Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth (2010)

‘Good information is vital, accidental misinformation is regrettable, but skilful disinformation deadly.’
The Cobra (p.400)

After a sequence of thrillers dealing with the Muslim world and Islamic terrorism, Forsyth makes an (apparently) clean break with a novel about cocaine smuggling from Latin America. In the event, we are soon introduced to characters from previous novels, which gives it a pleasing sense of continuity.

Forsyth appears to have begun by asking himself: if the President of the USA asked his people to STOP the cocaine trade, what would it involve? He sketched out all the steps and operations which would be required – and then placed them in the hands of a couple of tried & trusted characters from a previous novel, to implement.

The novel is divided into four sections, named with typically tongue-in-cheek humour: Coil, Hiss, Strike, Venom.

1. Coil (pages 17 to 74)

The grandson of a servant of the US President dies of a cocaine overdose in a Washington slum. The old servant weeps at an important State dinner. The First Lady goes to comfort her. She and the Prez can’t sleep that night: ‘Is there nothing we can do about this curse of drugs?’ In the early hours, the Prez phones the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency: I want a briefing about cocaine in three days.

The narrative includes this briefing, a characteristically interesting summary of the production and sale of cocaine in the US and Europe (though obviously out of date if you Google the subject). The Prez asks the Director of Homeland Security, ‘Can we abolish the cocaine trade?’ DHS says, I’ll need a man who used to work for the CIA. They called him The Cobra, lol (of course they do).

This turns out to be Paul Devereaux, the highly educated Boston-born Catholic who we last saw masterminding a two-year project to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in the novel before last, Avenger. He was (unwittingly) foiled by one-man seize-and-kidnap operator, Cal Dexter, formerly a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam, now known as The Avenger.

So the head of Homeland Security calls Devereaux and asks if it can be done: Devereaux thinks about it for a month and then says, ‘Yes’,on the following conditions: $2 billion of funds, no record of the project, the recategorisation of cocaine as a terrorist threat, and if he can hire Cal Dexter. He then phones Dexter, who mulls over the offer before saying Yes. Reuniting these old characters is either a) lazy and unimaginative or b) has the same humorous impulse as reuniting the original cast of The A Team or Mission Impossible for one last mission. This is not Henry James; it is thrillerland.

Forsyth cuts and pastes entire paragraphs from the earlier book to describe first Devereaux then Dexter’s biographies. This also could be described as lazy – but it also has a slightly avant-garde feel.The exact repetition of previous text is like the re-use of the same conflicts and wars which recur as backdrops in Forsyth’s fiction. You could think of them like a pack of cards containing the same limited number of ‘characters’ and ‘conflicts’, which is cut and dealt out anew in each novel.

— To give a sense of the ubiquity of these illegal drugs, the text is interspersed throughout with descriptions of shipments of cocaine arriving in Hamburg, Portugal, California and Vancouver, and in West Africa, in different boats, using different smuggling methods – a steady drip of scenes designed to give a sense of the vast scale and the unrelenting nature of the cocaine smuggling, going on every day,day and night, as I write and you read this review.

2. Hiss (pages 77 to 255)

Forsyth claims that, after years of chaos following the death of Pablo Escobar, recent years have seen the emergence of a ‘super-cartel’, the Hermandad. As far as I can tell, this is entirely fictional. Part two commences with a summit meeting of the various members of this ‘Hermandad’, led by Don Diego Esteban, held at one of his vast haciendas, the Rancho de la Cucaracha.

Procedural We watch Esteban convening the members of the Brotherhood; cut to the British Prime Minister consulting with his chiefs of staff at his country house (Chequers) and asking whether the UK should join the US’s crusade (yes). Then go with Dexter round the City of London where Forsyth demonstrates his knowledge of merchant shipping to show how Dexter goes about buying two grain cargo ships which can be converted into anti-drugs boats. Also the purchase and building of a secret airstrip on the Cape Verde island of Fogo…

In fact, Forsyth sets quite a few strands running in parallel, enough to become a bit confusing:

