonist’s attempt to stage a fatal car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

The beauty of planes and shiny machines Even before the war Jim is mad about airplanes, we learn about the model planes he has made and the even better ones made by his boyhood friend, both of them hanging them from strings in their bedrooms. Suddenly the car fetishism of Crash seems less perverse, when you read a description of Jim running his hands over the hard, cold, smooth, beautifully engineered surface of a Zero fighter plane. Even in decay, it is a thing of unspeakable, dizzying beauty.

Jim stopped under the tailplane of a Zero fighter. Wild sugar-cane grew through its wings. Cannon fire had burned the metal skin from the fuselage spars, but the rusting shell still retained all the magic of those machines which he had watched from the balcony of the assembly hall, taking off from the runway he had helped to build. Jim touched the feathered vanes of the radial engine and ran his hand along the warped flank of the propeller.

Terminal documents In the camp Jim has a box full of a random selection of precious objects:

  • a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura
  • three steel-bossed fighting caps
  • a chess set
  • a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer
  • his Cathedral School blazer
  • the pair of clogs he’s been wearing for three years

The idea of a psychologically significant collection of half a dozen random objects like this occurs in the ‘terminal documents’ collected by Kaldren in the 1962 short story The Voices of Time and similar collections of half a dozen or so random items are collected by all the male protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition stories, beginning with Talbot who owns:

  • a spectrohelion of the sun
  • the front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  • a transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  • ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  • a photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  • a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  • the fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

The idea recurs in 1982’s Myths of the Near Future in which the protagonist Robert Sheppard takes just such a psychic ‘survival kit’, i.e. suitcase of random junk, with him to the Florida jungle.

Random to us. But charged with intense psychological significance for the characters, rescue kits, survival kits, escape kits – talismans to aid mental escape from intolerable situations, such as the one Jim experienced in the camp, and his characters experience in their tortured inner lives.

Magazine pictures are reality Jim cuts out pictures from magazines and pins them to the wall of his little partition. Eventually he confusedly identifies a photo of a couple outside Buckingham Palace with his long-lost parents.

Beside the Packard was a small section that Jim had cut from a larger photograph of a crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1940. The blurred images of a man and a woman standing arm-in-arm reminded Jim of his parents. This unknown English couple, perhaps dead in an air raid, had almost become his mother and father. Jim knew that they were complete strangers, but he kept the pretence alive, so that in turn he could keep alive the lost memory of his parents.

This echoes the mentally ill protagonist of The Terminal Beach who cuts out a photo of a little girl and pins it to the wall of the abandoned bunker he’s living in, using it to channel hallucinatory visions of his dead wife and son.

The sky When all human existence on earth seems to be wretched, diseased and violent, where else is there to turn but the sky. Hence Jim’s fairly rational fantasy of one day learning to fly a plane like the young Japanese pilots he sees climbing into their suicide fighters. Hence the altogether more hallucinatory visions he has at numerous moments of himself or other characters or buildings or the world disappearing up into the sky. On the long death march to the Nantao stadium, Jim looks back.

He looked back at the ammunition truck. He was startled to see that hundreds of suitcases lay on the empty road. Exhausted by the effort of carrying their possessions, the prisoners had abandoned them without a spoken word. The suitcases and wicker baskets, the tennis racquets, cricket bats and pierrot costumes lay in the sunlight, like the luggage of a party of holidaymakers who had vanished into the sky.

The sentences are all reasonable and factual, clear and precise right up until that final phrase where the mania takes over. Similarly calm and simple is this statement, made when Jim, tottering with fever and malnutrition decides to climb up the stands of the Olympic stadium.

Jim left Mr Maxted and walked along the running track, intending to follow them, but then cautiously decided to climb one of the stands. The concrete steps seemed to reach beyond the sky.

The sun And at the centre of the sky, is the great ball of energy which drives all life on earth, the sun. The importance of the sun cannot be over-emphasised – overseeing all things – the blistering force and light and heat – with the result that it’s natural that when he thinks of escape it isn’t to anywhere else on earth – the whole world is a battlefield covered in beggars and starved people beating each other to death – the only path of escape is off the earth altogether, upwards, away from the earth, upwards towards the source of all heat and light and, ultimately, meaning. The sun, father of all things, symbol, of course, of the Japanese Empire, until a greater sun comes to eclipse it, the unwatchable sun o the atomic bomb.

A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn up above them on the Bund were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun.

In the hour before dusk they entered an area of abandoned battlefields nine miles to the south of Shanghai. The afternoon light rose into the air, as if returning to the sun a small part of the strength it had cast to the indifferent fields.

The ubiquity of the sun as a central symbol mirrors its use in scores of the short stories, where umpteen characters dream of being reunited with the sun, flying into the sun, listening to the music of the sun. Ballard is obsessed with the sun and sunlight and sunshine and sunwarmth which makes it that much more ominous when, in a typically limpid phrase he manages to convey the unsettling effect of the Nagasaki atom blast, whose white light for a moment illuminates the Olympic stadium and its field full of dying Europeans.

Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.

The Mustang crash One of the most intense moments in the book is when Jim witnesses a flight of Mustangs flying low over Lunghua airfield as part of an attack on the Japanese planes, only for one of them to be damaged, and:

Jim had never before seen an air attack of such scale. A second wave of Mustangs crossed the paddy fields between Lunghua Camp and the river, followed by a squadron of two-engined fighter-bombers. Three hundred yards to the west of the camp one of the Mustangs dipped its starboard wing towards the ground. Out of control, it slid across the air, and its wing-tip sheared the embankment of a disused canal. The plane cartwheeled across the paddy fields and fell apart in the air. It exploded in a curtain wall of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat. Riding the incandescent debris of his aircraft, he tore through the trees beyond the perimeter of the camp, a fragment of the sun whose light continued to flare across the surrounding fields.

‘A fragment of the sun’.

World War III Towards the end of the book Jim ceases endlessly pestering the adults about when the war will end – they keep telling him it has ended and since, if anything, the world has immediately become more violent and unpredictable, Jim starts suspecting that the next war – World War III – has already started.

When Basie and the men had gone, vanishing among the ruined warehouses on the quay, Jim studied the magazines on the seat beside him. He was sure now that the Second World War had ended, but had World War III begun? Looking at the photographs of the D-Day landings, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Berlin, he felt that they were part of a smaller war, a rehearsal for the real conflict that had begun here in the Far East with the dropping of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And anyone with a feel for history knows that the next world war did, in fact, start immediately upon the end of the second one. For most of us in the West it was a low-key, almost invisible cold war, although for the next 45 years we all knew that deep down, all it would have taken was a few buttons to be pressed and – bang!

But where Jim is, in the book, it wasn’t at all a cold war: in China it was hotter than anywhere else in the world. In Europe the fighting stopped, even as the Russians and the Western powers regarded each other with suspicion. But in the East the fighting didn’t stop. Across the huge territory of China the civil war resumed between the communists and the nationalists which wasn’t to end until the communists finally secured control of most of China in 1950. And only a few months later North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

In his over-excited, confused but prescient way, even right at the end of the novel after he’s been restored to his parents, Jim has the powerful sense that ‘peace’ is not real or normal.

While Yang drove uneasily back to Amherst Avenue… Jim thought of the last weeks of the war. Towards the end everything had become a little muddled. He had been starving and perhaps had gone slightly mad. Yet he knew that he had seen the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki even across the four hundred miles of the China Sea. More important, he had seen the start of World War III, and realized that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels on the Bund had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started.

