The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

When William Came by Saki (1913)

Invasion literature

According to Wikipedia:

Invasion literature (also The Invasion Novel) is a literary genre that was popular in the period between 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914. The invasion novel was first recognised as a literary genre in the UK, and is generally said to have started with George Tomkyns Chesney’s novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, published in 1871, an account of a German invasion of England prompted by the recent Franco-Prussian War. Invasion literature played to national anxieties about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers and was very popular, not only in the UK. By 1914 the invasion literature genre included more than 400 novels and stories.

Examples of classic invasion literature which I’ve reviewed include:

H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds is, arguably, the high point of one aspect of the genre, playing to anxieties of terrestrial invasion but adding an entirely new layer of alien invasion onto it, an idea which has, obviously, spawned tens of thousands of copycat alien invasion fictions.

When William Came

When William Came is a relatively late example of invasion literature, being published as it was only a year before the outbreak of real war with Germany, in August 1914. The novel starts when the Germans, under Kaiser Wilhelm, have already invaded and conquered Britain, sometime in 1915 (see below for how the date is calculated).

The entire brief conflict is over by the time the main male protagonist , Murrey Yeovil, arrives back in his defeated homeland to observe the atmosphere of a London and England superficially unchanged but now under the control of the Kaiser, his German army and police.

Plot summary

At the age of 24, handsome youngish Murrey Yeovil inherited a fortune and has spent it journeying and adventuring to the back of beyond. Somewhere in Siberia he came down with marsh fever and was nursed by local tribesmen for weeks before he finally staggered to the nearest settlement, and eventually made it to a Finnish town where he rested & recovered, read the papers, and heard the news that Britain had been conquered in a lightning naval strike by Germany.

Chapter 1 The singing bird and the barometer

The novel opens with pretty Cicely Yeovil in her house in Berkshire Street, in fashionable West London, sitting in a swing chair and observing herself in a mirror. She is, we are to take it, an emblem of precisely the sort of self-centred narcissism rampant among England’s upper classes, which allowed Britain to be defeated.

Cicely is in the company of Ronnie Storr, a handsome man about town. They discuss the fact that she is expecting her husband, Murrey Yeovil, to arrive home today. He was in Russia when Germany invaded: ‘Somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Siberia, shooting and bird collecting, miles away from a railway or telegraph line’.

They speculate how Murrey will take to the German domination of things, and review the attitudes which their friends have taken to England having been invaded: from the tragical tone of many of London’s High Society who have either taken themselves off to their country retreats or left the country altogether, either for exile in Continental capitals such as Paris, or have fled to Britain’s colonies abroad which, a trifle illogically, have remained British. The most notable of these is the king, who has set up a new court in Delhi, jewel of the British Empire. Everyone (in the high society Saki is concerned with) refers to the German invasion by the euphemism ‘the fait accompli‘.

A servant announces the arrival of Tony Luton.

Tony Luton was a young man who had sprung from the people, and had taken care that there should be no recoil. He was scarcely twenty years of age, but a tightly packed chronicle of vicissitudes lay behind his sprightly insouciant appearance.

Tony has made a career as a singer of popular songs. He is one of a number of anticipations of the slim, clever form of Noel Coward (who was to become famous during the 1920s) which crop up throughout Saki’s fiction.

The threesome discuss the impending first night of a performer they all support, the daughter of a landed family, Gorla Mustelford, who has taken up ‘expressive dance’. When Tony announces that the Kaiser himself is going to attend the first night, Ronnie tells Cicely she simply must hold a first-night party for Gorla and she willingly agrees. They all agree she must invite Lady Shalem.

Grace, Lady Shalem, was a woman who had blossomed into sudden importance by constituting herself a sort of foster-mother to the fait accompli. At a moment when London was denuded of most of its aforetime social leaders she had seen her opportunity, and made the most of it… Lady Shalem, without being a beauty or a wit, or a grand lady in the traditional sense of the word, was in a fair way to becoming a power in the land.

Chapter 2 The homecoming

Murrey Yeovil arrives at Victoria station and is irked when the taxi driver speaks to him in German. He arrives home and Cicely is full of sympathy as she listens to more details of how he got fever in the back of beyond, was tended by tribesmen, eventually made it across Russia to a health resort in Finland where he stayed for weeks to recover his strength.

Murrey is still only three-quarters well again, his face is grey and sallow. He is upset by the post-conquest changes: ‘the alterations on stamps and coinage, the intrusive Teuton element, the alien uniforms cropping up everywhere, the new orientation of social life.’

Chapter 3 The Metskie Tsar

Yeovil goes to see his doctor, Dr Holham, and this is an opportunity for Saki to describe in detail what happened to him in Russia, from the marsh fever he came down with to the slow and shocking realisation of Britain’s defeat.

It’s also an opportunity for the doctor to fill him (and the reader) in on a more precise description of the sequence of events, namely: the war was triggered by a frontier incident in East Africa, then next thing we knew the Germans attacked on all fronts. Their ships combined with aircraft defeated ours. They had numerical superiority so could defeat us in several places simultaneously. The Germans hadn’t initially planned annexation, but, once they realised it was a possibility, Warum nicht? and so Britain has become a sort of Alsace-Lorraine. (The king has fled to Delhi and set up an alternative court. Not the first time, as the narrator dryly points out, there has been a king ‘across the water’.)

Dr Holham says the Liberal Party had been in power for ‘nearly a decade’ and so were widely blamed for the defeat. (Since the Liberals won a landslide victory in the 1906 election this places the fictional invasion in about 1915, two years into the book’s future.) Yeovil expresses his bluff, manly patriotism:

‘But, surely—a nation such as ours, a virile, highly-civilised nation with an age-long tradition of mastery behind it, cannot be held under for ever by a few thousand bayonets and machine guns. We must surely rise up one day and drive them out.’

But Dr Holham crushes him by describing how quickly the British abandoned thoughts of resistance: for everyday life must go on, people must eat, work, earn money, business must trade. The golf links are filling up again, sport is resuming.

The doctor then goes on to make a special case of London, explaining that London is to an unusual extent a cosmopolitan city, and its art world is intrinsically cosmopolitan and less patriotic than the rest of the country:

You must remember that many things in modern life, especially in the big cities, are not national but international. In the world of music and art and the drama, for instance, the foreign names are legion, they confront you at every turn, and some of our British devotees of such arts are more acclimatised to the ways of Munich or Moscow than they are familiar with the life, say, of Stirling or York. For years they have lived and thought and spoken in an atmosphere and jargon of denationalised culture—even those of them who have never left our shores. They would take pains to be intimately familiar with the domestic affairs and views of life of some Galician gipsy dramatist, and gravely quote and discuss his opinions on debts and mistresses and cookery, while they would shudder at ‘D’ye ken John Peel?’ as a piece of uncouth barbarity. You cannot expect a world of that sort to be permanently concerned or downcast because the Crown of Charlemagne takes its place now on the top of the Royal box in the theatres, or at the head of programmes at State concerts.

So, in this view, London’s art world and High Society is, by its nature, less patriotic than the rest of the country, or even unpatriotic. It’s quite a vicious claim for Saki to be making and all the more surprising because he made his entire career out of detailed depictions of precisely this class.

Saki’s antisemitism

So far, so cutting. But then, to my surprise, the two characters step over a line and transition from being anti-London to becoming overtly antisemitic.

‘And then there are the Jews.’
‘There are many in the land, or at least in London,’ said Yeovil.
‘There are even more of them now than there used to be,’ said Holham. ‘I am to a great extent a disliker of Jews myself, but I will be fair to them, and admit that those of them who were in any genuine sense British have remained British and have stuck by us loyally in our misfortune; all honour to them. But of the others, the men who by temperament and everything else were far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British, it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world, and became a cosmopolitan city. They had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before.’

This speech combines a number of antisemitic tropes:

Antisemitic trope 1: Jews everywhere

That the Jews were somehow everywhere, ‘many in the land’. Certainly the 1880s and 1890s had seen large-scale immigration of Jews to Britain fleeing from pogroms in Russia. Between 1880 and 1900 an estimated 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in London, mostly settling in the East End where competition for housing and work caused much ill feeling and gave rise to the nativist, anti-immigration party, the British Brothers League. It was lobbying by the League and a shrewd alliance with sympathetic MPs which led to the 1905 Aliens Act, which was the first attempt in British law to limit immigration.

But the rhetoric around Jewish immigration (astonishingly, hair-raisingly racist as it appears to modern sensibilities) exaggerated the impact that 150,000 people made on a filthy, over-crowded London whose population was already five million. If there was competition for sweatshop jobs and appalling housing conditions, these were present before the Jews arrived. These were English problems created by decades of English exploitation and neglect.

Antisemitic trope 2: Jews cosmopolitan

The second antisemitic trope is that the Jews are essentially ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘rootless’ and therefore intrinsically less patriotic or incapable of patriotism in the way that other ‘races’ are (the French ‘race’, the British ‘race’, the German ‘race’ etc); that they actively prefer London under enemy occupation as it is more like the continental capitals they are used to.

This is just a slur, a libel, which the doctor himself goes on to qualify as being untrue for most if not all British Jews. But that doesn’t stop him expressing it and Yeovil nodding sagely as if they’ve both made a penetratingly wise analysis of Edwardian society’s many ills.

Edwardian anxieties

Because that’s what’s at the root of the problem: Edwardian society’s profound anxiety about itself.

The Boer War and poverty The ruling classes and their cronies in the Press had been shocked by Britain’s poor showing in the Boer War, which should have been over in a few months but dragged on for two and a half painful years (1899 to 1902). They were shocked to discover the terrible state of the working class men rounded up from the slums of London, Birmingham and Glasgow and packed off to the distant Veldt where they were easily outclassed by the fit guerrilla fighters of the Boers. (The most quoted statistic is that, of the young men recruited for the war from the slums of Britain’s cities, as many as 40% were unfit for military service and suffered from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses.)

The decadence At the other end of the social scale there was an ongoing moral panic about the moral decline of the sons of the super-rich upper classes, what the antisemitic polemicist Arnold White called ‘bad smart society’ in his 1901 diatribe Empire and Efficiency. The worry that the British Empire would go the way of the Roman Empire, which everyone agreed had collapsed due to its moral decadence and self-indulgence. To every decent chap’s horror there were even artistic and literary movements which prided themselves on their ‘decadence.’

The Oscar Wilde trial (1895) gave the enemies of decadence a focal point and symbol with which to whip all these decadent tendencies, and try to enforce more martial virtues, the old Roman Republican virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice. But, as Saki’s own stories amply demonstrate, set as they are among fantastically decadent, orchidaceous young men and catty Society women, this campaign had a very limited impact. While the Germans were aggressively building up their fleet of Dreadnoughts, Imperialists of the Kipling brand warned of the dangers of attack, and called for a physical and moral revolution across the land, but Kipling’s tone is one of a prophet in the wilderness who becomes all the more anxious the more he is ignored.

Military rivalry In addition to the threat of moral collapse from within and armed threat from Europe, Edwardian England was faced with other seemingly intractable problems. Civil war was threatening in Ireland and the entire political class was taking sides over the conflict. An evermore militant trade union movement supported a Labour Party which was threatening to gain more MPs and overturn the duopoly of power between Conservatives and Liberals which had lasted over a century. Women of all classes were united in the surprisingly disruptive and divisive Suffragette Movement. And various colonies threatened rebellion and revolt, not least the jewel in the Crown, India, with its growing Indian National Congress  party, founded 1885.

Jews as scapegoats

The great advantage of having a scapegoat is that everything can be blamed on them. All the anxieties and resentments and furies of all the different classes and parties in Edwardian society could be focused on just one convenient figure – the ‘Jew’. Society becoming too luxurious and decadent? Blame it on the corrupt spirit of the Oriental Jew. Society too greedy and money-minded? Blame it on the Jewish banker. Society aflame with Socialist agitation? Blame it on the Jewish Socialists. The East End packed with filthy hovels? Blame it on Jewish immigration or rackrenting Jewish landords. Good, solid British culture being borne down in a welter of cosmopolitan art and radical theatre? Blame it on Jewish intellectuals and Jewish impresarios (later on, Saki goes to lengths to point out that the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties which features in the story is managed by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt, continuing his theme that cosmopolitan Jews run everything).

There was no social, political or cultural problem too large or too small which couldn’t be laid at the door of the scapegoat figure of ‘the Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the good, solid, traditional British blah blah blah values.

Against this backdrop Saki creates a fine, upstanding, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Aryan hero who is associated with clean, healthy living, either in the wild, among wolves on the distant steppes of Russia, or fox hunting across unspoilt Wessex. Murrey Yeovil’s structural role in the narrative is to act as a clean, upstanding contrast to cosmopolitan London and its moral corruption and idle, upper-class chatter, as described by his sidekick Dr Holham:

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience.’

It was psychologically easy for people like Saki or his characters to channel their ill-focused dislike of modern life, with all its rapid changes and stresses and anxieties, first onto The City, the embodiment of alienating Modernity, and then onto the figure which generations of antisemitic prejudice had created as somehow the embodiment of everything which was corrupting about modern urban life, ‘the Jew’.

Antisemitism as problem avoidance

Like all racist stereotypes, antisemitism allows the believer to avoid having to confront the intractably complex and difficult issues about his own society and his own relationship to it. Just possibly it was not foreigners who were responsible for the corruption and superficiality of London life, for mass poverty and slums, for high crime rates and the growth of radical socialist politics: maybe it was the British ruling class themselves who were responsible for creating this anxious and divided society. But you can see how an entire class would prefer not to look its own failure in the face, and much prefer to blame them, the others, the outsiders, the rich Jews, the poor Jews, the bankers, the Socialists, they’re all in it together, it’s a great Jewish conspiracy!

Antisemitism as a bonding force for antisemites

And like all socially shared stereotypes, antisemitism also allows its exponents to bond together, to cement friendships, to assert shared values, exactly as Yeovil and the doctor do in this chapter. There’s a particularly unpleasant and telling way in which the antisemites use periphrases to refer to Jews: referring to ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’, or people whose ancestors hale from ‘the Jordan valley’, or use cod Biblical phrases like the alleged fact that they are ‘many in the land’. The antisemites think they’re being so clever, so civilisé, using their fancy codes and crossword-clue style allusions to Jews. But they’re not; they’re being thick and racist. Antisemitism is a stupid person’s idea of ‘clever’.