  • The priesthood Devereaux meets the Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Colombia and suggests he distributes throwaway mobile phones to every priest in the land with the invitation to anonymously phone in any information about drug smuggling which they might learn in confession.
  • Guinea-Bissau Dexter flies to the failed state of Guinea-Bissau with two black SAS men to spy on cocaine being smuggled in by boat to the coastal region of the Bijagos (p.127)
  • Letizia Arenal Spanish police send the team full lists of people leaving and entering the country, and computers flag up oddities of behaviour. Thus the Cobra learns about a Colombian lawyer, Julio Luz, who makes monthly and unusually short visits to Madrid. Dexter flies in with a team of CIA spooks. They break into Luiz’s hotel room and ferret through his correspondence (p.140). They tail him and observe that on every trip Luz exchanges not only attaché cases (full of smuggling details) but meets a pretty young woman and exchanges letters. Dexter establishes she is Letizia Arenal and, by palming a cup with her saliva on, gets a DNA test and establishes she is the daughter of Roberto Cardenas, one of the Don’s inner circle. In a long sequence she is seduced by a handsome, art-loving young man into a love affair. They get engaged, then he says he has to return to New York, can she fly out to join him? Ignoring all her father’s orders, Letizia does and is promptly pulled over in Customs who find a brick of cocaine in her baggage, obviously put there by Dexter’s people. Tearfully, Letizia is hauled into court and faces 20 years in a state penitentiary. The handsome man disappears and she realises she’s been framed. At this point the Avenger smuggles a letter into Luz’s luggage to carry back to her father, Roberto Cardenas, in charge of the Brotherhood’s logistics, arranging a tense meeting in a hotel in Cartagena. Here Dexter confronts the evil, violent man and simply says: tell us what you know, and she goes free. Some weeks later a flashdrive arrives with names of corrupt officials across Europe and their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands etc. Dexter arranges for a fall guy to be caught in Spain (temporarily), who confesses to planting the cocaine in Letizia’s baggage. The court in New York dismisses charges. She is released and deported back to Spain. The Cobra has his List, the ‘Rat List’.
  • The two Q ships The two grain ships are extensively converted into anti-smuggling warships in a pestilential shipyard south of Goa, India. Each will contain a deck just big enough for a small helicopter and a brig to keep prisoners in. They are MV Balmoral, crewed by Royal Navy and Special Boat Squadron and MV Chesapeake crewed by US Navy SEALs.
  • Captain Francisco Pons flies a converted Beech King aircraft loaded with a tonne of cocaine from Brazil to an isolated airstrip in Guinea-Bissau.
  • Juan Cortez Father Isidro uses one of the throwaway phones to inform on one Juan Cortez, a master welder who creates smuggling places inside steel hulls. Dexter, using the Cobra’s limitless powers, co-opts a Hercules transport plane and six Green Berets who first stake out Cortez’s daily commute, then stage an elaborate mock road smash, kidnapping and chloroforming Cruz, putting a recent (American) corpse of an unknown drifter in his car dressed in his clothes, with his ring, watch and wallet, then set the car alight. Cruz is airlifted back to the States; his family are told through official channels that Cruz died in a car smash and is tearfully buried. Then, a few days later, Dexter turns up at their house with a tape recording and photos proving Cruz is still alive but can never return – the Cartel would murder him and his family. Faced with no alternative, his wife and kids pack up, leave a message saying they’ve decided to emigrate (!) and are secretly flown to rejoin Cruz in Miami. Now reassured as to the safety of his family, Cruz starts to ‘sing’, and gives the name of some 78 cargo ships which he helped adjust to create concealed smuggling places. The Cobra has his list of drug ships.
  • Forsyth continues his description of the route of the cocaine after it lands in Guinea-Bissau, being broken up into smaller packs and driven various routes north across the Sahara. From the north African coast it is shipped in knackered steamers like the Sidi Abbas to Calabria, under the control of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, to be watered down and sold on the street.
  • The fighter pilot Dexter recruits Major João Mendoza, ex-Brazilian Air Force, to fly the vintage Buccaneer jet fighter he’s had re-engineered to become a drug buster. We meet the team of engineer enthusiasts who’ve carried out the retooling and his (woman) instructor, Commander Colleen Keck (p.193).
  • Global Hawks Dexter supervises the repurposing of two spy-in-the-sky flying probes, to watch shipping in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil. They operate BAMS – Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, and will monitor all shipping from the Latin American coast, either heading north to the States or East to Africa. Humorously, Dexter names them after the wives of the Prez and the UK Prime Minister – Michelle and Sam.

3. Strike (pages 259 to 354)

The Prez’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Silver, phones the Cobra to say, You’ve had your nine months of planning: is everything good to go? ‘Yes,’ replies the Cobra. What follows is a sustained and co-ordinated attack on the Cartel’s activities, which Forsyth describes in documentary detail.

1. The spies in the sky identify all shipping heading north or east from Latin America. When they identify a ship on either Cortez or Cardenas’s lists, they flash the news back to the hi-tech project headquarters in Anacostia, a neighbourhood of Washington DC. The nearest of the two MV boats is dispatched. The small helicopter appears out of nowhere with a sniper pointing a rifle at the captain’s head. It is followed by fast dinghies containing the SEALS or SBS men. They board and hood the crew and locate the cocaine. By this time the big MV boat has arrived. Crew and coke are transferred to the brig/prison and hold, respectively. This is repeated scores of times, as Project Cobra clobbers the smuggling boats. Crews and coke are taken back to the Cape Verde island, then flown to the other base, Eagle Island, we saw being constructed in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There they will be held forever without trial.