It’s very Ballard to mix the Third World War up with film and newsreels, and brings us much more into the world of his fiction of the 60s and 70s, concerned with the deranging effects of the mass media, movies and advertising on the human psyche.

And it feeds into our understanding of the way the protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition is obsessed with World War III, but not in any way a historian or soldier would conceive it, but as a purely personal struggle, a psychological battle against the self.

What we are concerned with now are the implications—in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to  accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’

Like Jim, Ballard’s protagonists know that the next war will take place in their heads.

Novel or autobiography

So how true is Empire of the Sun, how accurate is it? How much is truth and how much carefully orchestrated, re-arranged, reconfigured in order to make it into a readable work of fiction? The book has a preface in which Ballard wrote:

Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.

This sounds candid and open enough. But as you read through the book all kinds of suspicions arise. The overall structure is shaped just so, and designed to foreground highly charged or symbolic incidents – the scene where he watches an American fighter plane crash in a sheet of flames on Lunghua runway; the scene where he confronts the single Japanese pilot walking in despair around the airfield after the army has left; the scene with the Japanese corpse, the scene where he enters the prison hospital to find it an abattoir of rotted flesh infested with swarms of black flies.

And it’s pretty handy that Jim happened to be a) outdoors and b) conscious enough, to witness the white light of the atom bomb. Convenient for an author intent on his symbolism.

Above all there is the suspicious way that the same small number of characters – specifically the American chancer Basie and the good English doctor, Ransome, manage to survive and crop up in successive setups.

The question

After reviewing just the dozen or so more obvious ways in which Empire of the Sun touches on themes and images which recur throughout Ballard’s entire oeuvre, the question is:

Does Empire of the Sun touch on so many of the themes and images which dominate Ballard’s other books because the wartime, boyhood experiences it describes laid the basis for Ballard’s entire imaginarium? Are all the other stories and books attempts to work through, in disguised fictional form, the true-life experiences which are for the first time described in Empire of the Sun with unflinching documentary accuracy? Or –

Does Empire of the Sun contain so many of the themes, images and hallucinatory turns of the phrase that occur in all Ballard’s other fiction, not because it is the source of them – but the exact reverse: because he had to spend all those years developing the obsessive imagery and coolly visionary turn of phrase as ‘objective correlatives’, developing the haunting images and crisp prose style in which he could express the things he saw and lived through?

When Ballard writes that Lieutenant Price, emaciated, with bloodied fists, permanently enraged after years of torture:

calmed himself. He touched the cigarette burns on his chest, tapping out a secret code of pain and memory.

Did he? Did he touch the cigarette burns as if tapping out ‘a secret code’? Or is that the kind of thing Ballard thinks that kind of character ought to do? Is it a true memory, or is it an example of the stylised way Ballard has, over the previous thirty years, come to conceive and write about human beings and which he now systematically projects back onto his experiences, embroidering them, expanding them, elaborating them, posing and positioning them in order to fit the highly artful aesthetic he had developed over all those years?

Was there ever a Lieutenant Price at all, cigarette burns or not – or is he a creation of Ballard’s later, more highly wrought, imagination?

Is Empire of the Sun the truth, which all his other works are based on? Or an extremely artful fiction, which all his other books were a careful preparation for?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Reviews of other prison camp books

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

Wars

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

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

Personal life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography

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

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

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

Learnings

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

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

The point or purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling (1937)

At any rate it went into the Weekly, together with soldier tales, Indian tales, and tales of the opposite sex. There was one of this last which, because of a doubt, I handed up to the Mother, who abolished it and wrote me; Never you do that again. But I did and managed to pull off, not unhandily, a tale called ‘A Wayside Comedy,’ where I worked hard for a certain ‘economy of implication,’ and in one phrase of less than a dozen words believed I had succeeded.

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line of my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.

Introduction

Kipling began work on this short autobiography in August 1935 as he approached his seventieth birthday. Although he didn’t know it, he had barely six months left to live. In her diary his wife, Caroline (‘Carrie’), wrote that the aim was to ‘review his life from the point of view of his work’. Kipling died in January 1936 but his widow thought the text complete enough to be made public and, after an unknown amount of editing by herself and one of Kipling’s oldest friends, it was published in February 1937.

The Kipling Society have made available online an introductory essay to the book by Thomas Pinney which is very balanced and informative. One of its main points is the way the autobiography completely omits huge areas of his life – not drawing a veil over his early love affairs (as you might expect) but mention of such important events as his young daughter’s tragic death in 1899 (from pneumonia aged just 6) and his 18-year-old son’s death in the Great War.

Pinney points out that Something of Myself contains a number of factual errors, as well as several striking places Kipling gives way to anger and bitterness about corruption, for example (unjustly, apparently) accusing his newspaper proprietors of taking bribes. He also highlights the several places where Kipling really lambasts American culture and society.

Something of Myself is, Pinney concludes, the work of ‘a man writing at the end of a life that had been devoted to so many causes by then defeated or discredited’.

Yes. But there are also many, many revealing passages which shed invaluable light on Kipling’s life, on his formative boyhood experiences and on his own practice as a writer. Foremost among these is the horrifying account of the brutality he was subjected to when his parents left him in England, aged just 6, at the house of a couple who had a track record of looking after Indian ex-pats’ children while they went to English prep school, but who turned out to be sadistic bullies. This was probably the defining experience of Kipling’s life and it is told in grisly enough detail.

For me the two lasting impressions of the book are

a) Wonder – Kipling’s own childish wonder at so many beautiful and fascinating aspects of the world  he moved through, and my wonder at the carefree confidence with which he travelled all round the world, living in India, America, South Africa, seeing sights and sounds and smells, building cabins and observing local animals and people – what a life he had!
b) Compressed On the down side, it has, like so many of his later stories, been worked over and over, sub-edited, pared away and compressed so that quite often it is a little difficult to grasp what he’s talking about: in some places, even after careful rereading, it’s in fact impossible to understand what he’s saying. In works of fiction this has a mysterious, deepening affect; but in a work of fact it repels and distances the reader. You long for the clarity of Charles Carrington’s wonderfully lucid and informative biography.

Something of Myself is divided into eight chapters:

  1. A Very Young Person 1865 – 1878 (toddler years in Bombay and then the horror of being abandoned in England to the ‘care’ of a sadistic landlady)
  2. The School Before Its Time 1878 – 1882 (bumptious account of life at the United Services College, a boarding school for sons of Indian Army officers, and the basis of Kipling’s schoolboy stories about Stalky and Co)
  3. Seven Years’ Hard (return to India where, at age 17, he began gruelling work on a small local newspaper, The Civil & Military Gazette, exposed to the harsh world of British soldiers and the professionals who kept the Empire working)
  4. The Interregnum (arrival back in London in 1889, after his seven years apprenticeship, with a portfolio of stories and poems about India which instantly make his name, the London music halls inspiring the Barrack-Room Ballads)
  5. The Committee of Ways and Means (1892 marriage to Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier and move to Vermont in America, where he wrote The Jungle BooksCaptains Courageous and much patriotic poetry)
  6. South Africa (Kipling was very involved in The Boer War 1899-1902, moving to South Africa to work on a newspaper for the troops, distributing goods and treats to soldiers, seeing action, hobnobbing with leading British Imperialist, including Cecil Rhodes)
  7. The Very–Own House (the final move to ‘Bateman’s in Sussex, family home for the rest of his life, with loving details of the local scenery and population)
  8. Working–Tools (a fascinating insight into his methods and techniques of composition)

Themes

As with so many of his later short stories, the telling is so compressed and allusive that you read and reread certain passages but still have the sense that you’ve missed something. So much is implied, and so little explicitly stated. Many of the most repeatable stories are familiar from other books, most notably Charles Carrington’s definitive biography, or have been recycled in introductions or footnotes to various editions. Many themes emerge:

Muslims Being raised in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, Kipling is much more familiar with Muslims than Hindus. Throughout his work are many Muslim characters who are examples of rectitude and duty. Of all the gods, Allah is mentioned a surprising number of times through the book; the second sentence reads:

‘Therefore, ascribing all good fortune to Allah the Dispenser of Events, I begin’.