Summary of discussion of antisemitism

To sum up: antisemitism is not actually the central theme of this book, it is ‘merely’ an unpleasantly recurring leitmotif, a subset of the bigger issue the text sets out to investigate, namely Britain’s moral, political, cultural and military collapse. But it has an impact on the modern reader out of proportion to its relatively minor presence in the text, because of the calamitous history which was to come later and which we, now, know so much about.

Considered as a fiction, it is fascinating to see how Saki shows that antisemitism has arisen in Murrey Yeovil’s character, how it derives from this simplistic city-country dichotomy, and how it has become horribly intertwined with notions of patriotism versus ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, corrupt town versus noble country and so on. Saki the novelist gives Murrey’s antisemitism a great psychological plausibility.

And it is always possible that Saki is pulling the basic fictional trick on us of fooling us into sympathising with, or taking seriously, a character who he himself despises. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like Murrey Yeovil really is the ‘hero’, albeit flawed, of this slender novel, and that his bitter resentment of Jews is included in the novel because Saki himself, at least in part, shared it.

And so I’m afraid the broad vein of antisemitism which runs through this novel has permanently tainted my enjoyment of all Saki’s other works. Anyway. Back to the plot summary:

Chapter 4 ‘Es ist verboten’

The morning after Yeovil’s long chat with the doctor, he comes downstairs to a scumptious breakfast prepared by servants (when did servants stop being a thing in England? The 1940s?). Cicely explains to Yeovil how many of their upper-class friends have either retreated to their country estates, or have moved to one of the colonies. (It is, on the face of it, an anomaly that the colonies continue to remain British, though this is directly addressed later on by a German character who says the Germans simply have no interest in winning or running them. All they want is the freedom to develop their own colonies, which they have now won.)

Yeovil goes for a walk through Hyde Park where he notices Teutonic changes: for example, the tea rooms have changed to a continental bar serving lager and coffee, a troop of shiny German cavaliers rides by, and a policeman gives him an on-the-spot fine for walking on the grass (as they do in Switzerland), warning him that walking on the grass is, under the new regime, ‘verboten’.

Chapter 5 L’art d’etre cousine

Cicely holds a lunch party to which come her sort-of boyfriend Ronnie Storr, as well as the insufferable chatterbox Joan Mardle. After idle chat, Joan moves on to discuss the law about the House of Lords. All titles will lapse unless the holder takes an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser.

Then to the issue of Gorla Mustelford and her first night of ‘suggestive dancing’ at the Caravansery Theatre. Interestingly, ‘suggestive’ doesn’t seem to have the meaning it has for us now i.e. sexual suggestiveness, for Gorla is doing a dance ‘suggestive of the life of a fern’, so it seems to mean something more like imitative or mimicking.

Joan Mardle has realised the Yeovils are poles apart on the great question of the day, which is whether to acquiesce in the German conquest or resist. Cicely insists she will throw a party for Gorla’s first night though, out of consideration for Murrey’s views, not at their home but at a restaurant.

Chapter 6 Herr von Kwarl

Portrait of an adviser to the government, Herr Von Kwarl, sat at his favourite table in the Brandenburg Café at the bottom of Regentstrasse (i.e. in Berlin), and discussing the Occupation with Herr Rebinok, the plump little Pomeranian banker. They play chess (with comically aggressive comments) then discuss the future of the Occupation. Von Kwarl dismisses the notion of Delhi assembling a coalition against them. No, the pressure point is the young generation of Brits: will they acquiesce or revolt? In particular, over German plans to introduce national service which Britain has never had before.

Chapter 7 The Lure

Cicely and Murrey have diametrically opposed reactions to the Occupation. She is given very persuasive arguments that the old values and ways must be maintained despite everything. She is a ‘gradualist’. She believes British values may come to infiltrate the German Empire, a kind of reverse takeover which may end up dictating the whole drift of German policy. Alternatively, there may come a moment in the future which is propitious to an armed uprising. But not now: for the moment, normal British life and values must be preserved. In particular she holds out to Murrey ‘the lure’ of the chapter’s title, which is that he should resume his place with the East Wessex Hunt, maintaining the best traditions of an independent England.

Among the small squires and yeoman farmers, doctors, country tradesmen, auctioneers and so forth who would gather at the covert-side and at the hunt breakfasts, there might be a local nucleus of revolt against the enslavement of the land, a discouraged and leaderless band waiting for some one to mould their resistance into effective shape and keep their loyalty to the old dynasty and the old national cause steadily burning.

Chapter 8 The First Night

The first night of Gorla Mustelford’s dance show, included on a mixed bill at the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties. ‘Everyone’ is there but the chapter is mainly a vehicle for Yeovil’s jaded reflections on London’s sell-out society with its ‘babble of tongues and shrill mechanical repartee.’ There is an unpleasantly antisemitic passage about the prevalence of Jews from many countries in the audience.

At first sight and first hearing the bulk of the audience seemed to comprise representatives of the chief European races in well-distributed proportions, but if one gave it closer consideration it could be seen that the distribution was geographically rather than ethnographically diversified. Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground. The lack of a fire burning on a national altar seemed to have drawn them by universal impulse to the congenial flare of the footlights, whether as artists, producers, impresarios, critics, agents, go-betweens, or merely as highly intelligent and fearsomely well-informed spectators. They were prominent in the chief seats, they were represented, more sparsely but still in fair numbers, in the cheaper places, and everywhere they were voluble, emphatic, sanguine or sceptical, prodigal of word and gesture, with eyes that seemed to miss nothing and acknowledge nothing, and a general restless dread of not being seen and noticed.

This soon segues into Yeovil’s equally bitter meditations on other classes who have too-readily accepted occupation, but nonetheless, its rank antisemitism leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. Yeovil contrasts the English high society sellouts with the Bulgarian people who put up a fight against their oppressor and so are now (1913) independent (of the Ottoman Empire).

Thoughts about those who have sold out or accepted ‘the fait accompli’ focus on the figure of ambitious social climber Lady Shalem, who has kept London society going and whose husband will soon be rewarded with a Barony by a grateful Kaiser.

There is also a loud tiresome American. Saki clearly hates Americans cf. the honeymoon chapter in The Unbearable Bassington. They’re one more symptom of the ghastly modern world which he hates, along with motor cars and continental cafés and cosmopolitan Jews.

The ‘redoubtable von Kwarl’ makes a ‘visit of ceremony’ to Cicely’s box. Yes, she is very well in with the new ruling class, her husband observes, bitterly.

Chapter 9 An evening ‘to be remembered’

The narrator fiercely criticises Gorla Mustelford’s graceless, restless dancing and lambasts the superficiality of the audience. By contrast with the fine balance of his short stories, in this novel Saki’s contempt and almost hatred of the English upper classes is revealed in all its bile and anger.

The Kaiser arrives, slipping into his box with no fuss except that the entire theatre stops to stare. Yeovil is disgusted at their sycophancy.

And then the performance is over and everyone goes to the party Cicely has arranged at a restaurant where the narrator lets rip his contempt for the pretentious loudmouth prattle of ghastly London High Society, awful people shouting their banal opinions at the tops of their voices.

The narrative pans over various groups until arriving at the popular singer Tony Luton, who had himself performed at the evening’s gala, sweet-talking the elderly and very rich Gräfin von Tolb, who has taken up residence in Berkeley Square.

Chapter 10 Some reflections and a Te Deum

It is the day after the Mustelford first night and Cicely’s wildly successful party. The chapter shares with us Cicely’s strategic analysis of how the success of the party has positioned her within London’s new, post-conquest world. The friendship of Lady Shalem was important, but the patronage of the Gräfin is vital. She tries to be polite to Murrey over breakfast but he gets bitter when she asks if he has read about her supper-party. He makes another antisemitic remark.

‘There is a notice of it in two of the morning papers, with a list of those present,’ said Yeovil; ‘The conquering race seems to have been very well represented.’
‘Several races were represented,’ said Cicely; ‘a function of that sort, celebrating a dramatic first-night, was bound to be cosmopolitan. In fact, blending of races and nationalities is the tendency of the age we live in.’
‘The blending of races seems to have been consummated already in one of the individuals at your party,’ said Yeovil drily; ‘the name Mentieth-Mendlesohnn struck me as a particularly happy obliteration of racial landmarks.’
Cicely laughed.

It shows you how, for people of Yeovil and Saki’s ilk, the nations of the world were composed of clearly defined races, the Teuton, the Anglo-Saxon, the Latin, the Muslim, the Arab and so on. More controversially, they have a primitive feeling that miscegenation, or the marrying across racial lines, is unfortunate, and hence the joke about Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn, whose name shows she is a ‘cross’ between Scottish and Jewish ‘blood’. For some reason the very rootlessness of Jews, the way they have no fixed nation but crop up as citizens of many other nations, offends Yeovil and brings out these unpleasant cracks.

On a separate subject, considered as a fiction, it is a simple but effective idea to position a husband and wife with polar opposite views about the novel’s central issue, i.e. how to respond to the catastrophe of being conquered and humiliated; to have the differing attitudes to being conquered dramatised within a marriage, with the wife, in particular, worried that her plans to become force in London High Society, might be derailed by her begrudging husband.

Chapter 11 The tea shop

Yeovil goes for a walk down Piccadilly and into Burlington Arcade, whose entire west side of shops has been removed to make way for German-style café tables at which a very cosmopolitan mix of peoples and languages are drinking their coffees and syrups and listening to a band playing the latest transatlantic jingles.

From around the tightly-packed tables arose a babble of tongues, made up chiefly of German, a South American rendering of Spanish, and a North American rendering of English, with here and there the sharp shaken-out staccato of Japanese. A sleepy-looking boy, in a nondescript uniform, was wandering to and fro among the customers, offering for sale the Matin, New York Herald, Berliner Tageblatt, and a host of crudely coloured illustrated papers, embodying the hard-worked wit of a world-legion of comic artists. Yeovil hurried through the Arcade; it was not here, in this atmosphere of staring alien eyes and jangling tongues, that he wanted to read the news of the Imperial Aufklärung.

So, as I stated earlier, Yeovil’s animus against Jews is only a part of his broader revulsion against the entire mixed-up, multiracial, polyglot, cosmopolitan world which he hates.

Yeovil hurries through the Arcade, on through Hanover Square and then drops into a tea shop off Oxford Street. Here he gets talking to a pastor, a man with ‘a keen, clever, hard-lined face, the face of a man who, in an earlier stage of European history, might have been a warlike prior’, who explains that the working classes blame the defeat on the politicians and ruling classes, despite the fact it was they themselves who voted for peace-making politicians (i.e. the pacifist Liberal Party).

All morning Yeovil and everyone else has been expecting a Royal Proclamation announcing that the British will be compelled to perform the same military service as the Germans. It is a brutal humiliation, then, when the newsboys shout a special edition of the papers is hitting the streets, and the pastor grabs a copy and shares it with Yeovil to discover that: the Imperial Aufklärung is precisely the opposite. From now on no Britons will do military service, training, wear a uniform or be able to bear arms.

The martial trappings, the swaggering joy of life, the comradeship of camp and barracks, the hard discipline of drill yard and fatigue duty, the long sentry watches, the trench digging, forced marches, wounds, cold, hunger, makeshift hospitals, and the blood-wet laurels—these were not for them. Such things they might only guess at, or see on a cinema film, darkly; they belonged to the civilian nation.

In other words the Germans consider the British have proved themselves unworthy of bearing arms. It is the extreme of national humiliation.

Chapter 12 The travelling companions

Yeovil takes a train down through an idealised countryside to ‘Torywood’. It was plain from The Unbearable Bassington and becomes plainer still here, that Saki loathed the city and fetishised the idealised English countryside.

Tall grasses and meadow-weeds stood in deep shocks, field after field, between the leafy boundaries of hedge or coppice, thrusting themselves higher and higher till they touched the low sweeping branches of the trees that here and there overshadowed them. Broad streams, bordered with a heavy fringe of reed and sedge, went winding away into a green distance where woodland and meadowland seemed indefinitely prolonged; narrow streamlets, lost to view in the growth that they fostered, disclosed their presence merely by the water-weed that showed in a riband of rank verdure threading the mellower green of the fields.

On the stream banks moorhens walked with jerky confident steps, in the easy boldness of those who had a couple of other elements at their disposal in an emergency; more timorous partridges raced away from the apparition of the train, looking all leg and neck, like little forest elves fleeing from human encounter. And in the distance, over the tree line, a heron or two flapped with slow measured wing-beats and an air of being bent on an immeasurably longer journey than the train that hurtled so frantically along the rails.

Now and then the meadowland changed itself suddenly into orchard, with close-growing trees already showing the measure of their coming harvest, and then strawyard and farm buildings would slide into view; heavy dairy cattle, roan and skewbald and dappled, stood near the gates, drowsily resentful of insect stings, and bunched-up companies of ducks halted in seeming irresolution between the charms of the horse-pond and the alluring neighbourhood of the farm kitchen. Away by the banks of some rushing mill-stream, in a setting of copse and cornfield, a village might be guessed at, just a hint of red roof, grey wreathed chimney and old church tower as seen from the windows of the passing train, and over it all brooded a happy, settled calm, like the dreaming murmur of a trout-stream and the far-away cawing of rooks.

It was a land where it seemed as if it must be always summer and generally afternoon, a land where bees hummed among the wild thyme and in the flower beds of cottage gardens, where the harvest-mice rustled amid the corn and nettles, and the mill-race flowed cool and silent through water-weeds and dark tunnelled sluices, and made soft droning music with the wooden mill-wheel. And the music carried with it the wording of old undying rhymes, and sang of the jolly, uncaring, uncared-for miller, of the farmer who went riding upon his grey mare, of the mouse who lived beneath the merry mill-pin, of the sweet music on yonder green hill and the dancers all in yellow—the songs and fancies of a lingering olden time, when men took life as children take a long summer day, and went to bed at last with a simple trust in something they could not have explained.