2. At the same time, Dexter meets with Customs authorities across the States and Europe and shares the list of corrupt port officials. One by one these are caught in ‘sting’ operations, along with the deliverers and the receivers, thus trapping the maximum number of people along the chain.

3. In the third strand, Major Mendoza scrambles from his base in the Cape Verde islands, and flies his retooled Buccaneer to intercept suspicious planes, suspicious in that they’re unusually small to be making the trans-Atlantic flight (but are able to, as Forsyth explains, because of extra fuel tanks with fuel often pumped manually by Latino peons). Mendoza simply blows them out of the sky.

Thus, within a few weeks Don Esteban realises his operation is under co-ordinated assault. In usual style he tortures and murders a number of ‘suspects’ to find out who the ‘traitor’ is: various unfortunates along the pipelines – either in Colombia or Guinea-Bissau – are tortured to death, chopped up with chainsaws, decapitated, or have their noses, ears, fingers and genitals removed to make them talk. Forsyth doesn’t stint on describing the really super-brutal methods of the cartels. Eventually Esteban establishes Cardenas as one of the leaks, and he is gunned down in a mass raid on his remote jungle hideaway.

But the Cobra still has the Rat list and the ship list and the devastation of the Brotherhood’s operations proceeds apace. Eventually the gangs down the supply chain become restless with the Cartel. Black gangs in Africa, the mafias of Italy and Spain, all the suppliers in Mexico who pass on to the US, all these middle men gangs are suddenly not receiving wholesale shipments. They start complaining to the directors of the Cartel responsible for distribution, they start wondering if the Cartel is favouring other gangs, they start looking round for other suppliers. Forsyth, with his usual documentary authority, describes the visit of one Cartel rep to the gangs of North America, and one to Europe, in both giving breakdowns of the races and ethnicities of the gangs.

The sting Then we find out why the Cobra has been so careful to seize and not destroy the cocaine shipments. In elaborate sting operations, the Cobra arranges for some of the ‘missing’ coke to be bundled in with shipments which they do let through. Then organises police raids, carried out with the usual publicity and lots of photos in the newspapers. Photos which show the consignment numbers of the jute-wrapped packs (for everything in this highly organised industry is numbered and monitored). Then arranges for the raids to be given maximum publicity.

As intended, the information gets back to Don Esteban and his lieutenants: the information that some of the bales from the boats and planes which disappeared did in fact get through. The disinformation that this sends the Cartel is that someone, somewhere is betraying them on an industrial scale: ‘disappearing’ planes and boats then stealing the shipments. Vengeance will be awesome.

4. Venom (pages 397 to 447)

Having planted the suspicion in Don Esteban’s mind that he is being double crossed, the Cobra now manufactures evidence suggesting the culprits are some of the key gangs who control the trade in Mexico. The Don carries out punishments, which lead to revenge attacks, and soon the Cobra’s campaign of disinformation has sparked a massive and very bloody war among the Mexican drug gangs.

In fact this is just the opening of an extensive campaign of lies and deceptions – spearheaded by a blog the Cobra sets up, which carefully mixes accurate info about the drug seizures with inflammatory posts carefully assigning blame to the numerous heavy duty drug gangs in Europe and the US — until all these strategies have prompted a major outbreak of public violence in US cities second only to the street shootings of the Prohibition era. The public outcry, the newspaper headlines, politicians screaming, a groundswell of protest escalates up to the Senate and then the Prez himself.

The Cobra explains it all very clearly and cynically to Dexter. This is what he aimed for all along: for the only people who can ultimately defeat the drug gangs are the drug gangs themselves, fighting themselves to extinction, wiping out the infrastructure for a generation. The Cobra delivers what sounds very much like an Author’s Message – that the comfortable societies of the West are happy to dole out violence abroad (and Dexter’s career alone has given us eye-witness accounts of just fractions of the appalling bloodshed caused in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) but don’t like the reality when they see it on their own streets. (This sounds like the traditional soldier’s contempt for cosy civilians who have no idea what real combat is about – a timeless complaint).

The Prez is a democratic politician, coming up for re-election, and he asks his Chief of Staff to tell the Cobra to stand down the operation. Right on the brink of success. These final pages have a bitter flavour, as the elected politicians turn out not to have the balls to see the job through (and all because civilians are getting injured and killed in the epidemic of violence which has rampaged across the States.)