And then:

It pleased Allah to afflict H—- in after years…

Our native Foreman, on the News side, Mian Rukn Din, a Muhammedan gentleman of kind heart and infinite patience, whom I never saw unequal to a situation, was my loyal friend throughout.

There were ghostly dinners too with Subalterns in charge of the Infantry Detachment at Fort Lahore, where, all among marble-inlaid, empty apartments of dead Queens, or under the domes of old tombs, meals began with the regulation thirty grains of quinine in the sherry, and ended – as Allah pleased!

There is, or was, a tablet in my old Lahore office asserting that here I ‘worked.’ And Allah knows that is true also!

Those were great and spacious and friendly days in Washington which — politics apart — Allah had not altogether deprived of a sense of humour.

The word ‘Allah’ is clearly used not as by a devout Muslim, but as an indication of ‘God’, of the power that rules the cosmos, in a way which (typically of Kipling) can be ironic, playful, deprecating, but hints at a fundamental seriousness. In fact, throughout the book Kipling takes a fatalistic though optimistic view of his own life, emphasising that many things happened through Fate, with little or no input from himself. He talks again and again about Fate dealing him certain cards, the cards being presented to him, so as to make various decisions (of subject matter and books and ideas) obvious and unavoidable.

Sensual descriptions Not something you associate with Kipling, but richly wrought descriptions are to be found throughout his work, especially in the frame sections of the stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, and there are sweet touches of it here;

I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs…

There were far-going Arab dhows on the pearly waters, and gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset…

Servants Rich Europeans had armies of servants at this time; even a not-very-successful writer like Henry James appears to have had a butler, a housekeeper and a cook. But in the Empire white men were waited on hand and foot in a way which Europeans found astonishing, and which is inconceivable to us today. As a toddler Kipling had an ayah and a bearer, and was raised in an atmosphere where his clothes were held out for him to get into, his baths were run for him, and even doors were opened in front of him and closed behind him by permanently present servants. Kipling was brought up with servants to do everything. As he wrote of his life in India:

Till I was in my twenty-fourth year, I no more dreamed of dressing myself than I did of shutting an inner door or – I was going to say turning a key in a lock. But we had no locks. I gave myself indeed the trouble of stepping into the garments that were held out to me after my bath, and out of them as I was assisted to do. And – luxury of which I dream still – I was shaved before I was awake!

World of wonder Difficult to convey if you haven’t read it, but his autobiography, like his work, gives a fantastic, exciting, boyish sense of the size and scale and wonder of the world. There’s the sights and sounds and smells of India itself; then of the P&O liner back to England; a train journey across the Egyptian desert. Even in grim Portsmouth, the old sea captain in whose care the 6-year-old Kipling was placed, had fought at the naval battle of Navarino (1827) and been disabled by becoming tangled in a harpoon line while whale fishing. He takes the boy to see amazingly romantic old wooden sailing ships at Portsmouth Hard, including one which had sailed up into the Arctic Circle!

Later, in the 1890s, after an apparent nervous breakdown in London, Kipling goes to recuperate on an extraordinary Cook’s tour across the world, sailing in a steamer to Madeira, on to South Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, back to southern India and by train up to Lahore to see his parents and childhood home one last time, before returning to London.

Here he marries Carrie Balestier (1892) and then – embarks on another awesome honeymoon voyage, sailing west to America, taking trains across Canada to Vancouver, then right across the Pacific to Japan. Wow. And then back to the States and right across the continent to New England where the young couple settle into a primitive one-story cottage, equipped only with an elementary stove and one hot pipe, living in what today would be incredibly primitive surroundings (and in fact sounding strikingly like Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride’s honeymoon in North California, as described in The Silverado Squatters.)

Brilliant details Kipling makes the world seem exciting and strange and full of vivid, standout details. Somehow, not being imprisoned by the clutter of gadgets which hem in our modern lives, Kipling’s boyish imagination seems to have been freer to observe and wonder. Take his description of what he saw as a child roaming the Victoria and Albert Museum with his sister:

We roved at will, and divided the treasures child-fashion. There were instruments of music inlaid with lapis, beryl and ivories; glorious gold-fretted spinets and clavichords; the bowels of the great Glastonbury clock; mechanical models steel – and silver-butted pistols, daggers and arquebusses – the labels alone were an education; a collection of precious stones and rings – we quarrelled over those – and a big bluish book which was the manuscript of one of Dickens’ novels. That man seemed to me to have written very carelessly; leaving out lots which he had to squeeze in between the lines afterwards. These experiences were a soaking in colour and design with, above all, the proper Museum smell; and it stayed with me.

And even the most humdrum accounts are enlivened by the bright detail or the telling phrase.

We parted, my Captain and I, after a farewell picnic, among white, blowing sand where natives were blasting and where, of a sudden, a wrathful baboon came down the rock-face and halted waistdeep in a bed of arum-lilies.

On one trip our steamer came almost atop of a whale, who submerged just in time to clear us, and looked up into my face with an unforgettable little eye the size of a bullock’s.

By pure luck, I had sight of the first sickening uprush and vomit of iridescent coal-dusted water into the hold of a ship, a crippled iron hulk, sinking at her moorings.

Tourists may carry away impressions, but it is the seasonal detail of small things and doings (such as putting up fly-screens and stove-pipes, buying yeast-cakes and being lectured by your neighbours) that bite in the lines of mental pictures.

My verses (The Absent-minded Beggar) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry.’ Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs.

Anti-American All over the world he rambled and admired, except for America. The fifth chapter is striking for its sustained attack on the vulgarity, hypocrisy, violence, bad manners and criminality of American society.

I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.

And always the marvel – to which the Canadians seemed insensible – was that on one side of an imaginary line should be Safety, Law, Honour, and Obedience, and on the other frank, brutal decivilisation; and that, despite this, Canada should be impressed by any aspect whatever of the United States.

His time in Vermont ended badly, harassed by the growing resentment of the locals who just didn’t like a Limey making money and living among them, with anti-British feeling prompted by a political crisis between the two countries over a border dispute in far away Belize (!), and was exacerbated when Carrie and Kipling fell out badly with her alcoholic sponging brother, who lived nearby. The family argument came to a head when the drunk brother threatened to kill Kipling, who unwisely took him to court – an American court. Kipling’s testimony, name and reputation were dragged through the mud by the American gutter press. It was at this point the Kiplings realised they had to leave, and retreated to Britain. But Kipling obviously never forgave America for hounding him out of the house he had helped to build and where he spent the happiest and formative years of his marriage, and where he reached new heights of creativity with the Jungle Books.