On the train journey, very schematically Yeovil meets two ‘types’. The first is a visiting Hungarian who tuts about Britain’s fate, saying Britain grew soft: ‘great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness.’ The British lost faith in their Christian religion but were not virile enough to restore Paganism.

A word on paganism

Paganism and its embodiment in the great Greek nature god Pan, are threads which occasionally surface in Saki’s stories, notably the one specifically about Pan, The Music on the Hill, from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911). But a very strong feel for the countryside is present in many of his stories and both of the novels and this sometimes rises to the level of almost visionary or religious intensity, which is where the spirit of Pan comes in.

This blog post by John Coulthart gives a useful background to Pan in the art and literary world of the 1890s. At least five different things were involved. 1. The rejection by legions of sensitive artists and writers of the urban world of commerce and industry in preference for the unspoilt pagan countryside. 2. The sense that Christianity had become completely hollowed out as the vehicle for any kind of religious raptures or ecstatic visions. 3. Whereas many of these artists were the product of a century or more of the Classical literature which was taught in all private schools, giving rise to the cult of evermore exquisite classicism. 4. It was strongly tinged with homosexuality. Pan is a beautiful, svelte but wickedly immoral young man; in other words a fantasy object for many gay writers and artists, of which Oscar Wilde was one and Saki clearly another. The two occurrences of the word ‘pagan’ in this novel associate it with young, manly virility. The first one is here, in this passage, where the Hungarian train traveller tells Yeovil that true paganism is associated with a level of virile manliness which the English have lost:

‘I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants. They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number.’

And the second is when Yeovil witnesses some young German soldiers marching by, exciting and glamorous in their uniforms and virile young manliness:

A sudden roll of drums and crash of brass music filled the air. A company of Bavarian infantry went by, in all the pomp and circumstance of martial array and the joyous swing of rapid rhythmic movement. The street echoed and throbbed in the Englishman’s ears with the exultant pulse of youth and mastery set to loud Pagan music. (Chapter 11)

OK, there’s nothing overtly gay about either passage, but we know it is there. In fact ‘pagan’ could, in the right context, virtually be a codeword for gay.

5. Lastly, alas, I think there is also an antisemitic element to Saki’s paganism, too. In the sense that Saki appears to find the organised Christianity, the Church of England, of his day, risible, as, admittedly, many other writers of the time did too, and states his preference for full-blooded and virile paganism. But it’s only a small step from this position to identifying the really repressive part of Christianity as the Old Testament with its forbidding God Jehovah and his long list of prohibitions and his repressive attitude towards the clean, young, healthy male body worshipped by the Greeks – and from there it’s only a small further step to blame the Old Testament on ‘the Jews’ and – bang! – you can, once again, blame ‘the Jews’ for everything bad and repressive about society, and the antisemite is back on his familiar stomping ground.

Back to the plot

Back on the train, the Hungarian asks Murrey to compare and contrast the pusillanimous Brits with his own people, the Hungarians, who ‘live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them.’ Interestingly, by ‘race’ he doesn’t mean the modern notion of skin colour, but is clearly referring to Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, what we would think of as ‘nationalities’. These terms have changed their meaning over the last century. Anyway, his point is you always have to have your guard up and Britain let hers lapse.

The Hungarian gets out at the next station and is replaced by a big, red-faced English angler. This is a classic type of the pub bore and Yeovil gets angry when the bore booms on about Britain’s intrinsic superiority, a nation such as ours is bound to kick out the sausage-eaters, and so on. Not, replies Yeovil, without great effort and self-sacrifice. By the end of their short conversation Yeovil is filled with Kiplingesque contempt for the jingoist who is full of words with no understanding of the hard work and sacrificed involved.

And with that parting shot he [the jingoist] left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country’s enemies with his tongue. ‘England has never had any lack of patriots of that type,’ thought Yeovil sadly; ‘so many patriots and so little patriotism.’

Chapter 13 Torywood

Murrey has been taking the train down to the hilariously named ‘Torywood’, whose train station is, of course, the epitome of bucolic England. Yeovil is picked up by a dogcart, which gives him opportunity to vent his grumpy spleen about the horrid new invention of the motor car, which, of course, began its ruinous ascent in the Edwardian decade (see Wind In The Willows).

Torywood is the country seat of Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten. She has devoted her life to the maintenance of the county and the country which is described in woolly, Kiplingesque rhetoric.

In her town house or down at Torywood, with her writing-pad on her knee and the telephone at her elbow, or in personal counsel with some trusted colleague or persuasive argument with a halting adherent or half-convinced opponent, she had laboured on behalf of the poor and the ill-equipped, had fought for her idea of the Right, and above all, for the safety and sanity of her Fatherland. Spadework when necessary and leadership when called for, came alike within the scope of her activities, and not least of her achievements, though perhaps she hardly realised it, was the force of her example, a lone, indomitable fighter calling to the half-caring and the half-discouraged, to the laggard and the slow-moving.

This is a laughable portrait of the Tory fantasy of the benevolent aristocrat, conveniently eliding the centuries of oppression of rural workers which had brought her family to this happy state. Lady Greymarten is old and frail now, but she enjoins Yeovil to fight on. The contrast between old and fading but still unbowed gentility and the preening exuberance of ‘cosmopolitan’ London couldn’t be more clearly expressed:

Yeovil said good-bye to her as she stood there, a wan, shrunken shadow, yet with a greater strength and reality in her flickering life than those parrot men and women that fluttered and chattered through London drawing-rooms and theatre foyers.

It is clearly designed to bring tears of patriotism to your eyes, although it may bring tears of mocking laughter to the modern reader’s eye. If things are defined by contrast with what they are not, then the clean and healthy countryside needs there to be a corrupt and dirty city, to set itself against.

His own country had never seemed in his eyes so comfort-yielding and to-be-desired as it did now when it had passed into alien keeping and become a prison land as much as a homeland. London with its thin mockery of a Season, and its chattering horde of empty-hearted self-seekers, held no attraction for him, but the spell of English country life was weaving itself round him, now that the charm of the desert was receding into a mist of memories. The waning of pleasant autumn days in an English woodland, the whir of game birds in the clean harvested fields, the grey moist mornings in the saddle, with the magical cry of hounds coming up from some misty hollow, and then the delicious abandon of physical weariness in bathroom and bedroom after a long run, and the heavenly snatched hour of luxurious sleep, before stirring back to life and hunger, the coming of the dinner hour and the jollity of a well-chosen house-party.

Fantasy of English upper class, ‘timeless’, country life conveniently emptied of the its actual inhabitants, the farm workers and small town merchants and lawyers and increasing number of commuters. Fantasy.

Chapter 14 A perfectly glorious afternoon

We are plunged back into the subtle corruptions of London life, with Yeovil’s wife, Cicely, ensconced in the fashionable Anchorage restaurant, along with fashionable young Ronnie Storr, the musician who she refers to as her ‘lover’ and ‘boyfriend’. She has, apparently, had many during her marriage to Murrey.

They discuss in a languid Noel Coward sort of way how Tony is becoming too famous as a musician to remain her lover much longer. ‘You’ve got a charming young body and you’ve no soul, and that’s such a fascinating combination.’ He is giving a piano recital that afternoon and they go through a typical Saki list of London High Society who will be attending which, of course, includes some well-placed Germans.

Storr performs magnificently to the loud applause of the gentry and nobles present. But when the Duchess of Dreyshire asks Yeovil (now back in London) what he thinks, he replies by quoting a fierce piece of verse about patriotism, Boadicea, an Ode by William Cowper. To Murrey’s surprise, young working class Tony Luton takes up the refrain before himself storming out.

The flow of polite chatter resumes and Saki describes at length the chitter-chatter of the privileged, including Canon Mousepace, Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn, the popular novelist Rhapsodie Pantril, the Gräfin von Tolb, Leutnant von Gabelroth, Joan Mardle, the Landgraf.

Later, it was reported in the newspapers that the popular singer Tony Luton had turned down an offer by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt to renew his contract and had signed on instead with the Canadian merchant marine. The point being that he has quit the shallow world of ‘art’, the theatre and endless London gossip for a real job in the ‘real’ world. Which Saki approves with editorial heavy-handedness:

Perhaps after all there had been some shred of glory amid the trumpet triumph of that July afternoon.

Chapter 15 The intelligent anticipator of wants

Both of Yeovil’s old clubs have disappeared, one off the face of the earth, the other off to Delhi. He tries its replacement, the Cartwheel, which turns out to be as busy as Piccadilly Circus and with a distinct presence of ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen, wearing tartan waistcoats of the clans of their adoption, flitted restlessly between the tape machines and telephone boxes’. Another one of the many throwaway antisemitic remarks which litter the book.

Yeovil is about to turn round and leave when he is buttonholed by Hubert Herlton who has become a ‘fixer’, a putter together of buyer and seller, a sort of early version of the World War Two spiv. Hubert predicts that German immigration will slowly increase and more cities and towns develop a majority German population. Herlton is sharp enough to remember Yeovil is a hunting man and used to hunt in East Wessex, so briskly announces that he has a fine horse lined up for him, and a ‘hunting box’ or country base, complete with paddock and garden.

Yeovil points out a chap named Pitherby crossing the vestibule. Herlton reveals the Pitherby is set fair to acquire a barony and so has been laying a goodly stock of game to be hunted, in accord with his new status, and is buying off Herlton some Hereford cows, a swannery, a heronry, and a carp pond!

Chapter 16 Sunrise

A strange chapter, standing completely alone from the rest of the text, in which a Frenchman in what we take to be remote India, comes across an English woman bringing up her children in a remote isolated farmstead, where they can swim in the lake and shoot among the reeds. Her husband is dead and she is in exile from occupied England.

The chapter title is explained because, as the sun rises on the Frenchman talking to this woman, her children unfurl the Union Jack on a flagpole on a hill and everyone stops to salute it. Presumably this interlude exists to show the patriotic sacrifice that some people are prepared to make for good old England, and to compare and contrast this with the London society which is carrying on as if nothing has happened, even sucking up to their German conquerors.

Chapter 17 The event of the season

In a Turkish bath in Cork Street W1 a vapid young man Cornelian Valpy regales his fellow bathers with details of the frightfully clever ball held at Shalem House last night, where guests went as a character from history and their partners had to be their prevailing characteristics, such as George Washington and Truth.

It is a long roll call of the hypocritical Quisling high society we have been meeting throughout the novel: the Duchess of Dreyshire as Aholibah, Billy Carnset for her shadow, Unspeakable Depravity; Leutnant von Gabelroth as George Washington, Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient Candour; the loud-voiced Bessimer woman as the Goddess Juno, with Ronnie Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy; the author Pitherby dressed as Frederick the Great to promote his sycophantic biography of the German ruler, accompanied by an uninspiring-looking woman, supposed to represent Military Genius; Cornelian Valpy dressed as the Emperor Nero and Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.

Valpy has time to explain that Cicely Yeovil has found herself a new boyfriend, much prettier than her old one, Ronnie Storre. What he doesn’t realise is that Ronnie is in the Turkish bath, overhears this comment, and stalks out. The point of the chapter is to demonstrate London’s cesspit of narcissistic partying and vapid gossip.

Chapter 18 The dead who do not understand

November in the country, country wives putting up shutters and the fox which has been hunted but not caught, retreats into the depths of a spinney as the hunters return to their kennels and stables. We are in the country so, of course, it is Yeovil we find riding home exhausted by a good day’s hunting.

So far, so stereotypes, but there is a smidgeon of interesting psychology in the way that, having been vaunted as the man who hates the fait accompli and loathes the facile acceptance of the new conquerors by his wife and her smart set, and was told by Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten to ‘fight on’… actually, he rather likes the life of a country squire, he likes the hunting:

The pleasures of the chase, well-provided for in every detail, and dovetailed in with the assured luxury of a well-ordered, well-staffed establishment, were exactly what he wanted and exactly what his life down here afforded him. He was experiencing, too, that passionate recurring devotion to an old loved scene that comes at times to men who have travelled far and willingly up and down the world. He was very much at home… Horse and hound-craft, harvest, game broods, the planting and felling of timber, the rearing and selling of stock, the letting of grasslands, the care of fisheries, the up-keep of markets and fairs, they were the things that immediately mattered.

In other words he is tempted to forget all about the ‘good fight’ and relapse into a life of rural contentment. He is tempted.

Except that it’s gotten late, night is drawing on and when Yeovil stops at a pub to enquire directions he discovers he’s a long way from home. The publican tells him there’s a young man with a motor car in the bar heading in his direction, why not stable his horse here for the night and get a lift? Yeovil says yes, then is mortified to discover the motorist is one of ‘them’, Leutnant von Gabelroth, who had, by a wild coincidence, been present at the musical afternoon at Berkshire Street.

The drive takes them past a village church where Yeovil’s ancestors are buried and he is so ashamed that he turns his head in the opposite direction. That is the meaning of the chapter’s title. In Yeovil’s mind, his dead, his ancestors, will not understand his betrayal of their country.

Thus, after being dropped at his spacious and comfortable country house, having had a lovely bath and a fine dinner in the company of the local doctor, at the end of a perfect day, Yeovil is alone with his thoughts and the guilty self-accusation that he is somehow betraying his country, his race and his ancestors.

Here, installed under his own roof-tree, with as good horseflesh in his stable as man could desire, with sport lying almost at his door, with his wife ready to come down and help him to entertain his neighbours, Murrey Yeovil had found the life that he wanted—and was accursed in his own eyes. He argued with himself, and palliated and explained, but he knew why he had turned his eyes away that evening from the little graveyard under the trees; one cannot explain things to the dead.

Chapter 19 The little foxes

It is May, ten months after Yeovil’s return from Siberia, and his wife Cicely is enjoying luncheon in the Park in company of her latest toyboy, Larry Meadowfield. They are there because there is to be a Grand Parade of boy scouts. This organisation has been given all manner of privileges by the Kaiser. Via the usual selection of Quislings and collaborators – Cicely Yeovil, Gräfin von Tolb, Joan Mardle, Sir Leonard Pitherby, Lady Bailquist, Herr Rebinok, the little Pomeranian banker – we learn that there is trouble brewing in the Balkans and so it is all the more important that the grand parade of boy scouts pledges its allegiance to the Kaiser who is waiting, with his son and foreign dignitaries, on a specially erected stage.