In a puzzling final section, the Cobra flies to Colombia to meet the Don, in a Catholic church. He candidly reveals that his country (the US) has betrayed him by cancelling the operation. He has 150 tonnes of cocaine hidden. He will deliver it to the Don in exchange for $1 billion, which will allow him to disappear and live out his life in luxury. I found this bewildering because the Cobra had up to this point been portrayed as a man of inflexible rectitude. He flies back to Washington and calls Dexter in to tell him:

a) The entire operation is being stood down: the two ships handed over to their respective navies, the soldiers and special forces returned to their units etc.

b) He orders Dexter to fly to a tiny coral atoll in the Bahamas, there to find and torch the 150 tonnes of cocaine. Dexter does so, arriving with instructions which are actually carried out by the Marines on the spot. But as they’re being splashed with petrol, Dexter cuts into a bale and takes a taste. It’s cooking soda. He allows the Marines to proceed, but asks them what ship brought the bales. He pieces together the evidence that there’s another steamer, which has been dumping these fake bales and keeping the real ones. Reacting fast, he calls the Project computer headquarters and quickly identifies the steamer which must be carrying the missing cocaine. Just as quickly, he gets through to Major Mendoza on Cape Verde and tells him there is one last job. He tells the Major (whose brother died of a cocaine overdose and so takes the mission deadly seriously) to fly out across the Atlantic, identify the steamer carrying the coke to Colombia as part of the Cobra’s deal with the Don, and sink it. Which – in a bravura passage giving documentary description of an air force strike – he does.

In the Epilogue Dexter returns to the sleepy New England town he left nine months earlier, to resume his quiet, unassuming existence as a small-town lawyer. And reads in his paper that locals found the body of Paul Devereaux in his Washington mansion. He and his housekeeper had been brutally murdered. The last words are, ‘Nobody treats the Don like this.’

This ending really puzzled me: I was expecting the fake cocaine ploy to be a subtle last cunning strike by the Cobra – like, maybe the cocaine he was sending back to Colombia would be poisoned or booby-trapped. But it seems not. So are we really to accept that the shining beacon, incorruptible good guy, Cobra, at the last minute made a sell-out deal with the head of the world’s cocaine industry? Really? And that Dexter’s spotting that the cocaine in the Bahamas was fake, then quickly dispatching Mendoza to blow up the real shipment, in effect condemned his boss and the man he’d come to respect so much, to certain assassination? Dexter doesn’t seem very upset when he reads the news in his paper. Is that because he has discarded Devereaux – despite the immense feat he pulled off of nearly ending the world’s cocaine trade – as a broken reed, as turning out-to-be-corrupted?

I’ve reread the last chapter twice and am still surprised and puzzled by what happened and what I’m meant to make of it.


Thoughts

This novel is a fantasy of what the existing forces of law and order (or FLO, as Forsyth calls them) could do if they abandoned ‘political correctness’ and ‘human rights’ and all the other namby-pamby concerns for legal process which, in Forsyth’s view, clearly hamper them. It is a ‘right-wing’ fantasy of how an upright and pure police force could stamp out this massive social problem.

Given the epic scale of the crime now associated with drug smuggling, it is a beguiling fantasy, not least because:

a) It’s not that serious. Like all Forsyth’s novels – despite the blizzard of factual research into recent conflicts and geopolitical history, into official and illegal organisations, the detailed accounts of ranks and structures of army, navy and air force and their precise weaponry, as well as factual backgrounds on international crime and terrorism, of organisations or technologies (preceding the text is a list of no fewer than 27 acronyms and abbreviations) – despite these mountains of research, there’s a simple-minded cartoon feel to the whole enterprise.

b) The serious question of to what extent civil liberties can be suspended in the war against terror or the war on drugs, is something that can be debated forever by moral philosophers and lawyers, politicians and columnists – and never reach an actual conclusion. But The Cobra is a fiction which, despite the weight of research behind it, in origin is similar to the creation of countless other fictional vigilantes and crimefighters-without-the-law, from Dirty Harry to Batman (b.1939). Gotham City/San Francisco/the Western world is overwhelmed by crime. The police are too corrupt or overwhelmed to cope. Into the breach steps a superhero – Dirty Harry/Batman/the Cobra, prepared to use unconventional methods to get the results we all deeply desire. Same stable.

Forsyth’s novels are crisply written, full of fascinating background information and the cardboard heroes – just like the heroes of a thousand movies and TV cop series – always get their man. We live, for the few days we read it, in a simpler, fairer world, a world of violence and immorality and illegality, where the good is unquestionably Good, and if it also behaves violently and immorally and illegally, behaves thus in a good cause and so we should cheer it on. Come on the good guys!

What more do you want for your £6.99?


Credit

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2010. All quotes and references are from the 2011 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

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.

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