The Burne-Jones household It was of vital importance to him as a boy that he was able, once a year at Christmas, to escape from the house of torment and bullying in Portsmouth to the household of his mother’s sister, Georgiana in Fulham. Georgiana was married to the pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and ran a wonderfully bohemian household where the leading artists and writers of the day – Tennyson, Browning, William Morris – would call round and have dinner – where writing and art and story-telling were all encouraged and understood. The Burne-Jones connection provided a psychological and imaginative lifeline to the beaten and abused little boy and he continued his adoration of his uncle and aunt, moving to be near them when they moved to Sussex, until their deaths.

It is a vital component of Kipling’s make-up: on the one hand the violence of the Portsmouth household, and then of a fierce boarding school, and then the harsh realities of work in India – on the other, the very loving, supportive and creative environment of his artist father, and the astonishingly arty Burne-Joneses.

Violence It is hard to comprehend the Dickensian level of violence Kipling was subjected to as a boy. He and his sister were sent to England to board with a Mrs Holloway and her sea captain husband in Portsmouth. From here he was tutored by a series of governesses and then sent to prep school. Mrs H turned out to be a tyrant and beat and thrashed the young Kipling repeatedly for every sin and slightest misdemeanour, a woman of narrow Evangelical beliefs who called on God and the Bible as she whipped the little boy. Then in the evenings, their 12 or 13-year-old son, with whom Kipling shared a room, would also beat the daylights out of him.

I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture – religious as well as scientific.

He refers to her as ‘The Woman’ and the place as ‘The House of Desolation’ and gives examples not only of the countless beatings, but the deliberate humiliations. One day, being caught out concealing a bad school report, he was made to wear a big placard on his back spelling ‘LIAR’ and walk through the streets of Portsmouth. When ‘The Son’ is big enough to get a job, Kipling learns to listen intently to the sounds of his footsteps re-entering the House of Desolation at the end of the day, being able to deduce just from the sound of the tread, whether The Son had had ‘a bad day’ and was therefore liable to beat Kipling. It was systematic child abuse on an awesome scale.

Then there was the boarding school he was sent to at age 13, the United Services College.

My first year and a half was not pleasant. The most persistent bullying comes less from the bigger boys, who merely kick and pass on, than from young devils of fourteen acting in concert against one butt.

Not only was there lots of bullying, and fighting even among friends, but also systematic corporal punishment which readers nowadays find hard to imagine.

The penalty for wilful shirking [of sports] was three cuts with a ground-ash from the Prefect of Games. One of the most difficult things to explain to some people is that a boy of seventeen or eighteen can thus beat a boy barely a year his junior, and on the heels of the punishment go for a walk with him; neither party bearing malice or pride.

But it made him what he was.

Nor was my life an unsuitable preparation for my future, in that it demanded constant wariness, the habit of observation, and attendance on moods and tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech and action; a certain reserve of demeanour; and automatic suspicion of sudden favours.

It also, according to his critics (especially the mid-century sage Edmund Wilson in his psycho-analytical essay about Kipling) left an enduring stain across Kipling’s work, in a compulsive need to have his characters behave just that bit too violently, too aggressively, too sadistically, too vengefully, even in his ‘comedies’, which often leave an unpleasantly bitter taste of revenge and humiliation.

Craft and art In his last years at school he was grateful to the head for giving him free run of the library and taking him on for extra lessons, especially in précis, the quick summarising of other people’s texts: this was to be invaluable when he returned to journalism aged only 17, and the chapter describing his seven years’ hard labour on the Punjab newspaper emphasises the incredible hard work and long hours and dedication required. Here he gained his lifelong commitment to work, to honest labour, seen as the defining moral virtue. He was, from an early age, attracted by words and rhythms and patterns and sounds… but combined this with a tremendous ability to hold a subject or idea in his head and work it over for days or weeks on end, in his head and on paper.

Most men properly broke to a trade pick up some sort of workshop facility which gives them an advantage over their untrained fellows. My office-work had taught me to think out a notion in detail, pack it away in my head, and work on it by snatches in any surroundings.

There are extended passages about the importance of weighing and judging and deploying words.

My young head was in a ferment of new things seen and realised at every turn and – that I might in any way keep abreast of the flood – it was necessary that every word should tell, carry, weigh, taste and, if need were, smell.

Professionals Chapter three describes the long hours, day after day, working as one of the only two staff on the Civil and Military Gazette, the daily newspaper of the Punjab. The only place of entertainment was the Punjab Club and it was here that the young journalist found himself precociously thrown into the company of professional men, acquiring an admiration for men who do things which never left him.

In that Club and elsewhere I met none except picked men at their definite work — Civilians, Army, Education, Canals, Forestry, Engineering, Irrigation, Railways, Doctors, and Lawyers — samples of each branch and each talking his own shop. It follows then that that ‘show of technical knowledge’ for which I was blamed later came to me from the horse’s mouth, even to boredom.

It is here that Kipling acquired the journalist’s enthusiasm for facts facts facts, for a full grasps of the technical and geographical and administrative background for his stories, which never left him and which critics have been harsh on.

I was almost nightly responsible for my output to visible and often brutally voluble critics at the Club. They were not concerned with my dreams. They wanted accuracy and interest, but first of all accuracy.

The range of experiences he was exposed to was extraordinary and colourful.

Later I described openings of big bridges and such-like, which meant a night or two with the engineers; floods on railways – more nights in the wet with wretched heads of repair gangs; village festivals and consequent outbreaks of cholera or small-pox; communal riots under the shadow of the Mosque of Wazir Khan, where the patient waiting troops lay in timber-yards or side-alleys till the order came to go in and hit the crowds on the feet with the gun-butt (killing in Civil Administration was then reckoned confession of failure), and the growling, flaring, creed-drunk city would be brought to hand without effusion of blood, or the appearance of any agitated Viceroy; visits of Viceroys to neighbouring Princes on the edge of the great Indian Desert, where a man might have to wash his raw hands and face in soda-water; reviews of Armies expecting to move against Russia next week; receptions of an Afghan Potentate, with whom the Indian Government wished to stand well (this included a walk into the Khyber, where I was shot at, but without malice, by a rapparee who disapproved of his ruler’s foreign policy); murder and divorce trials, and (a really filthy job) an inquiry into the percentage of lepers among the butchers who supplied beef and mutton to the European community of Lahore.

Goals and ambitions There is a fascinating account of how his thinking developed in his first year of spectacular success in London. At first it was sufficient for the young man to make a big stir and, in the words of a music hall acquaintance, ‘knock ’em over’. But quite quickly he realised this wasn’t enough and, slowly, it dawned on him that he had a sort of duty to show the ignorant hypocritical English something of the world beyond their shores and something of the men and women to all corners of the earth who laboured long and hard to preserve Little Englanders in their peace and wealth – all those hard-working dedicated professionals back in India.

Their [his parents’] arrival simplified things, and ‘set’ in my head a notion that had been rising at the back of it. It seemed easy enough to ‘knock ’em’— but to what end beyond the heat of the exercise?… In the talks that followed, I exposed my notion of trying to tell to the English something of the world outside England – not directly but by implication… Bit by bit, my original notion grew into a vast, vague conspectus – Army and Navy Stores List if you like – of the whole sweep and meaning of things and effort and origins throughout the Empire.