But the boy scouts do not come, the crowd starts whistling and booing in mockery and an unnamed young man with a worn grey face (Murrey Yeovil) realises that although he himself might have made a shameful peace with the new regime, hundreds of thousands of the younger generation have not, and will fight on.

In thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.

So the novel ends on this rousing patriotic note of defiance.


Thoughts

1. Is it even a novel?

When you first read that the subject matter of When William Came is a fictional German invasion of Edwardian England, you wonder whether it will be action-packed, whether there will be fighting, that it might be a ‘thriller’. In the event, it is none of these things. It is a study in the psychology of defeat and one which, in its mannered superficiality, and in comparison with accounts of the disasters which were to follow in the rest of the twentieth century, would be easy to overlook or dismiss as trivial.

In terms of structure, it was a simple but effective idea to divide the psychology of defeat into two broad streams or strategies and to allot one to a husband and one to a wife, so that the different paths of acquiescence can interplay with domestic psychology, and with ‘gender identity’: the woman’s approach, the man’s approach. Makes it more rich and complicated, or, perhaps, less simple-minded.

Even less original is the notion of dividing the responses to enemy occupation into a broadly Town and a ‘Country’ response, given that this is one of the oldest dichotomies in world literature. But Saki’s intimate knowledge of High Society and his malicious wit make the London scenes deliciously satirical; and his less well-known but deep love of the English countryside gives the rural scenes a sumptuously sensual depth.

Above all, he really can write, creating long, luscious sentences ripe with description, which build into huge paragraphs which, especially in the rural scenes, have an almost physical impact on the senses.

The pale light of a November afternoon faded rapidly into the dusk of a November evening. Far over the countryside housewives put up their cottage shutters, lit their lamps, and made the customary remark that the days were drawing in. In barn yards and poultry-runs the greediest pullets made a final tour of inspection, picking up the stray remaining morsels of the evening meal, and then, with much scrambling and squawking, sought the places on the roosting-pole that they thought should belong to them. Labourers working in yard and field began to turn their thoughts homeward or tavernward as the case might be. And through the cold squelching slush of a water-logged meadow a weary, bedraggled, but unbeaten fox stiffly picked his way, climbed a high bramble-grown bank, and flung himself into the sheltering labyrinth of a stretching tangle of woods.

2. Nationhood and patriotism

From a historical point of view, the book is an interesting stroll round the different ways notions of patriotism, race and identity were discussed in 1913 England. One of the most striking things, for me, was philological: Saki uses the word ‘race’ not in our modern sense of ethnicity and skin colour but more as we nowadays say ‘nation’. Thus he talks about the French race, the Italian race, the British race, ‘our’ race, and so on. It seems to have been a much more specific and much more clearly defined idea.

For Saki, or for his characters Yeovil and Dr Holham, each race must remain, in some sense, pure and undefiled by mixing with foreigners (hence the running joke about a character named Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn who exists solely to demonstrate the perceived incongruity of a Jew marrying a Scot; it’s worth remembering that Saki, real name Hector Munro, was himself of Scottish descent).

This is more than what we mean today by racism, because it isn’t defined by skin colour; it’s a deeper sense that every nation has its unique culture, language and traditions and that these are weakened when they are blended into a mongrel mix. Hence Yeovil and Holham’s shared dislike of London’s cosmopolitanism, as evidenced in the ‘Munich or Moscow’ speech I quoted earlier.

On this interpretation, cosmopolitanism creates a fake metropolitan culture which neglects national traditions in preference for the magpie highlights of international art and culture. (Interesting to reflect how this negative view of London as an international city cut off from the rest of the country, hotbed of a cosmopolitan liberal elite, has persisted through the past 110 years, and is generally agreed to have been an issue in the drawn-out Brexit debate and then to have played a part in Labour’s shattering defeat in the 2019 general election.)

London is seen as being in some sense unfaithful to its own native traditions; its cosmopolitanism is a form of betrayal.

3. Jaundiced view of London High Society

One of the things that comes over most strongly throughout the book is Saki’s real hatred of the vapid, pleasure-seeking, shallow, unpatriotic and narcissistic London upper classes.

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience. If they were not herded together in a corner of western London, watching each other with restless intelligent eyes, they would be herded together at Brighton or Dieppe, doing the same thing.’

Again and again he criticises this class’s smallness, its incestuousness, and its smug, narcissistic self-congratulation. In a sense the entire premise of the plot, that the Germans will easily defeat us if it comes to a fight, can be seen as an extended slap in the face for these people and this culture which utterly failed to appreciate that there is a Real World of never-ending conflict and competition out there, and you need to be armed and ready to defend yourself against it. It was Kipling’s warning, rephrased in Saki’s very different, mordant and ironic style, but with the same sense of urgency.

4. Antisemitism

I’ve said enough earlier, but Munro’s antisemitism is a blot or stain on this book which also casts a long shadow over all his other works. It is interesting to see how antisemitism can be derived so simply from the postulates listed above, almost like a mathematical formula:

  • each nation or race should remain pure and true to its traditions
  • big cities are places where cosmopolitan elites deny and mock their national traditions, go soft, and indulge in evermore luxury and decadence
  • this is not only ‘immoral’ but leads to the fatal neglect of army and navy, leading to military defeat, France in 1870, England in this novel
  • ‘Jews’ are the most ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘rootless’ elements in modern urban society
  • ‘therefore’ these ‘rootless’ ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews are the greatest threats to the nation

A twisted logic whereby all these anxieties about national safety and resentments at the heedlessness of the rich and fury at everything you don’t like about the modern world can be focused onto the convenient and defenceless figure of the ‘Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the values listed above.

And how narrowing the focus onto this convenient scapegoat lets the antisemite off the hook of having to confront the real causes of England’s unease: the centuries of exploitation of her own deeply immiserated working classes, the Victorian century of ever-wider conquest and exploitation of peoples right around the world. Edwardian England was racked with social and political issues:

  • the rise of militant trade unions and the new Labour Party
  • the suffragettes
  • rebellion in Ireland
  • revolt across much of the Empire, not least the jewel in the Crown, India

But none of this is mentioned in the novel. Instead, and standing in for them, we have his sick obsession with ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’ and their untoward prominence in show business. How stupid. How entirely inadequate to the complexities of the time.

When William Came made me realise that antisemitism is a way for people to refuse to face up to the uncomfortable facts about their own country and society and social failings. It is a stupid ‘solution’ for stupid people who aren’t capable of grasping, defining or analysing the genuinely difficult questions  their society needs to address. It is a cop-out. Antisemitism is an explanation for idiots.

A note on spelling antisemitism

I checked online to find out whether to use a capital S in antisemitism and discovered that I shouldn’t be using the hyphenated form of either the thing or the person. The advice of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is to use the forms ‘antisemitism’ and ‘antisemite’, so that’s what I’ve done here and will do in future.


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett (1946)

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

After writing a series of experimental texts in English during the 1930s, Mercier et Camier was Beckett’s first attempt at an extended prose piece in French. He wrote it in 1946, while he was living in France after the end of the Second World War. It comes between Watt, which Beckett wrote in the last few years of the war, and directly before the three huge experimental ‘novels’ or texts which became known as The Beckett TrilogyMolloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953).

Watt was long, experimental and – ultimately, for its author – unsatisfactory; who knows how to describe what it is for its readers.

Mercier and Camier is a lot shorter but Beckett found it even more unsatisfactory, which is why he refused to publish it in its original French until 1970. It only appeared in English in 1974, in Beckett’s own translation, in which he took the opportunity to make substantial alterations to the original text and to ‘reshape’ it from French to English. That’s the translation I read.

Structure

The Calder and Boyar edition I read is just 123 pages long. It is divided into eight chapters and every pair of chapters is followed by a ‘summary of two preceding chapters’ as in a school textbook.

The prose is lucid but highly mannered. A lot of it is similar to Murphy and Watt, not in style but in that it is writing about writing, writing whose main energy comes from taking the mickey out of traditional writing, that plays with the style of official reports, mixes in everyday phrases or clichés, and so on. It is not very interested in describing the world ‘out there’ but has made a nice safe warm space inside the head, playing with phrases. The general idea is that Mercier and Camier are a pair of vagabonds who intend to leave the city on a journey and Beckett introduces it thus:

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or less success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

‘Physically it was fairly easy going… The weather never exceeded the limits of the temperate… With regard to money…’ These sound like phrases from an official report, as does ‘It may be aid that…’

The style goes on to change and pull in other registers and mannerisms, playing with various learned tropes and techniques, but it is more often than not more interested in writing, in the possibilities of types and styles of writing, than in depicting any kind of ‘reality’.

Similarly, the dialogue is more often than not about the dialogue – characters speak about the act of speaking ‘did you say that?’ ‘did i say what?’ ‘did you say what you just said?’ ‘i don’t know, did i just say something?’ – played for laughs, played as a solemn game indicating the difficulties of even the most basic communication, rather than the kind of dialogue you find in most ‘normal’ novels.

More than anything else, unlike the monolithic solid blocks of prose found in The Beckett Trilogy, the pages look like a normal novel, divided up into short, sensible paragraphs which flag up new bits of dialogue or action or description in the traditional manner.

The shortness of the text, the use of short chapters, the breathing space provided by the end of chapter summaries, and the layout of the individual pages, all make Mercier and Camier feel like the most readable novel-style book Beckett ever wrote.

Repetition, absurdity and comedy

We are in an unnamed city. Mercier and Camier meet at their rendezvous point, though not before some misunderstanding. Mercier is first to arrive but gets bored waiting so goes for a stroll. Camier arrives ten minutes later so he goes for a stroll a few minutes before Camier gets back. Camier gets bored waiting then goes for a stroll just a few minutes before Mercier returns to the rendezvous point, hangs about a bit then goes for a stroll, and a few minutes later Camier returns to the rendezvous point, and tuts about where his friend can be, before going off for a stroll.. Repetition is at the core of Beckett’s technique, repetitions with slight variations which quickly build up into monstrous tables of permutations, as we have just seen in the numerous examples given in Watt. Beckett invests sufficient energy in this obsessive schedule of mistimed arrivals that he bothers to give us a table describing it.

In the introduction to Watt, Beckett scholar Chris Ackerley says Beckett is satirising the philosopher René Descartes’ notion that a comprehensive enumeration of what philosophers called the ‘accidents’ of a thing will eventually give you ‘understanding’ of the thing, whereas Beckett’s satirical deployment of this technique is designed to prove that the more you enumerate something, the further you in fact become from understanding it, you just become more bewildered.

In this format, this kind of mathematical precision which can be converted into a timetable is obviously a kind of satire on the timetabled way most of us live our lives, with mobile phones and meeting-reminding programs converting the endless flux of reality into bite-sized five-minute chunks.

But there is also something very powerful and uncanny about repetition. Repeat a word numerous times and it quickly starts to lose meaning and become absurd. Repeat a precise action numerous times and the same. It is as if repetition takes us out of the everyday. Transcendental meditators are instructed to repeat their mantra thousands of times to take them into an other-worldly state. Closer to Beckett’s Ireland, Roman Catholics have series of prayers to repeat as penances or on numerous other formalised occasions.

Repetition of drills with weapons make soldiers proficient, repetitive exercise improves athletes’ performance, makes difficult moves automatic, practice makes perfect. All this is true of the physical world. But in the world of language, repetition doesn’t make perfect or battle ready or match fit. Something different happens.

In Beckett’s hands, repetition can become obsessively patterned – as in the timetable of Mercier and Camier missing each other described above – in which case it reduces humans to automata, like buses meeting or missing a schedule, or the figures which come out of cuckoo clocks on the hour.

Or it can be funny, like two gentlemen bowing and taking their hats off to each other in an indefinite cycle of politeness.

Or it can open the door into Absurdity – highlighting the pointlessness of doing the same things or saying the same things over and over and nothing ever changing.

It is in this respect that Mercier and Camier anticipates Waiting For Godot, in that it is a text interested in repetition and a kind of formal patterning of actions and dialogue, but – crucially – enacted by two protagonists.

In the most intense moments (I say moments, in fact reading them takes hours) of The Beckett Trilogy what you have is one voice giving a running, stream-of-consciousness account of its bewilderment and misery and sense of utter crushing futility – which is what makes reading them, especially The Unnameable such a gruelling experience.

But when you have two characters, even if they’re predisposed to be miserable and depressed, for a man of Beckett’s sly humour, the temptation is to poke fun at his own seriousness, the temptation is to have one character deliver a long speech about the meaninglessness of existence… and then have the other character point out he’s sitting on his hat. Or his shoelaces have come undone, he might trip and do himself a mischief etc. Thus:

‘What are you musing on, Mercier?’
‘On the horror of existence, confusedly,’ said Mercier.
‘What about a drink?’ said Camier.

In other words, just the decision to have two characters opens up the possibility of counterpointing the misery of The Unnameable with a world of slapstick, pratfalls and bathos. And it’s in this respect that Mercier and Camier feels like a dry run for Waiting For Godot.

Aspects of style

Having finally met up, Mercier and Camier embrace just as the heavens open and it starts to tip down. They run into a shelter, still embracing.

Obscenity

Still embracing? Two dogs run into the shelter and start copulating furiously, making Mercier and Camier realise they they also are still embracing. Are they gay? Or straight friends caught in an embarrassingly inappropriate moment? Is Beckett pulling the reader’s leg or tweaking the censor’s nose?

The pair continue to regard the copulating dogs, Camier wonders why they’re still plugged together and Mercier gives a wearied / cynical explanation:

What would you? said Mercier. The ecstasy is past, they yearn to part, to go and piss against a post or eat a morsel of shit, but cannot. So they turn their backs on each other. You’d do as much, if you were they.

A moment later Camier asks if they can sit down as he feels ‘all sucked off’. That is not a usual expression for ‘tired’, it is easier to interpret as a sexual expression. Later the ranger tells the dogs to bugger off. Mercier remarks that the ranger was a hero in the mud of flanders during the Great War while he and Camier were ‘high and dry, masturbating full pelt without fear of interruption…’ In chapter two Mercier says ‘fuck thee’. In chapter 4 Camier mildly remarks: ‘Cunts we may be…’ In chapter 6 Mercier remembers his wife, not very fondly, Toffana, making love to whom was ‘like fucking a quag’.

So why is Beckett dwelling on piss, shit and blowjobs, masturbation, buggery fucks and cunts?

Is it another way of ridiculing the high-mindedness of the Rationalist tradition in Western philosophy (as the satires on Descartes’ method are in Watt?) Or a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks human existence is noble and spiritual? Or was it in the spirit of many other mid-century literary rebels who thought writing ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ was a blow against the Establishment / capitalist system / patriarchy?

Beckett prefers ideas and categories to description

The sounds of the city intrude:

On all hands already the workers were at it again, the air waxed loud with cries of pleasure and pain and with the urbaner notes of those for whom life had exhausted its surprises, as well on the minus side as on the plus. Things too were getting ponderously under way. It was in vain the rain poured down, the whole business was starting again with apparently no less ardour than if the sky had been a cloudless blue.

Dickens or Balzac or maybe E.M. Foster or Virginia Woolf would have given us a world of detail, listing occupations and activities of the city coming to life. In his compendious Modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the German novelist, Alfred Döblin, used a blitz of collages and quotes from newspapers, adverts and billboards to convey the over-abundant sensual stimulation of the modern city.

But Beckett’s description is a good example of the way he isn’t at all interested in that notion of urban life and colour – his imagination always generalises, moves to the philosophical categories and ideas underlying any situation, and then plays with these and the language they’re cast in. Ignores the sensuous specific for the ideas and possibilities latent in the language of ideas. It’s this which makes so much of his writing seem grey and abstract – because it is.

Dialogue as experiments with the idea of dialogue

Similarly, the dialogue barely refers to events or things, or only the bare minimum required to make sense. Most of the dialogue is about the nature of dialogue, it is playing with the notion of dialogue and what is concealed or implied in it.

No big ideas, no Freudian sub-texts or subtle implications, it isn’t that purposive. Beckett is just tinkering with fragments of dialogue, arranging and re-arranging them at angles to each other, to see what happens, to see what effects are created. It is like cubism. Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings depicted really banal everyday objects – tables with newspapers, a bottle of wine and some apples on it. The revolution wasn’t in the subject matter which was as banal as can be. It was in the radical experiment of seeing the same thing from different angles.

So just as cubism takes everyday subject matter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles, so Beckett’s dialogue takes mundane chatter and subjects it to multiple perspectives and styles. That, I think, is the spirit to approach lots of the dialogue in Beckett. It is, at best, tangential or inconsequential, random, but it also plays with registers or tones. Characters speak to each other in the style of official reports or philosophical textbooks, the exact opposite of the casual slang or jokey tone most people use in conversations:

We shall never know, said Camier, at what hour we arranged to meet today, so let us drop the subject.
In all this confusion one thing alone is sure, said Mercier, and that is that we met at ten to ten, at the same time as the hands, or rather a moment later.
There is that to be thankful for, said Camier.
The rain had not yet begun, said Mercier.
The morning fervour was intact, said Camier.
Don’t lose our agenda, said Mercier.

So it is a kind of verbal satirical cubism. And once you adapt to its arch stylisation, it can become very funny.

Who owns them dogs? said the ranger.
I don’t see how we can stay, said Camier.
Can it I wonder be the fillip we needed, to get us moving? said Mercier.

And one reason this novel feels so pacey, so unlike the concrete blocks of the Trilogy is because so much of it consists of this slightly surreal, slightly deranged, stylised and often very funny dialogue.

What is more, said Mercier, we have still thought to take, before it is too late.
Thought to take? said Camier.
Those were my words, said Mercier.
I thought all thought was taken, said Camier, and all in order.
All is not, said Mercier.

Tramps discussing Descartes, with half an eye on Laurel and Hardy:

Is thought now taken, said Camier, and all in order?
No, said Mercier.
Will all ever be? said Camier.
I believe so, said Mercier, yes, I believe, not firmly, no, but I believe, yes, the day is coming when all will be in order, at last.
That will be delightful, said Camier.
Let us hope so, said Mercier

The plot

Chapter 1

They are in the Place Satin-Ruth which is dominated by an ancient copper beech, on which a French Field Marshall several centuries earlier had once pinned a label. They are sheltering from the rain in a shelter. A ‘ranger’ sticks his head in and asks if this is their bicycle. They discuss, in their oblique pseudo-philosophical way, the journey ahead. Rather magically night begins to fall. They must have spent the entire day there. They enumerate their belongings (the sack, the umbrella, the raincoat), exit the shelter, pick up the bicycle and push it away, under the watchful eyes of the ranger, who curses them on their way.

Chapter 2

The pair push their bicycle through the busy urban throng.

I’m cold, said Camier.
It was indeed cold.
It is indeed cold, said Mercier

They repair to a pub. Landlord says no bikes so they chain theirs to the railings. Drink for some time and discuss their situation. Decide to press on, go outside, pick up the bike, resume their walk. At a crossroads don’t know which way to go so let the umbrella decide by letting it fall. It points to the left. They see a man in a frock coat walking ahead of them.They both hear the sound of a mixed choir. Then it dawns on them to actually use the umbrella against the pouring rain, but neither of them can get it open, Mercier smashes it to the ground and says ‘fuck thee’ to Camier.

They arrive at Helen’s and notice the grand carpet and the white cockatoo. Helen suddenly appears in the text, with no introduction or explanation, offering them the couch or the bed. Mercier says he will sleep with none. Then:

A nice little suck-off, said Camier, not too prolonged, by all means, but nothing more.
Terminated, said Helen, the nice little suck-offs but nothing more.

Does this mean Helen is a sex worker, and Camier is agreeing to a nice blowjob. By ‘terminated’ does Helen mean she is agreeing to the deal i.e. payment for two blowjobs ‘but nothing more’ i.e. no penetration.

One paragraph later they are ‘back in the street’, the entire night having, apparently, passed. They’re a little way down the road from Helen’s when the pouring rain makes them take shelter in an archway. They realise they’ve mislaid the sack. They enumerate what was in it. Enumerating things is one of Beckett’s most basic techniques.

Camier realises he is hungry and steps out from the archway to go to a shop. Mercier is stricken with anxiety and begs him to come back. Camier relents for a moment but then steps boldly out in the rain to find sustenance.

In his absence Mercier looks up to see a little boy and a little girl standing in the rain, who call him Papa! He shouts ‘fuck off out of here!’ at them and chases them away.

Camier returns and places a cream horn in Mercier’s hand. Mercier squeezes it uncomprehendingly till the cream spills out, and then doubles over in misery, weeping, says he’ll start crawling (as so many Beckett characters end up doing, sooner or later).

Mercier’s mood of misery and futility is interrupted by the sound of a screech of brakes and a crash. They run out into the street and see a fat woman who’s been run over, is lying amid the wreckage of her skirts, with blood flowing. Soon a crowd blocks their view (as crowds are always attracted to car accidents, as described in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash).

Pepped up by this sight, Mercier feels like a new man, and they resume their journey.

The text is then punctuated by one of the summaries of the content so far. I’ll give the summary of chapter 1.

Summary of two preceding chapters
I
Outset.
Meeting of Mercier and Camier.
Saint Ruth Square.
The beech.
The rain.
The shelter.
The dogs.
Distress of Camier.
The ranger.
The bicycle.
Words with the ranger.
Mercier and Camier confer.
Results of this conference.
Bright too late.
The bell.
Mercier and Camier set out.

Chapter 3

Opens with a macabre first-person account by a narrator who says his parents died in a train crash when he was soon after he was 13 and he was placed with farmers who made him work hard at all sorts of manual tasks, but he turned out – gruesomely – to excel, from the age of 15, at ‘the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets’, and smothering geese. At the age of 19 or 20, having got a milkmaid pregnant, he ran away, after setting fire to the barns, granaries and stables. That was 50 years ago (i.e. like so many Beckett narrators, he is now ancient and decrepit).

Only then, at the end of this monologue do we realise that the absence of speech marks Beckett’s deploys throughout the book has, in this instance, fooled us. This isn’t first-person narration, it is the monologue of an old codger in the compartment of the train Mercier and Camier are on. It is a sly, humorous sleight of hand.

The train stops but Mercier and Camier are too slow to get off and relieve themselves of the old man’s company and so, as the train starts up again, so does his monologue, this time a feverish garble which seems to be about whoring and womanising. The train stops at another stop and he gets off, now identified as Mr Madden, ‘He wore gaiters, a yellow block-hat and a rusty frock-coat reaching down to his knees.’ The comic dialogue between our hapless duo resumes. Mercier complains that Camier has booked them onto the stopping train, the slow train south of our Dublin (which was known in those days as the slow and easy):

I knew it, said Mercier. I’ve been shamefully abused. I’d throw myself out of the window if I wasn’t afraid I might sprain my ankle.

Camier says they’ll get down at the next stop and next thing they are in the little settlement surrounding the next station without any description of the train having stopped or them having alighted. The text is full of continual sly jokes like that, or casual underminings of the conventions of fiction. Elsewhere he undermines his own sentences even as he writes them:

It’s … snug, said the man, there is no other word. Patrick! he cried. But there was another word, for he added, in a tone of tentative complicity, whatever that sounds like, It’s … gemütlich.

The narrator uses a description and immediately wonders what the description can mean. The man speaking is an inn-keeper, greeting our travellers, while yelling over his shoulder for Patrick, presumably a servant. Mercier says that he has seen this man in his dreams. A page later we learn he is named Mr Gall, which reminds us of the Mr Gall the piano tuner who prompted a crisis of epistemology in Watt in the eponymous novel.

It is fair day. The farmers have brought their goods and animals to market. The beasts are stuffed in their pens. The narrator describes the farmers as grasping their ‘pricks through the stuff of their pockets’. Mercier summons the manager, they ask for several items off the menu which are all sold out. Camier says his friend Mercier is ‘out on his feet’, is it alright if they take a room for a rest, the manager agrees and our couple go upstairs.

One of the farmers comes over, is greeted by the manager as Mr Graves (which reminds us of Mr Graves the gardener in Watt) and comments the departed pair are ‘a nice pair’ and asks Mr Gall where he got used to such. Is the implication (once again) they Mercier and Camier are gay, and the farmer and manager think they’ve gone upstairs for sex?

Mr Gall appears to change his name and becomes Mr Gast, as the farmers depart and he is suddenly looking out onto a little medieval square, as if in a science fiction or horror story. The barman comes up and describes our pair as: ‘the long hank with the beard [and] the little fat one…’

Mr Gast pops out to find out what’s become of the absent Patrick, and is back a moment later, telling the barman he (Patrick) has died. His penultimate words were for a pint. Mr Gast calls for Teresa who is, fortunately, still alive and she comes out of the loo, a buxom wench carrying a big tray.

A rough tough man enters the bar in his hobnail boots, it is Mr Conaire, explains he’s escaped what he calls ‘the core of the metropolitan gas-chamber’, glimpses buxom Teresa, glances at the barkeeper, who is now named George. Mr Conaire asks the way to the ‘convenience’ and manages to brush against Teresa’s buxomness. Mr Gast has another vision, the present disappears as he sees a distant vista, a desolate moor with a single winding track and a solitary figure…

Mr Conaire reappears from the convenience having had a difficult time of it. Maybe he has constipation. He flirts more with Teresa then says he has an appointment to meet F.X. Camier, private investigator, and gives a description of Camier – ‘Small and fat… red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes’ – which George complements with a description of Mercier – ‘A big bony hank with a beard… hardly able to stand, wicked expression’.

George goes up to their room to get them, but discovers Mercier and Camier asleep  and snoring, hand in hand on the floor of the hotel room.

Chapter 4

Our heroes are in the open countryside, not a house in sight, on a bank overlooking a wide field, inhabited only by a goat. But it isn’t a Shakespeare paradise, it is a wintry, cold and gloomy, damp Irish field, the sun is ‘a raw pale blotch’ in the cloudy sky. Camier complains he can feel the cold creeping up his crack. Mercier shares his method of keeping happy, which is to focus on parts of the body which do not hurt.

What shall they do? Camier suggests they need to go back into the town to find the sack, the sack they seem to have misplaced after they left Helen’s place. But maybe the sack itself isn’t the cause or the reason for their sense of want. The sack itself will not supply the truth. Maybe it is some aspect of the sack, as of the bicycle or the umbrella. Camier is disquisiting further on the nature of when Mercier interrupts him to tell him about the dream he had last night, in which his grandmother was carrying her own breasts by their nipples.

Camier loses his temper. Have they not made a solemn vow, ‘No dreams or quotes at any price.’ Camier is dispatched to get provisions from the town, swaggering there on his stumpy legs, while Mercier is left to decide in which direction to collapse.

The text cuts with no explanation to Camier being at the bar in the pub ordering a round of five sandwiches off George and introducing himself to Conaire. Mr Conaire shares a very Beckettian vision of entropy:

Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts and Thursday stones.

We discover he spent the entire previous evening waiting for Camier to appear and fell asleep on a couch. When he woke up in the morning our couple had moved on. Camier is sublimely indifferent and leaves with his sandwiches. Mr Conaire goes for a crap. Mr Gast is absent, picking snowdrops for Patrick’s sheaf. Teresa also is absent.

Back with Mercier, Camier feeds him a sandwich but Mercier throws up. They stagger to their feet and realise they have to press on. Somewhere. For some reason. There’s a page or two of debate about whether to leave the tattered old raincoat where it is, which they do, then lament that they have. They totter back towards the railway station.