It is fascinating to learn that the idea of justifying the British Empire, systematically, was an actual conscious thought-out strategy. What an ambition!

The strain of India And yet, among all his other contradictions, there is the constant awareness of the psychological cost of serving abroad. It wasn’t all servants and stiff upper lips. Men went mad from the heat and strain, and there is throughout Kipling’s fiction a sense of men right on the edge of complete nervous collapse.

One must set these things against the taste of fever in one’s mouth, and the buzz of quinine in one’s ears; the temper frayed by heat to breakingpoint but for sanity’s sake held back from the break; the descending darkness of intolerable dusks; and the less supportable dawns of fierce, stale heat through half of the year… Though I was spared the worst horrors, thanks to the pressure of work, a capacity for being able to read, and the pleasure of writing what my head was filled with, I felt each succeeding hot weather more and more, and cowered in my soul as it returned.

It happened one hotweather evening, in ‘86 or thereabouts, when I felt that I had come to the edge of all endurance. As I entered my empty house in the dusk there was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not know.

In the joyous reign of Kay Robinson, my second Chief, our paper changed its shape and type. This took up for a week or so all hours of the twenty-four and cost me a break-down due to lack of sleep.

The tendency to nervous prostration followed him to England and dogged the rest of his life.

But in all this jam of work done or devising, demands, distractions, excitements, and promiscuous confusions, my health cracked again. I had broken down twice in India from straight overwork, plus fever and dysentery, but this time the staleness and depression came after a bout of real influenza, when all my Indian microbes joined hands and sang for a month in the darkness of Villiers Street.

A lot that is clipped and understated and repressed and tight about Kipling must stem from this constant need to keep a harsh rein on the ever-present threat of hysteria and nervous collapse.

The uncanny Related to this note of psychological strain, is Kipling’s persistent eye for the weird and uncanny. He has an unnerving eye for the tellingly macabre detail.

Nor did I know that near our little house on the Bombay Esplanade were the Towers of Silence, where their Dead are exposed to the waiting vultures on the rim of the towers, who scuffle and spread wings when they see the bearers of the Dead below. I did not understand my Mother’s distress when she found ‘a child’s hand’ in our garden, and said I was not to ask questions about it. I wanted to see that child’s hand.

The dead of all times were about us — in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh’s wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts.

[In London] Once I faced the reflection of my own face in the jet-black mirror of the window-panes for five days. When the fog thinned, I looked out and saw a man standing opposite the pub where the barmaid lived. Of a sudden his breast turned dull red like a robin’s, and he crumpled, having cut his throat. In a few minutes — seconds it seemed — a hand-ambulance arrived and took up the body. A pot-boy with a bucket of steaming water sluiced the blood off into the gutter, and what little crowd had collected went its way.

Night walking As a result of his childhood beatings in the House of Desolation in Portsmouth, Kipling thinks he must have had a nervous breakdown, and this turns out to be the first of many. When finally rescued from the House of Desolation and brought by his Mother to a boarding house in West London, he takes to what will become a lifelong habit of insomnia and wandering the streets wide awake through the night till dawn.

I did not know then that such nightwakings would be laid upon me through my life; or that my fortunate hour would be on the turn of sunrise, with a sou’-west breeze afoot.

Often the night got into my head as it had done in the boarding-house in the Brompton Road, and I would wander till dawn in all manner of odd places-liquor-shops, gambling-and opium-dens, which are not a bit mysterious, wayside entertainments such as puppet-shows, native dances; or in and about the narrow gullies under the Mosque of Wazir Khan for the sheer sake of looking. Sometimes, the Police would challenge, but I knew most of their officers, and many folk in some quarters knew me for the son of my Father, which in the East more than anywhere else is useful.

The writing

Style and phrases I dislike Kipling’s lifelong fondness for cod-Biblical or medieval expressions, or just old-fashioned phraseology – ‘whereupon’, ‘verily’, ‘ere’, ‘whereby’, ‘otherwhiles’, ‘forthwith’ – which I think mars lots of his prose:

We possessed a paradise which I verily believe saved me…

Often and often afterwards…

My eyes went wrong, and I could not well see to read. For which reason I read the more and in bad lights…

After my strength came suddenly to me about my fourteenth year, there was no more bullying; and either my natural sloth or past experience did not tempt me to bully in my turn. I had by then found me two friends…

My House-master was deeply conscientious and cumbered about with many cares for his charges. What he accomplished thereby I know not…

I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not…

Rider Haggard would visit us from time to time and give of his ample land-wisdom… When Rider Haggard heard these things, he rested not till he had made the Colonel’s acquaintance.

Which things are a portent.

Sparkling phrases On the other hand, cheek by jowl with the irritating archaisms, go sudden bursts of verbal life and insight.

… the Uncle got inside the rugs and gave us answers which thrilled us with delightful shivers, in a voice deeper than all the boots in the world….

Hence our speed to our own top-landing, where we could hang over the stairs and listen to the loveliest sound in the world — deep-voiced men laughing together over dinner.

The country was large-boned, mountainous, wooded, and divided into farms of from fifty to two hundred barren acres. Roads, sketched in dirt, connected white, clap-boarded farm-houses, where the older members of the families made shift to hold down the eating mortgages.

Clipped, crabbed and obscure The eighth and final chapter, devoted to the craft of writing, is vital. Lots is conveyed in this chapter, but particularly the power of leaving out. The presence of the omissions, the presence of the absences, is something he learned as early as the writing of the Plain Tales and which characterises all his work, including this very compressed autobiography.

A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect.

He gives a section of clear explicit advice about how to winnow and prune and pare your drafts back to the bone, let them lie, and then do it again, paring away away a\way till you are left with the essentials.

Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly.

Which sounds wise and good in theory, but in practice it gives rise to things like the following anecdote.

Occasionally one could test a plagiarist. I had to invent a tree, with name to match, for a man who at that time was rather riding in my pocket. In about eighteen months – the time it takes for a ‘test’ diamond, thrown over the wires into a field of ‘blue’ rock, to turn up on the Kimberley sorting-tables – my tree appeared in his ‘nature-studies’ name as spelt by me and virtues attributed. Since in our trade we be all felons, more or less, I repented when I had caught him, but not too much.

How much of that did you understand? How much are you meant to understand? And any reader of Kipling’s, even devoted fans like Charles Carrington, freely admit that there are some stories which are clipped back so far as to be almost incomprehensible.

Conclusion

Underpinning so much of Kipling’s prose is an irrepressibly exuberant, boyish enthusiasm, even when he’s at his most crabbed and mannered in style, and unpleasant in attitude. It’s the strange combination of all these qualities, the good and the bad, which make the later stories, particularly the ones in Credits and Debits, so powerful and unsettling.

Elusive, crabby, deliberately neglecting huge subjects, dwelling on trivia, you can accuse Something of Myself of various sins – but it was his life and he had a perfect right to write about it as he pleased. And on the plus side, it is full of absolutely vital, irreplaceable biographical information – Charles Carrington confesses that his (definitive) biography would have been incomparably poorer without the hundred telling details which Something of Myself includes.

It’s a relatively short book and required reading for anyone who wants to understand or get a fuller flavour of this strange, unpleasant, jovial, weirdly imaginative and hugely important writer.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth (2015)

The chief reporter was the veteran Frank Keeler, a terrific journalist who became my mentor. He was a stickler for accuracy, dunning into all cubs he ever mentored his personal philosophy: check, check and check again. Then write. I still do. (p.107)

This is a very entertaining, amusing, informative and life-affirming book. What a great life Forsyth has had and with what brio he sets it down in his brisk, non-nonsense style.