Summary of chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 5

They arrive back at the town on Sunday night. Knowing no better, they make their way to Helen’s who lets them stay and presents them with the umbrella, restored to full function. They appear to spend the evening making love, or entwining their naked bodies. So they are gay. Next afternoon they set off for their destination (we are not told what that is), and stop into a pub to wait for dark. And discuss at length and come to Great Conclusions:

1. The lack of money is an evil. But it can turn to a good.
2. What is lost is lost.
3. The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed.
4. There is food for thought in being down and out.
5. There are two needs: the need you have and the need to have it.
6. Intuition leads to many a folly.
7. That which the soul spews forth is never lost.
8. Pockets daily emptier of their last resources are enough to break the stoutest resolution.
9. The male trouser has got stuck in a rut, particularly the fly which should be transferred to the crotch and designed to open trapwise, permitting the testes, regardless of the whole sordid business of micturition, to take the air unobserved. The drawers should of course be transfigured in consequence.
10. Contrary to a prevalent opinion, there are places in nature from which God would appear to be absent.
11. What would one do without women? Explore other channels.
12. Soul: another four-letter word.
13. What can be said of life not already said? Many things. That its arse is a rotten shot, for example.

Beckett loves a list. Our heroes decide to postpone decisive action till the following day and return to Helen’s place to kip. Next morning they set out bravely, not forgetting the umbrella. In fact it’s more like a parasol. Mercier tells Camier he bought it at Khan’s, which appears to be a pawnshop. Camier says it appears to have been manufactured in 1900, the year of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Camier gives such a vivid description of the siege, that they might have been there as young men.

Now both try and fail to open the wretched thing. Camier disappears back up the stairs (presumably of Helen’s place). Mercier takes advantage of his absence to walk on and enters a Joycean stream of consciousness phantasmagoria of thoughts and impressions about time and passersby. His path crosses an old man, he sees a man guiding a donkey, and urchins playing at marbles in the street, he rattles chains with his big stick, as he staggers senilely on.

Chapter 6

Evening of the same day. Camier is in a pub. Another pub. It is packed with dockers and sailors, a fug or smoke and beer fumes. He closes his eyes and spends two pages imagining Mercier arriving. When he opens them, Mercier has arrived, causing a momentary lull in the male fug of conversation.

They enter an obscure and highly stylised conversation. Where is the umbrella? When Camier was helping Helen, his hand slipped – he explains, as if that explains anything. Is it a sexual reference. Meanwhile the bicycle they left chained to the railings has, with Beckettian entropy, disintegrated, having lost wheels, saddle, bell and carrier, though not, intriguingly, its pump.

They set off into the dark night, supporting each other, though neither knows whither or why. They struggle to speak, Camier wants to ask questions but Mercier explains he has used up all his answers. What happened to the sack? They go into a narrow alleyway. Neither of them can remember how to describe walking. It becomes more than ever like Godot.

Where are we going? said Camier.
Shall I never shake you off? said Mercier.
Do you not know where we are going? said Camier.
What does it matter, said Mercier, where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.
No need to shout, said Camier.

Even the fresh line for each bit of dialogue looks like a play. They end up walking back and forth along this dark alleyway wondering where they’re going, and why, and why in each other’s company. They smell kips which appears to mean the perfume from a brothel. They ask a policeman if there’s a brothel and when he says they should be ashamed at their age, says it’s all they’ve got left. That and masturbation. So are they solidly heterosexual?

The officer arrests them and turns up Camier’s arm and smacks him. He’s about to blow his whistle when Mercier kicks him in the balls and the officer releases Camier, falling to the ground. This gets extremely unpleasant, for Camier seizes the officer’s truncheon and starts beating him round the head, they pull his cape over his head and beat some more, the impression of the head being of a boiled egg without it shell. Seems they’ve murdered him. They run along the alley into a square, across it and into a narrow street, and decide it is best to go back to Helen’s place.

Summary of chapters 5 and 6

Chapter 7

Descriptive passage of open moorland, heather, mountains looming, lights of city in distance, lights of harbour reflected in the sea. Presumably the countryside surrounding Beckett’s family home in Foxrock. Lucky bugger.

Mercier and Camier are making their way across this wild landscape. They have cut themselves cudgels to clear the undergrowth. They spy a wooden cross of a nationalist’s grave and head towards it but lose their thread. Start wondering if there are worms in turf. Feel something spectral is surrounding them.

Night is coming. It gets dark. They do not think they can walk any further (‘if you can call it walking’). They cannot see each other. They totter. They fall in the dark, in the bog, and help each other get up. Eventually. They finally make it to some ruins they’d spied, and collapse. And ‘their hands were freed to go about their old business’. Is that masturbation? And the text mentions their ‘customary cleavings’. Gay sex?

The narrator says the text could end here, frankly. But there is no end. There are never endings.

Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier…

This is the utterly exhausted, bleak voice of the Beckett Trilogy. They waken separately, stumble out the ruins, each thinking the other has abandoned him, barely able to see in the dark, indistinguishable footfalls, they are heading back to town, of course, because that is what they do as soon as they have left town, their endless itinerary. They come to a fork in the road, Camier takes one road but when Mercier comes up to the fork, he cannot see his compadre and so takes the other. The text has ceased to be light and funny. It is weighed down with the full concrete futility of the books to come.

Such roughly must have been the course of events. The earth dragged on into the light, the brief interminable light.

Chapter 8

‘That’s it’, the text sinks into Beckett despair at the exhausting business of getting up, washing, dressing and all the rest of it, God, the endless waiting for death, dragging on, the dead and unburied with the dying, and the pathetic illusion of life (and so on and so on).

Camier leaves a house. He is an old frail man now, unable to walk without a stick, head on his chest. He is in some street when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. A big man says he knows him, watched his mother change his diapers, introduces himself as Watt, and says he wishes to introduce him to a Mr Mercier, standing just along the pavement. Watt, says Camier. I knew a fellow named Murphy, died in mysterious circumstances.

Watt takes the two men imperiously by the arms and half drags them along the pavement, they are walking into the sunset (!) – until a police officer blocks their way. Watt defies the police officer, grabs the pair round the waist and hauls them further along the pavement. They collapse into a bar (as men so often do in these stories).

Watt orders whiskey all round. In an obscure roundabout way Mercier and Camier warm up and begin to regard each other in the old friendly way. Suddenly Watt bangs the table loudly and shouts, ‘Bugger life!’ The landlord comes over and angrily tells them to leave. Mercier and Camier go into a perfectly co-ordinated and comic turn, claiming that poor Watt has just lost his darling baby, his wife is at home in paroxysms of grief, they have brought Watt out to console him, could they just have another round and everything will be alright, honest your honour!

They call Watt daddy (despite being decrepitly old themselves). This last section contains a number of mocking anti-religious references, for example, the narrator tells us most of the pub’s clientele are butchers who have been made mild by the blood of the lambs. Ha ha. This undergraduate wit is common in Joyce and, alas, lives on in Beckett, lowering the tone or, more precisely, thinning the texture. Like the fondness for including swearwords in the story. Alright, but… it lets the reader off the hook. It stops being demanding. Swearwords are as easy-to-read, as assimilable as the sentimental clichés he so mocks. They’re just another type of cliché.

The landlord backs down and serves them their second round of drinks. Mercier goes to the window and looks out. The colours of heaven were not quite spent. He resumes his seat and Camier has begun to reminisce about what he remembers of their travels (the goat in the field, Mr Madden who gave the intense soliloquy about being a beast-slaughterer at the start of chapter 3) when Watt starts from his apparent sleep, seizes Camier’s stick and brings it crashing down on the table next to them, at which sits a man with side whiskers quietly reading his paper and sipping his pint. The stick breaks, the table top shatters, the man falls backwards in his chair (still holding his newspaper). Watt flings the shattered stick behind the bar where it brings down a number of glasses and bottles, then bawls:

‘Fuck life!’

Mercier and Camier bolt for the door. From just outside they listen to the uproar within. They both hear someone in the pub shout ‘Up Quin!’ Only those of us who have read the notes for Beckett’s novel, Watt, know that in its early drafts the protagonist was called Quin. Sol that’s quite an obscure reference there, Sam.

Mercier invites Camier for a last pint at another pub. Camier says no but ends up walking with him part of the way home. They reminisce in a fragmentary way about their adventures. Mercier starts crying. The houses grow more sparse. Suddenly space gapes and the earth vanishes but… all it means is they’ve climbed a small, picturesque bridge over the canal. It is gently raining.

High above the horizon the clouds were fraying out in long black strands, fine as weepers’ tresses. Nature at her most thoughtful.

It’s one of those rare moments when Beckett displays an old-fashioned notion of poetic sensibility. They sit on a bench, two old men. Mercier tells Camier to look north, beyond the stars. He seems to be pointing out… stars… flowers…? Camier refers to them as the Blessed Isles? This is obscure. Then, with characteristic bathos, he points out the grim pile of the hospital for skin diseases.

Camier goes to the edge of the canal. I think it is implied he is having a pee. Then returns to the bench. Mercier reminds Camier of the parrot at Helen’s. He has a feeling the parrot is dead. Camier says it’s time to go. Says, Goodbye Mercier. Alone, Mercier watches ‘the sky go out’ and hears all the little sounds which have been hidden from him by the long day.

… human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

So this final passage is unexpectedly poignant. 1. This thread of (possibly sentimental) feeling, along with 2. the shortness of the book 3. its conventional division into chapters and into paragraphs of clearly signposted action and snappy dialogue, and 4. the humour of much of the exchanges – yes, Mercier and Camier is definitely Beckett’s most accessible novel.


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Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Fiction

The Black Mask by E.W. Hornung (1901)

The paperback edition of Raffles stories I picked up in a second-hand bookshop contains the first eight Raffles stories (originally collected in a volume titled The Amateur Cracksman, published in 1899) along with the second eight, which were collected in the next volume, The Black Mask, published in 1901.

The final story in volume one had ended with the failure of Raffles’s most ambitious plan – to steal a priceless pearl which was being taken by courier on a German steamer across the Mediterranean. Caught by his nemesis – Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard – Raffles was given a moment to say goodbye to his ‘fiancée’ – a young Australian woman that he’d actually been using to find out more about the pearl – and takes the opportunity to jump up onto the ship’s railing and, as Mackenzie and the ship’s officers run to stop him, to dive overboard into the sea.

His assistant and the narrator of the Raffles tales, ‘Bunny’ Manders, thinks he catches sight of a head bobbing in the long reflection of the sunset across the waves, before he is himself dragged off to be thrown into the brig, taken back to Britain, tried, found guilty, publicly shamed and humiliated, and sent to prison for his part in Raffles’s various thefts.

There the series appeared to end with Bunny in the nick and Raffles drowned off the Italian coast. But…

The stories

1. No Sinecure

The first story in the new set reveals that… it is not so!!

It is 18 months later, Bunny has served his time in HMP Holloway. A wealthy relation has reluctantly taken pity on him and found him a hovel of a garret to live in while Bunny pursues an unsuccessful career as a freelance writer.

One day Bunny gets a telegram telling him to look at an advert in that day’s Daily Mail. It is an advert for a nurse-cum-gentleman’s assistant to an ailing old man, Mr Maturin. Bunny pawns some belongings to buy a suit and heads off for the interview at an apartment block in Earl’s Court.

He is let into the apartment by a zippy young doctor, Dr Theobald, who is the ageing Mr Maturin’s personal physician, and then ushered into the darkened room where the invalid lies in bed, white-haired and white-faced. As soon as the physician has exited, Bunny realises that the figure in the bed is… RAFFLES, his old mentor and partner in crime!!

Even as bubblegum, popcorn entertainment the stories are not as barbed and gripping as they might be. For example, you might have expected Bunny to be a bit cross with the man who led him into a life of crime, got him banged up for eighteen months, and ruined his life. You might have expected some kind of psychological reckoning. But not a bit of it, he’s just thrilled to see old A.J. again.

Raffles gives the briefest explanation of his escape: it was a hard swim, the reflection of the setting sun dazzled any potential pursuers, and life for a half-naked man wading ashore on Capri was challenging. The peasants gave him clothes, he got odd jobs, he worked his way north along the coast and into France. That’s about it. Then we are swiftly on to this week’s adventure.

Bunny helps Raffles get dressed in formal evening wear and they take a circuitous route across the apartment block roof (This is to avoid awkward questions from the porter in the apartment block’s downstairs lobby). They go down by a separate set of stairs, and head to Kellner’s Restaurant in the West End. Here, Raffles explains, he and Bunny are going to pretend to be rich Americans meeting the head of a famous firm of Regent Street jewellers’.

Over dinner in a private room the jeweller places on the table a series of expensive pieces. Raffles, in his guise as American millionaire, declares he wants them all – can he take them and send round a cheque? As expected, the jeweller laughs in his face, so Raffles makes a suggestion. Why doesn’t he place the pieces in the cigarette carton he happens to be carrying, seal it up, and give it back to the jeweller who can post it round in three days, after he’s received and cashed Raffles’s cheque.

The Regent Street jeweller agrees and they call for string and sealing wax, carefully stow the jewels in the carton, wrap and seal it, stand up and shake hands, then the jeweller departs with the carton which he will, as promised, post.

Leaving Raffles to open his voluminous jacket to reveal… the cigarette carton with the jewels in it!!

While there had been a hiatus of waiters coming in with brown paper, string and whatnot, Raffles had swapped the carton with the jewels in it for an identical but empty one – which is the one they wrapped up and gave to the jeweller!

Quickly they take a cab back to Earl’s Court, climb up the parallel staircase, and over the roofs, back into the sick room, where Raffles changes back into pyjamas and gets into bed. Raffles is back! and Bunny has helped him pull off his first job of the new era!!

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

2. A Jubilee Present

Taking advantage of the absence of Dr Theobald, Raffles takes Bunny along to the Gold Room at the British Museum. It is meant to be just a reconnaissance trip, but Raffles is loudly telling his sidekick how he plans to steal a priceless gold cup when a hidden policemen surprises them both by stepping out of the shadows.

After a few moments of trying to bluff his way out of it, Raffles simply hits the man over the head with a stick and they walk quickly but calmly past the attendants in the other rooms, down the steps, and into a hansom cab which takes them to the nearest tube, and so anonymously and safely back to the Earls Court. Here Raffles shows Bunny that in all the confusion – he pocketed a priceless gold relic.

In the event, the relic is too rare to fence, and too culturally precious to melt down for the gold (Raffles is, after all, a gentleman of taste). So, for fun, he sends it anonymously to Queen Victorian to celebrate her Jubilee!

3. The Fate of Faustina

Some Italian organ grinders in the street outside prompt Raffles to reminisce about the time he spent on the island where he had stumbled ashore, naked and exhausted, having made his getaway from the ship, as described above.

Once taken in and given clothes by kind locals, he got a labouring job and fell in love with a peasant girl, Faustina. But she was the beloved of the creepy Stefano, himself a factor to the big, rich lord, Count Corbucci.

Raffles planned with the girl to flee the island and stole a revolver which he shows her how to use. That night he is creeping down the steep staircase carved in the rock towards the cavern which they have made their secret hideaway when… he hears blundering footsteps coming up the other way.

Raffles crouches into an alcove to let the heavy-breathing big guy wheeze past and then lights a match, to reveal that it is the Count. After some ironical exchanges the count tells Raffles to go and find his beloved and turns round to resume the ascent with a scornful laugh.

Raffles hurtles down the steps and into the cavern to find Faustina dead, stabbed to death. She had been caught by Stefano and the Count, had revealed her plan to escape and drawn the gun on them, but they had wrenched it off her and stabbed her to death. Stefano is still in the cave and Raffles shoots him dead.

Raffles runs back up to the steps and along to Corbucci’s house where he roughly ties up the Count and locks all the doors, half hoping the blackguard will starve to death there. Then Raffles takes a dinghy to the mainland, and quickly skims over the way he stowed away on ships taking him further up the coast, getting small jobs where possible.

But there I had to begin all over again, and at the very bottom of the ladder. I slept in the streets. I begged. I did all manner of terrible things, rather hoping for a bad end, but never coming to one.

One day, catching sight of himself in a mirror, Raffles realises he looks like an exhausted white-haired old wreck and that no-one back in London would now recognise him. And so to London he returns, adopts the character of the old paralytic, hires Dr Theobald to make it all look kosher, and then arranged for Bunny to come calling looking for the job.

However, now he tells Bunny that – they have followed him.

Who, the police? asks Bunny. No, the CAMORRA!

Count Corbucci was a top man in the Italian underworld organisation, the Camorra, and Raffles is not surprised that word has been put out to every Italian in London to track him down. If he’s not much mistaken, that’s exactly what the Italian barrel organ people out the front of their flats have been doing. Tracking him down and staking him out.

4. The Last Laugh

Sure enough it was the Camorra. One night Bunny spots a man in the darkness opposite their block of flats standing and watching. Raffles waits till Bunny has changed into his pyjamas to go to bed, then declares he’s going out to confront these watchers in the dark.

Bunny springs to the window and watches Raffles emerge from the apartment block and the man opposite promptly turn and walk away, with Raffles in hot pursuit. But then Bunny sees a big fat man in a slouch hat amble into the street, pass directly under the window of their flat, and make off after the other two. Something’s up. Quick, he better warn his hero!

Bunny changes into his clothes, runs out into the street, hires a hansom and drives around west London in a fever, but can find no trace of Raffles or the others. Finally, he returns to the flat and remains, looking out the window in an agony of suspense all night.

Suddenly, there’s a frantic knocking at the apartment door and a one-eyed Italian stands there talking very fast Italian and gesturing for Bunny to follow. Out into the street, along Earls Court Road to the cab stand, into the first hansom, then it is a feverish life-or-death drive across London to Bloomsbury, with the cab driver using all his wiles to weave in and out of traffic and take unexpected side streets.

It’s exactly the same mentality as the car chases in James Bond or Jason Bourne movies, the same nail-biting tension building up, only set in 1901 and with hansom cabs.

The one-eyed Italian directs the cab to Bloomsbury Square and makes him pull up outside number 38. Out they leap, run across the pavement, burst through the door, run up the stairs, and into a room where Bunny is horrified to discover Raffles bound to the wall by leather ropes threaded through iron hoops attached in the wall, with a gag thrust in his mouth, covered in blood from a beating.

But the Italian doesn’t falter and continues his run at an old grandfather clock standing dead opposite Raffles, knocking it to the ground just as the revolver attached to the clock face fires, as it had been arranged to do, as the clock struck noon.

Not only had the Count’s men tied Raffles up and beaten him… they had arranged this fiendish death as a psychological torture. For the best part of 12 hours Raffles had had to watch the minute hand slowly creeping round and the apparatus inch towards the point where the clock hand would pull the trigger of the revolver and shoot him through the heart!

Who is the one-eyed man and why was it all left to the last minute? As they undo the straps and set Raffles free, he explains to Bunny that the man is one of the Count’s assistants who Raffles got a few moments alone with and managed to bribe – persuaded him that he (Raffles) would see him set up and safe if he would help.

Why the delay and the wild panic drive? Because the Count and his other assistant didn’t leave to get a train from Victorian until 11am. So 11 was the earliest that the one-eyed man could leave on his life-or-death dash for Bunny, all the time knowing that they had to be back before noon.

But did the Count leave on time? Did he ever leave the building? Cue dramatic music!!

For now Raffles reveals a further twist in the story. He had for some time been walking around with a hip flask filled with spirits, tinctured with — the deadliest poison known to man!!

‘It is cyanide of cacodyl, and I have carried that small flask of it about with me for months. Where I got it matters nothing; the whole point is that a mere sniff reduces flesh to clay. I have never had any opinion of suicide, as you know, but I always felt it worthwhile to be forearmed against the very worst. Well, a bottle of this stuff is calculated to stiffen an ordinary roomful of ordinary people within five minutes; and I remembered my flask when they had me as good as crucified in the small hours of this morning. I asked them to take it out of my pocket. I begged them to give me a drink before they left me. And what do you suppose they did?’

What the Count and his pal did was taunt Raffles with the flask, refuse him a drink, then go downstairs and drink a toast to their wicked scheme. And promptly dropped dead, where our heroes find them, grimly spread across table and floor in positions of agony.

These two stories are quite significantly more blood-thirsty than anything which has gone before in the Raffles canon. It was only half a dozen stories back that Raffles was invited down to a country house weekend on the strength of his cricketing skills, in a story as concerned with satirising vicars and duchesses as with robbery. The tone seems to have darkened considerably. It would be interesting to know from a Raffles scholar if this reflected any change in the tone of fiction, or of popular culture, at around this date – or whether someone had suggested to Hornung that he take Raffles in a new direction.

But murder, torture, suicide and poison introduce a new, more highly-strung mood into the stories.

5. To Catch a Thief

There has been an outbreak of jewellery thefts among the highest of high society. Raffles and Bunny know it is not them for the simple reason that they are still in self-imposed hiding in their Earls Court flat.

This entire second series of stories is rather stifled by this fact, the fact that – even though his appearance has changed considerably for the worse – Raffles is still petrified that someone will identify him, the cops will arrest him and he’ll be sent to prison. They tend to only go out at night, generally in disguise, and even then avoid the fashionable parts of London. A lot of the devil-may-care, man on the town spirit of the first set of stories has thus been sacrificed. They feel more claustrophobic.

Anyway, without much detective work Raffles has identified that the man responsible for this little crime wave is himself a member of the upper classes, one Lord Ernest Belville.

So they drive round to his lordship’s apartment in the swanky new King John’s Mansions. When they announce that Lord Ernest is expecting them, the porter nods them through and the page boy obligingly takes them up in the electric lift (a relative novelty in the stories) and unlocks and shows them into his Lordship’s flat. That wasn’t very difficult, then.

Raffles and Bunny thoroughly search every room in Belville’s flat and, as always happens, it is the last place they look that they stumble upon the hiding place of the jewels.

(That trope, that the thing the heroes are looking for is always in the last place they think of, after everywhere else has been searched, must be a deep narrative truth. It is a profound fixture of this kind of ‘search’ story.)

And then there’s yet another cliché which is that, having emptied the hiding place (which was a set of hollow Indian exercise clubs) of all Lord Ernest’s loot, they have just fitted everything back in place, closed the windows and cupboards, turned all the lights off and are about to make a quiet exit when…. they hear a key being fitted into the lock!

Lord Ernest confronts them whereat Raffles, with his lightning wits, waves a gun and pretends to be the police. He leaves Bunny to tie up his lordship, saying he’ll just go for reinforcements. Inevitably big strong Belville manages to overcome Bunny and knock him cold, escaping down the fire escape.

Raffles comes back in, wakens up the groggy Bunny, and they swiftly depart the flats, walking across St James’s to hop into a hansom cab and so home.

Now, as usual, they decide to avoid the porter in the lobby of their block of flats, and so go up a set of service stairs and then across the rooftops. Raffles is in advance of Bunny who is still slow and groggy from being knocked out. Raffles goes to get a light to help him.

In his absence, however, Belville appears brandishing the revolver he took off Bunny. Turns out he did not escape down the fire escape, but hid in the toilet and listened to Raffles and Bunny’s conversation – then followed them in the darkness across St James’s, then by cab etc.

Now he handcuffs Bunny to the railings of a perilous little iron bridge over a deep drop between two wings of the apartment block. Raffles reappears and there is a confrontation while the two gentleman thieves congratulate each other on their style and then proceed to debate how they’re going to proceed.

A big storm is brewing. There is lightning. A tremendous gust of wind blows out the lamp Raffles was holding and he lunges forward. Ernest tries to block his move but trips and plummets down down into the well between buildings, landing splat on the concrete at the bottom.

Raffles releases Bunny from his handcuffs and helps him along into the safety of their apartment.

Somewhere along the line Raffles has switched from the light and airy comedy of Lord Amersteth’s house party and cricket match to a world of murder and cyanide in what feels like a permanent Gothic night. Jeeves and Wooster have turned into Batman.

6. An Old Flame

Wheeling Raffles along in a bath chair in his character as invalid, Bunny is horrified when the old man sees an open window into a posh Mayfair house too attractive to resist. He clambers up to the first floor balcony and into a room with much silver on show, but is caught by the lady of the house entering.

Bunny pushes the bath chair quickly round the corner and away from this disastrous scene – but is amazed when a few moments later Raffles catches up with him. The woman turns out to be no other than Jacques Saillard, a passionate headstrong Spanish woman who has made a reputation as a painter. They had an affair some years before.

They have barely got home before the doorbell rings and it is her. She has followed them. She insists Raffles dismisses Bunny who is kicked out of the flat while she gives Raffles an earful of complaint.

Next thing Bunny knows is that Raffles asks him to find them a place in the country. Now this woman knows he’s alive she will sooner or later blurt out the secret. Raffles tells Bunny to go and find a nice quiet cottage somewhere like Ham Common west of Richmond. So off Bunny goes and does just that, renting it from a kindly old lady. Raffles had made his dismissal official, getting Dr Theobald to pay him off (it’s easy to forget that for all the stories in this volume Bunny has, supposedly, been an assistant and help to the supposedly confirmed old invalid Mr Maturin.

Bunny waits for news of Raffles’s arrival and, after ten days, pays a visit back to the apartment block in Earls Court. Here he is horrified to learn from Dr Theobald that Mr Maturin has passed away. They are just carrying the coffin downstairs. Bunny watches appalled.

Next day he attends the funeral in an agony of unhappiness, watches Dr Theobald and then Jacques Saillard pay their respects and drive away. An odd-looking fellow had been hanging round and now offers Bunny, the last mourner, a lift in his brougham.

Wwll, no prizes for guessing that this chap turns out to be… Raffles in disguise! Yes, he faked his own death to throw Jacques Saillard off the track and paid Dr Theobald a whopping £1,000 to sign the death certificate and keep quiet.

7. The Wrong House

Freed from their Earls Court base, Raffles and Bunny move in to the cottage on Ham Common and tell the kindly old landlady that Raffles is Bunny’s brother, returned from Australia.

But old habits die hard and this story is about the semi-farcical attempt to burgle a stockbroker’s house near the common and make a quick getaway on the newfangled technology of bicycles!

Unfortunately, it is a dark and foggy night and they end up breaking into the wrong house, which is a private school packed with plucky young students, who grab Bunny, until Raffles manages to free him at which point they are confronted by the head of the school and only just about blag their way out – claiming that they were innocent passersby who saw the burglary taking place.

They run out top the drive where they have stashed their bicycles and set off with the students giving such close pursuit that they actually wrench their handlebars, but our heroes manage to shake them off, and make their escape, going on an immense roundabout route before returning, none the better off, to the little cottage.

8. The Knees of the Gods

The Boer War breaks out on 11 October 1899. Raffles and Bunny read about it and then, as the tide turns against Britain, decide to volunteer. Being a bit old, unable to be conscripted in England, they take ship to South Africa and wangle their way into a regiment there, as privates.

Here a very strange thing happens. Hornung’s style turns into Rudyard Kipling’s. Having read almost all of Kipling’s 120 or so short stories, I can report that, in his later tales, he made a point of revising the stories again and again, to remove extraneous words and phrases, repeatedly paring and chipping away at the stories to make them more and more clipped and allusive, often to the point of obscurity.

To my surprise, that’s what happens to Hornung’s style. It’s as if he’s incapable of broaching on the subject which Kipling’s massive imaginative presence, in poems, short stories and novels, virtually owned – Britain’s imperial wars – without adopting his style.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a corporal in Bunny and Raffles’s platoon who they come to suspect is a Boer spy, and catch in the act of releasing British horses and packing them off to the Boer lines. Raffles impresses an officer in the regiment who, it turns out, he was at school with – presents definitive evidence of the corporal’s guilt – and the corporal is shot as a spy (after Raffles and this officer spent forty or so minutes chatting, inevitably, about cricket, that great social marker of the pukka Englishman).

But it’s the adoption of Kipling’s often puzzlingly clipped and allusive style which dominates the story, for me. For example, this dodgy corporal, Connal, picks on Bunny until Raffles steps in to defend him (in best public school style).

Connal was a hulking ruffian, and in me had ideal game. The brute was offensive to me from the hour I joined. The details are of no importance, but I stood up to him at first in words, and finally for a few seconds on my feet. Then I went down like an ox, and Raffles came out of his tent. Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked, but the net result was dreadfully conventional, for the bully was a bully no more.

That phrase, ‘Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked’ – the clipped understatement of ‘Raffles was marked’ – is fantastically redolent of the stiff-upper-lip, public schoolboy tone of Kipling’s stories about schoolboy hi-jinks, Stalky and Co.