The challenge of autobiography

We think and feel and speak and interact with other people all the time in a myriad of complex ways. Just writing down everything that happens in a day would be challenging, because so much of our interactions have a long history of interactions preceding them, and ramify out in all directions. So if describing everything that happens in a day would be challenging, how do you go about writing about your entire life? I was born here. My dad did this, he started out doing that but someone offered him a job, but he was never really happy, I remember him saying one day that… It could go on forever.

Forsyth solves the problem of what to write about yourself by converting his life story into a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales. He has been turning complex political and social issues into 500-word columns for the Daily Express for decades. Briskly told in short declarative sentences, he now applies the same style and technique to his own life, turning it into 60 short (3- or 4-page) chapters, each focusing on a telling moment, incident or event, generally concluding with a humorous or resonant punchline.

A month later I turned six and the dream [of one day flying a Spitfire] did not die.

That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by fifty thousand. (p.36)

So much for official denials. (p.245)

I have never emigrated and never will. (p.314)

And that is why I hate mortars. (p.250)

Biographical sketch

Forsyth was born in 1938 and turned out to be an only child. His parents appear to have run a furrier shop in Ashford, Kent (only referred to once or twice with, alas, no detail of furs, skins, pelts etc).

His father had started out as a rubber planter in Malaya in the 1930s but – as is described in one of the early ‘articles’ – was advised to get out and return to England. He did so, a few years later the war started, the Japanese invaded, and none of his fellow planters ever returned from the Japanese prison camps.

Forsyth was evacuated from Kent during the Blitz, but returned later in the war and then had what sounds like an idyllic childhood – camping in the countryside, learning to skin and cook rabbits, cycling round country lanes, fishing in lakes etc. Towards the end there were Americans who let him climb up on their tanks and introduced him to chewing gum.

Around age 10 he was sent to France for four consecutive summers and learned perfect colloquial French. Then to Germany for several more summers and learned perfect German. There followed a spell staying with a Russian countess in Paris to pick up colloquial Russian. His language skills were to hold him in good stead throughout his career.

But the most personal moment comes when he was five and his dad took him to an RAF airfield where, while dad did business, the crew played with the little boy and put him in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From that moment he became determined to fly one.

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

The furrier shop obviously makes OK money because his parents send him to the fee-paying Tonbridge school which, like so many beneficiaries of a private education of his generation, he hates. We hear nothing about his fellow pupils or teachers. Instead he takes his O- and A-levels precociously young but his main focus is getting onto an RAF training course. Here he secures 30 hours flying training and becomes a qualified pilot capable of solo flying by the age of 17.

He hitch-hikes across France with a friend, having the usual adventures. Back in Blighty he is sent to Cambridge for an interview, where he candidly tells the Master of Clare college that he doesn’t want to go there, he wants to be a fighter pilot.

Age 17 he gets a scholarship to Granada University for a three-month course in Spanish language, history and culture but he skips every lecture and instead enrols in the bullfighting college (where he discovers he is not a natural). He gives a typically interesting account of the training school, the cape and equipment, the moves and the fake bull machine you train with.

Oh and has an affair with a 35-year-old German countess, an ex-Nazi who likes to sing the Horst Wessel song at the critical moment. Too good to be true? At the end of the course, his parents fly in and take him for a week’s holiday in Tangiers, where he encounters Africa, Islam, Third World poverty and a group of Marines from a Royal Navy ship moored in the harbour. Not for the last time his fluent languages come in handy and he becomes the squaddies’ unofficial translator and drinking buddy. God, what a life!

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

Back in Blighty strings are pulled (his father, the furrier, donates a leopard-skin to the local OTC for their band drummer) and he gets permission to go to RAF training camp before his 18th birthday. His RAF training reads just like the military CVs he gives to so many of the heroes of the books, being mainly a list of bases: RAF Hornchurch, RAF Cardington, RAF Ternhill, RAF Worksop, training first on a Tiger Moth then a Provost, then a de Havilland Vampire!

He gets his flying wings 44 days before his 19th birthday, the award ceremony being the proudest day of his life. But career prospects in the RAF are not good, the real high flyers go to a special fast track college and his training so far will only qualify him for cargo flights or just a lot of desk work, whereas he wants to fly fly fly.

And see the world. So he quits at the end of his short-term contract and makes a complete switch, applying to become a journalist, with a view to working his way up to be foreign correspondent.

He gets an apprenticeship at the Eastern Daily Press and is posted to the westernmost outpost at King’s Lynn, under the tutelage of the veteran Frank Keeler. Three years of reporting magistrates court, births, marriages, deaths and local fetes. Excellent training.

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

In 1961 Forsyth spends a day walking along Fleet Street, walking unannounced into every newspaper office and trying to get an interview with the editor. Obviously he is turned down everywhere and is taking lunch at a pub when he gets chatting to a hack who had also served apprenticeship in East Anglia, and knows old Frank.

They finish their pints and the veteran takes him to Reuters, where the domestic editor, hearing he can speak four languages, sends him upstairs to the Foreign Desk. They test his French on a genuine Frenchman working in the office – his teenage years in the depths of France come up trumps – and he is offered a posting in Paris.

Here he is taken under the wing of another old pro, the renowned Harold King, just as the Algeria crisis is reaching a head. Thus Forsyth finds himself reporting the various attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, which – though he didn’t know it at the time – were to form the basis of his bestseller, The Day of The Jackal, ten years later.

After two years getting to know Paris, following the crisis and sharing drinks with de Gaulle’s bodyguards, Forsyth is offered sole charge of the East German office, with responsibility for other Redland countries eg Czecho, Hungary etc.

Cue anecdotes about life in East Berlin, sending scotch and cigarettes to the surveillance team watching him, disappearing into the countryside for days on end to interview real people, and cultivating a dim Bertie Wooster persona, complete with shocking German accent, to disarm suspicion whenever he’s stopped. There are short bite-sized accounts of the time:

  • He tracked down the US spy plane shot down near Magdeburg, by disappearing off the main roads and using his fluent German to wheedle the location out of local peasants.
  • He nearly set off World War Three by reporting on the huge convoy of tanks he saw rumbling through East Berlin towards the Wall, in the dead hours of one spring morning – only for Western diplomats panicking that the Sovs are about to invade to extract from their puzzled Russian counterparts that the convoys are practicing for the annual May Day parade.

Man of the world bonhomie is the tone throughout these stories, which have the feel of having been honed to perfection at a thousand dinner parties and diplomatic receptions.

Forsyth decides it’s time to leave, and fast, when he discovers the young woman he’s been sleeping with is the mistress of the East German Defence Minister who, if he found out, could have FF locked away forever. He packs his bags and asks London to be withdrawn immediately, which they do.

Bad time at the BBC

Back in Blighty Forsyth joins the BBC full of optimism and ambition to become a foreign correspondent. In the event he had a very bad experience, which obviously still rankles 50 years later. Here, as everywhere in the book, you feel you’re not getting the full picture, that there must be more to it, but Forsyth’s view is that he joined at a chaotic moment when the heads of the Beeb were under fire and resigning, and that – fatally – his head of department was cross that he wasn’t involved in FF’s recruitment and so bore him a grudge right from the start.

Biafra

Forsyth was packed off to Biafra to cover what he was assured, at a Foreign Office and then a BBC briefing, would be a two-week insurrection. Biafra was the eastern most part of Nigeria, which had gained independence in 1960. The majority population belonged to the Ibo people; there had been attacks on the successful, and therefore unpopular Ibos in the north and west of the country and this slowly escalated into a demand for full independence.

As soon as he arrived in the capital of the newly-declared Biafra, FF realised the conflict was much larger than he’d been told and reported back to this effect – but his reports were quashed. He slowly began to realise that the BBC was parroting the line put out by the Foreign Office, itself generated by the High Commissioner in Lagos, all of which supported the official Nigerian government view that Biafra had no right to secede from Nigeria and the ‘rebels’ would soon be quashed. It was the way the BBC didn’t question the official, deeply misleading, line – in fact collaborated with it – which disgusted Forsyth then and now.

In the event the war dragged on for three years (1967-70) and, in its final year, with Biafra totally sealed off from the outside world, approximately 1 million Nigerian children starved to death. It was the first time photos of black children with distended bellies, covered in flies, and dying like flies, had been widely distributed in the West, and caused outrage, as well as mobilising charities and public calls for action.

Forsyth remains disgusted to this day by the deceitfulness of the Labour government of the day, which a) held to the fatuous claim that it would all be over in a few weeks, and b) denied supplying the Nigerians with arms – while all along doing so. He was disgusted with the Foreign Office for supporting such an immoral policy, refusing to concede Bifran claims and help broker a ceasefire or peace conference. And he was disgusted with the BBC for parroting the official line, instead of ripping it to shreds as a proper news operation should.

The experience made him realise the BBC is not a news operation, but a bloated bureaucracy, not a caller-to-account of the powers-that-be, but merely an extension of the smug, sanctimonious Establishment. Fifty years later he is still angry.

That is why I believe this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honour of my country for ever and I will never forgive them. (p.239)

Forsyth quit the BBC and returned to Biafra to report the whole of the rest of the conflict as a freelancer, and these years have more space devoted to them than any other subject, about 90 pages in the middle of the book. When the war ended in January 1970 Forsyth was on one of the last planes out (itself a thrilling adventure, and a scene he reuses in the opening of The Dogs of War).

Accidental novelist

Forsyth’s career as a novelist is dealt with briskly. Back in London after his African adventure, he found himself broke with no hope of a job, having blotted his copybook with the all-powerful FO and BBC. He was able to doss on a friend’s sofa for a while and conceived the mad plan of writing a novel, having never written one before or never thought about it. In 35 days, through January and February 1970, Forsyth knocked out The Day of The Jackal on a second-hand typewriter.

He then hawked it round publishers with predictable rejections, until he met a man at a party and hassled him into reading the manuscript. When he returned to his office, the agent offered him a three-book deal on the spot! Soon afterwards a film company offered £20,000 cash for all rights in perpetuity to the Jackal which, like the innocent he was, he accepted (it’s made millions over the past 50 years).

Writing was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and his attitude to writing fiction is as dismissive as can be.

It just occurred to me that if I could make a good living dashing off this nonsense, why get my head blown off in an African rain ditch? (p.271)

Forced to think of two other book subjects he revisited his knowledge of Germany and alighted on the issue of the networks of surviving Nazis. He undertook his trademark in-depth research with the help of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and this led to The Odessa File.

Then he put his knowledge of Africa – and the white mercenaries he’d met in Nigeria – to use for The Dogs of War, his incredibly long, detailed account of how to mount an armed coup.

We knew about the thoroughness of the research he did for both books – it’s interesting to discover how autobiographical they are, in that he based whole scenes, journey and encounters on the ones he actually had. Thus the journey of discovery which the hero of The Odessa File goes on closely follows the actual driving round Germany and interviewing ex-Nazis, lawyers and journalists which Forsyth himself undertook. The long interview with a Jewish survivor early on in the book is a retelling of a long interview with a Jewish survivor which Forsyth carried out, with only the name and the city changed.

A little showbiz gossip

There are one or two stories about the director of Jackal, Fred Zinneman, and the actor Edward Fox, but by and large the book is striking for the complete absence of gossip or stories about other writers or people in the arts.

Once these three key books are published, the text reverts to anecdotes which leap over big periods of his life, leaving huge gaps. Thus a chapter on the time he went fishing in a boat off Mauritius and nearly got killed when a tropical cyclone changed course and bore down on the boat. (This experience was recycled into the powerful short story The Emperor.Or accounts of taking his two young sons game hunting in Africa, or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.

It’s almost like being shown a book of holiday snaps, each one coming with a well-polished comic story.

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

In its final sections Forsyth breaks the omerta of the security services by describing several jobs he did for ‘the Firm’ aka MI6 aka the Secret Intelligence Service. One was a full-scale mission, carrying a package containing documents to a rendezvous with a top agent, a communist General inside East Germany, which reads exactly like the rendezvous you read about in Deighton, le Carré and so on and which Forsyth used as the basis for a similar incident in one of his novels.

On a different occasion his contact at ‘the Firm’ asked him to take advantage of his friendship with senior South African officials, specifically Defence Minister Pik Botha, to ask about the future of SA’s nuclear weapons after the upcoming multi-racial elections and the end of the apartheid system (1994). Botha disarms Forsyth by matter-of-factly telling him to tell ‘his masters’ back in London, that SA will safely dispose of them before the ANC government comes to power.

He loses his money and has to start again

In the early 1990s Forsyth’s financial adviser was revealed to be a crook who had stolen the investments of all his clients, not only leaving them penniless but, in Forsyth’s case, £1 million in debt. Result? He had to start all over again to restore his fortunes.

Forsyth doesn’t spell it out but presumably this explains the latter part of his bibliography, the series of thrillers from The Fist of God onwards which, as I’ve pointed out in my reviews of individual novels, become increasingly repetitive in terms of setting (Islamic terrorism), of factual references (the same anecdotes from the same recent conflicts) and of repeated (wafer-thin) characters.

But his first three novels (Jackal, Odessa, Dogs) are the only ones which merit even a page or two of explanation – the majority of his books aren’t even mentioned in this brisk, business-like overview. The short stories? Not mentioned. The experimental continuation of The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan? Not a whisper. The genesis, writing and reception of each book? Silence.

This would be an odd oversight if this were the autobiography of a writer, but more than anything this series of well-honed, after-dinner anecdotes is keen to emphasise that Forsyth is a man who has lived, been a journalist, travelled widely, had many adventures and, only last and very much least, been lucky enough to fund it all by churning out his impressively-researched, shallow and undemanding poolside thrillers.

Barely any family

The same skimming over the surface applies to his almost complete absence of references to his family. Only a passing mention of the end of his first marriage, and similarly only a handful of allusions to the second Mrs Forsyth, Sandy. The two boys, Stuart and Shane, are referred to in the context of the fishing or hunting expeditions but barely anywhere else: there’s certainly no detail or feeling about family life, of the prolonged trials and tribulations of being a parent.

His autobiography is, in other words, as devoid of emotion and character as any of his books. Except that, like the books, the lack of character is the character, and instead of the usual sympathies for family or friends, what there very much is is the love of machines – of cars, fishing boats, of recent military history, armies, weapons and, above all, of planes.

A dream come true

Thus it is entirely fitting, and unexpectedly moving, that in the autumn of his years, the 76-year-old author was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream and not only go up in a Spitfire, but (being a specially adjusted two-seater model) was able to fly it solo for a spell. It is a wonderfully uplifting ending to this account of a charmed life and I found it impossible not to be moved by Forsyth’s simple, boyish joy.

It was over too soon but it was done. The seventy-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true. (p.366)

Comment

If this book is anything to go by Forsyth has led a charmed and wonderful life in a world he regards with tolerant good humour, flecked with occasional outrage at injustice and suffering. The most attractive thing about the book is its buoyancy. Nothing seems to get him down. With the unflinching nervelessness displayed in all his novels, he just gets on with it, waltzing through extraordinary situations and the direst peril (as when he gets caught, a white man in his 70s, in a real-life coup in Guinea-Bissau) with extraordinary sang-froid.

He has been a happy man, a lucky man, a man with the knack of presenting himself in the right place at the right time, and if this autobiography lacks almost any psychological or emotional depth or complexity, it is still a marvellous record of an extraordinary life, and its robust optimism is a welcome counterbalance to the all-too-familiar negativity and pessimism of our age.


Credit

The Outsider: My life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2015. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

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Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Ill Met by Moonlight by William Stanley Moss (1950)

The phenomenally posh introduction to Ill Met by Moonlight, by Iain Moncrieffe, describes the house in wartime Cairo shared by a Polish countess, Billy Maclean (Eton and Scots Greys), David Smiley (Eton and Horse Guards), Patrick Leigh-Fermor (King’s Canterbury, Irish Guards), Xan Fielding (Charterhouse), and the author, W Stanley Moss (Charterhouse). They called it Tara, legendary home of the high Irish kings. W Stanley Moss, the author of the diary which makes up the text, is described as:

Tall and devilish languid, with that usual rather attractive droop of unaffected self-deprecation twisting the corners of his mouth.

Note the Regency use of the adjective ‘devilish’ rather than the correct adverb ‘devilishly’. These chaps look back to Byron, Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Treasure Island. It’s all a bally wheeze.

These awesomely posh chaps have a jolly war undertaking various secret missions into the Balkans and Greece. ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ is Billy Moss’s diary, written as it happened, of a secret mission whereby he and Paddy were dropped by boat off Crete, linked up with a motley crew of Cretan partisans and, despite various mishaps, manage to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe, the German in command of Crete, then move him around various safe houses until rendezvousing with an escape boat.

Moss and compeers have an effortless superiority over the beastly Hun and the colourful Cretans. They have received the best education in Britain, maybe the world, and boy do they know it. The writing is confident, witty, aloof, detached, olympian in its irony, effortlessly cultured in its references to Shakespeare, Villon, Dante. The title is, of course, from A MIdsummernight’s Dream.

It is typical of their aristocratic amateurism that when it comes time for Billy and Paddy to signal the approaching motorboat with Morse code flashes from a lamp it turns out neither of them knows Morse Code. They find this hilarious.

I think this is the attitude which Evelyn Waugh castigates, while also loving, in his great Sword of Honour trilogy. I also believe this attitude didn’t endear itself to the Americans when they finally started fighting alongside our chaps.

The Cretan peasants married to patch up an interfamily feud they hilariously name Mr Montague and Mrs Capulet. They describe a partisan’s ‘Caractacus poise’, the noted murderer Jonny Katsias has the smile of a sated aristocrat. In my favourite moment, Moss writes that Dennis:

has grown an impressive beard which he treats with the affection of a spinster aunt for her favourite cat.

If Oscar Wilde had fought in the Second World War… The very last sentence of the book imagines these heroes and dandies after the war settling down by the fireside of their favourite club. And that is where the Angry Young Men of the 1950s, and then the beardy drug-taking revolutionaries of the 1960s, found them, wittily retelling their tales of derring-do.

 Ill Met by Moonlight - first edition cover (Wikimedia Commons)

Ill Met by Moonlight – first edition cover (Wikimedia Commons)

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (1928)

Edmund Blunden was 17 when the Great War broke out and 18 when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He survived for 2 years at the Front, commanding a company through the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, before going on to a distinguished post-war career as a man of letters at universities here and in the Far East.

Blunden’s 1928 memoir, Undertones of War, is short, 188 pages in this Penguin edition. What makes it beguiling is his odd style:

Each circumstance of the British experience that is still with me has ceased for me to be big or little, and now appeals to me more even than the highest exaltation of pain or scene in the Dynasts, and thank the heaven of adoration incarnadined with Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Odd words and phraseology, quotes from obscure poets, no use of ‘the’ where you’d expect it, understatement so complete you have to reread passages 3 or 4 times to understand what he’s getting at. Yet it’s not arty or pretentious. You feel it’s a highly personal style, built on 19th century poetic diction, which wanted to write about shire horses and primroses but was shattered into splinters, obscurities and indirections by the truly horrifying scenes he witnessed.

I think a number of Georgian writers were experimenting with ways of being ‘modern’, of keeping the best of the English rural tradition while trying to kick free of Victorian phraseology. I think almost all of them now seem quaint because the international – mostly American – Modernist movement (Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, cummings) – came and swept everything away, embracing the new steel and chrome Art Deco world so that all the Georgians became back numbers overnight.

So to read this book is not only to enter Blunden’s peculiarly phrased world, but also to glimpse a possible future for the English language that never happened.

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Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon (1936)

Only sheer bloody-mindedness made me finish Siegfried Sassoon’s 650-page ‘Complete Memoirs of George Sherston’, being the omnibus edition of his three fictionalised memoirs – ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’, and ‘Sherston’s Progress’.

A monument to nincompoopish solipsism. A prime product of the public schools of his time, never having done a day’s work in his life, philistine and unintellectual, addicted to field sports, volunteering as the Great War begins and expecting it to be a jolly wheeze, Sassoon is bally confused when it turns out not to be a pleasant canter through the Kent countryside.

There follow 400 pages of self-centred and fruitless bewilderment which feature all the events of his actual life, but annoyingly portrayed as the experiences of the fictional ‘Sherston’, stripping the text of immediacy and swamping it in querulous obtuseness. He leaves out arguably the most interesting element which is his own literary growth and development. His war poems are important if not first rate, because of the example they set. In all 650 pages there isn’t a mention of them, because Sassoon has taken the decision to eliminate that part of his personality and life from the fictional upper-class twit he has created.

There was some consolation for persisting, though, because the last 40 pages quote directly from his diary about his final military tour of duty in Palestine and then back to France, and this is full of beautifully observed and immediate detail. If you’re finding the rest heavy going, you should make sure you read these last pages.

It’s a staggering indictment of the English literary scene of the 1920s and ’30s that these prolix vapourings became ‘instant classics’.

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Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

In Northumberland I reread ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, in an old Penguin paperback with a wraparound cover of a mud-brown John Nash painting.

A delight, endlessly entertaining. Graves has polished his anecdotes till they gleam like pebbles in a stream, sparkling with his dry sense of humour, a shining eye for detail, and his crisp, clear, modern prose. The same style which makes ‘I, Claudius’ and his other novels so compelling, so damn readable.

The first 50 pages are about his childhood and miserable schooling at Charterhouse; the final 50 about his subsistence as a poor, hastily married poet living outside Oxford; the middle 150 pages about his lengthy Great War service. By the end of the book you can understand why he was thoroughly sick of England and all its values and keen to flee to Majorca, where he spent the rest of his life.


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