This obliqueness really comes over as the story builds to a climax. The platoon is tasked with taking a hill held by Boers, and is crawling forwards when Bunny is drilled by a bullet through the thigh. Raffles of course comes to his aid, pulling him into the shelter of a rock and taking it upon himself to try and locate and shoot the sniper who did it. Up and down he pops behind this rock, chatting away merrily to Bunny, commentating on his progress in identifying the blighter’s location, ducking down again to reload, popping up again to take another pot shot.

Until he is shot dead. Raffles proves himself the ultimate good chap by dying for his Queen and Country. This puzzled me because I know there is at least one more set of Raffles short stories, plus an entire novel, so I am intrigued how Hornung got around the difficulty of killing off his hero.

But what impressed me more than Raffles’s death was the extraordinary way it is described. These last few pages consist almost entirely of Raffles’s confidant chat to Bunny, who is by now, in pain and losing consciousness, with each long paragraph of dialogue, just briefly ended by a phase about Raffles reloading from his bandolier.

His entire activity of jumping up to take pot shots, then ducking back down again, is not described, it is only implied, through the couple of references to bandolier, and some of Raffles’s banter about ‘missing the blighter’ and so on.

It took me a page or so of rereading to figure out what was happening and I was really struck by the technique because this is exactly what Kipling’s later short stories are like. In Kipling’s short stories, also, the explanatory text is pruned so far back that it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. Only a long quote can give the effect, the way rhythm supersedes sense, and the way concrete detail is omitted and key facts only implied.

It was not a minute before Raffles came to me through the whistling scud, and in another I was on my back behind a shallow rock, with him kneeling over me and unrolling my bandage in the teeth of that murderous fire.

It was on the knees of the gods, he said, when I begged him to bend lower, but for the moment I thought his tone as changed as his face had been earlier in the morning.

To oblige me, however, he took more care; and, when he had done all that one comrade could for another, he did avail himself of the cover he had found for me. So there we lay together on the veldt, under blinding sun and withering fire, and I suppose it is the veldt that I should describe, as it swims and flickers before wounded eyes.

I shut mine to bring it back, but all that comes is the keen brown face of Raffles, still a shade paler than its wont; now bending to sight and fire; now peering to see results, brows raised, eyes widened; anon turning to me with the word to set my tight lips grinning. He was talking all the time, but for my sake, and I knew it. Can you wonder that I could not see an inch beyond him? He was the battle to me then; he is the whole war to me as I look back now.

‘Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny. No, that one in the silver paper, I’ve hoarded it for this. Here’s a light; and so Bunny takes the Sullivan! All honour to the sporting rabbit!’

‘At least I went over like one,’ said I, sending the only clouds into the blue, and chiefly wishing for their longer endurance. I was as hot as a cinder from my head to one foot; the other leg was ceasing to belong to me.

‘Wait a bit,’ says Raffles, puckering; ‘there’s a gray felt hat at deep long-on, and I want to add it to the bag for vengeance…. Wait—yes—no, no luck! I must pitch ’em up a bit more. Hallo! Magazine empty. How goes the Sullivan, Bunny? Rum to be smoking one on the veldt with a hole in your leg!’

‘It’s doing me good,’ I said, and I believe it was. But Raffles lay looking at me as he lightened his bandolier.

‘Do you remember,’ he said softly, ‘the day we first began to think about the war? I can see the pink, misty river light, and feel the first bite there was in the air when one stood about; don’t you wish we had either here! ‘Orful slorter, orful slorter;’ that fellow’s face, I see it too; and here we have the thing he cried. Can you believe it’s only six months ago?’

‘Yes,’ I sighed, enjoying the thought of that afternoon less than he did; ‘yes, we were slow to catch fire at first.’

‘Too slow,’ he said quickly.

‘But when we did catch,’ I went on, wishing we never had, ‘we soon burnt up.’

‘And then went out,’ laughed Raffles gayly. He was loaded up again. ‘Another over at the gray felt hat,’ said he; ‘by Jove, though, I believe he’s having an over at me!’

‘I wish you’d be careful,’ I urged. ‘I heard it too.’

‘My dear Bunny, it’s on the knees you wot of. If anything’s down in the specifications surely that is. Besides – that was nearer!

‘To you?’

‘No, to him. Poor devil, he has his specifications too; it’s comforting to think that…. I can’t see where that one pitched; it may have been a wide; and it’s very nearly the end of the over again. Feeling worse, Bunny?”

No, I’ve only closed my eyes. Go on talking.’

‘It was I who let you in for this,’ he said, at his bandolier again.

‘No, I’m glad I came out.’

And I believe I still was, in a way; for it WAS rather fine to be wounded, just then, with the pain growing less; but the sensation was not to last me many minutes, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt it since.

‘Ah, but you haven’t had such a good time as I have!’

‘Perhaps not.’

Had his voice vibrated, or had I imagined it? Pain-waves and loss of blood were playing tricks with my senses; now they were quite dull, and my leg alive and throbbing; now I had no leg at all, but more than all my ordinary senses in every other part of me. And the devil’s orchestra was playing all the time, and all around me, on every class of fiendish instrument, which you have been made to hear for yourselves in every newspaper. Yet all that I heard was Raffles talking.

‘I have had a good time, Bunny.’ Yes, his voice was sad; but that was all; the vibration must have been in me.

‘I know you have, old chap,’ said I.

‘I am grateful to the General for giving me to-day. It may be the last. Then I can only say it’s been the best – by Jove!’

‘What is it?’ And I opened my eyes. His were shining. I can see them now.

‘Got him – got the hat! No, I’m hanged if I have; at least he wasn’t in it. The crafty cuss, he must have stuck it up on purpose. Another over … scoring’s slow…. I wonder if he’s sportsman enough to take a hint? His hat-trick’s foolish. Will he show his face if I show mine?’

I lay with closed ears and eyes. My leg had come to life again, and the rest of me was numb.

‘Bunny!’ His voice sounded higher. He must have been sitting upright.

‘Well?’

But it was not well with me; that was all I thought as my lips made the word.

‘It’s not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I’m not half sure – ‘

Of what I can but guess; the sentence was not finished, and never could be in this world.


Comments

I’ve just read a few novels by H.G. Wells, who is almost always exact and clear in his imagining of a scene (no matter how preposterous). By contrast, I began to get irritated by Hornung’s lack of sequentiality. I mean that:

  1. His sentences often skip over logical connections so you have to do a bit of work to figure out what he’s talking about.
  2. At the same time, his descriptive abilities are limited. I got little or no sense of the interior of the British Museum which is a sitting duck of a subject for a writer – in fact his descriptions of rooms and places is generally thin.
  3. Obscure phrasing.

Maybe I am just not getting his banter but pretty regularly there are phrases I just don’t understand. At the very end of The Last Laugh he writes:

But the worst did not come to the worst, more power to my unforgotten friend the cabman, who never came forward to say what manner of men he had driven to Bloomsbury Square at top speed on the very day upon which the tragedy was discovered there, or whence he had driven them. To be sure, they had not behaved like murderers, whereas the evidence at the inquest all went to show that the defunct Corbucci was little better. His reputation, which transpired with his identity, was that of a libertine and a renegade, while the infernal apparatus upstairs revealed the fiendish arts of the anarchist to boot. The inquiry resulted eventually in an open verdict, and was chiefly instrumental in killing such compassion as is usually felt for the dead who die in their sins.

But Raffles would not have passed this title for this tale.

I’ve no idea what this final sentence means. It makes you appreciate all the more the lucidity and clarity of Conan Doyle’s prose in his Sherlock Holmes stories of the same period.

In the following example, I think Hornung is straining a simile until it breaks. Bunny is waiting with bated breath for Raffles to return to their flat.

I can give you no conception of the night that I spent. Most of it I hung across the sill, throwing a wide net with my ears, catching every footstep afar off, every hansom bell farther still, only to gather in some alien whom I seldom even landed in our street.

What? By ‘alien’ does he mean alien and so useless fish i.e. he saw and heard things but nothing relevant to his watch for Raffles? Or:

Then one night in the autumn – I shrink from shocking the susceptible for nothing – but there was a certain house in Palace Gardens, and when we got there Raffles would pass on.

I have no idea why he is shocking the susceptible, and no idea what the phrase ‘would pass on’ means. Does it mean ‘and when we got there Raffles made me carry on walking right past it’? Why doesn’t he say so?

Every few pages there are phrases like this, which require a bit of effort to parse or understand, and this lack of fluency rises to a peak in the final story, where Hornung appears to be making a virtue of it, emphasising a clipped and deliberately allusive style in – if I’m right – conscious or unconscious imitation of Kipling.

Pop culture

There are high speed chases, priceless jewels, kidnaps and poisonings. It’s a tell-tale sign that an author knows he is writing popular rubbish using popular stereotypes when he knowingly compares his characters to…er… popular stereotypes.

With his overcoat buttoned up to the chin, his tall hat pressed down to his eyes, and between the two his incisive features and his keen, stern glance, he looked the ideal detective of fiction and the stage.

‘For the moment I did think you were one of these smart detectives jumped to life from some sixpenny magazine; but to preserve the illusion you ought to provide yourself with a worthier lieutenant.’

Overtly acknowledging that you’re using penny shocker clichés doesn’t raise you above them, it just tends to confirm the reader’s perception.

ITV dramatisation

ITV made television dramatisations of the stories in the 1970s, starring the dishy Anthony Valentine.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Towards the Flame is a diplomatic history of imperial Russia in the years 1905 to 1920. By diplomatic history, I mean a detailed – a really detailed – account of the men who ran Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its embassies (with sometimes a nod to the heads of the army, navy or other government ministers), their policies, debates and disagreements.

We are given pen portraits of Russia’s premiers, foreign and finance ministers, and key ambassadors to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and beyond and the guts of the book is a history of their diplomacy – the papers and memos they wrote laying out Russia’s strategies – the information they gathered about rival nations’ aims and goals – the assessments each nations’ military attaches made about their rivals’ readiness for war.

(For example, Lieven examines position papers like the brilliantly prescient memorandum the former head of secret police, Petr Durnovo, gave Tsar Nicholas in February 1914, which said that the biggest risk of a prolonged war was that it would trigger a massive social and political revolution (p.304).)

In intricate detail Lieven builds up a picture of the web of political and diplomatic intrigue which took place in the crucial run-up to the Great War, not only between nations, but within nations, as ruling elites were riven by conflicting strategies and visions, by political and personal rivalries, subjected to pressure from often rabidly nationalistic newspapers, and harassed by a series of international crises which repeatedly threatened to plunge the continent into war.

In Lieven’s account the question is not, ‘Why did the First World War happen’, but ‘How did they manage to put it off for so long?’

Like many historians of twentieth century Europe, Lieven tells us he has benefited enormously from the opening of Russian archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. He has obviously used the opportunity to track down pretty much every diplomatic telegraph and memo and report and study written by all the key ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, the Tsar and his prime ministers, during these fateful years, and his book presents an excellent summary and contextualising of them.

This is what gives the book its character and distinction. At every crux – for example, over the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – Lieven briefly tells us what happened on the ground (his book deliberately skips over purely military details, just as it skips over detail of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – all this can be found in thousands of other sources) in order to analyse the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lieven details disagreements in overall strategy between the Foreign Minister, his Deputy, the Finance Minister, the Tsar and the Tsar’s unofficial advisers (like his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, leader of the so-called ‘Panslavic tendency’).

Lieven gives us summaries of the reports and recommendations coming in from the embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, as well as opinions from the Russian officials on the ground in the Balkans: Count so-and-so reports back on a conversation with the King of Bulgaria, Prince such-and-such writes a long summary of the political situation in Serbia.

Lieven explains:

  • how each of these varying opinions fit in with their authors’ visions of what Russia is or could be (over the course of the book we get to know most of these diplomats and get a sense of their individual capacities and opinions)
  • how they fit in with conflicting views in the Russian elite about whether Russia should be allying with France and Britain, or with Austria and Germany
  • how the reports map onto the enduring belief in Russian elite opinion that Russia’s ‘history destiny’ was to conquer the Turks, take Constantinople and become leader of the world’s Slavic peoples
  • how they affect ongoing debates in the Russian government about whether Russia should be focusing its energies and resources to the East, to settle Siberia, or should cleave to its traditional role in the European balance of power

And so on. It is a deep, deep immersion into the small, densely populated and fiercely argued world of pre-war Russian government officials, and particularly the men of the Russian diplomatic service, who managed Russian foreign relations in the buildup to the war.

World War One an eastern war

Lieven opens his book with a bold claim: Contrary to all Western writing on the subject, the First World War was not a western but an east European war, triggered by events in eastern Europe, exacerbated by rivalries between east European empires, and with seismic consequences across east and central Europe.

So his focus in this book is on Russia and the East and his aim is to reorientate our thinking away from France and the Somme, towards the Eastern powers and the problems they faced, which he proceeds to describe in absorbing detail.

His core focus is Russian history 1905 to 1920, but to even begin to understand this period you have to range back in time by about a century, as well as comparing Russia’s imperial problems with the challenges faced by other countries further afield, as far away as America and Japan.

The balance of power

The backdrop to all this – the worldview of the time – is the diplomatic and military game which dominated the world for the century leading up the Great War, and the idea of a balance of power.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious Allies who had defeated Napoleon tried to parcel out Europe’s real estate to ensure that no one power could ever again secure domination over the continent (pp.120, 124).

The 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War (1853-6), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), unification of Germany (1870), the unification of Italy (1871), the spread of nationalism, the spread of the industrial revolution – all these events were processed by the leaders of every European nation insofar as they affected this will o’ the wisp, this fictional entity – the balance of power.

Every large nation was kept on constant tenterhooks about whether the latest little war in the Balkans, or the bids for independence by Hungary or Bulgaria or the Czechs, whether the Austrian alliance with Germany, or the Russian alliance with France, or Britain’s influence over Ottoman Turkey, would affect the balance of power.

And not only nations were concerned. Every nation contained factions, ruling parties, opposition parties and, increasingly, ‘public opinion’, which had to be taken into account.

(It is one of the many ironies of history that the spread of literacy, education and ‘civil society’ i.e. newspapers and a free press, which is so assiduously promoted by liberals, in actual fact, in the event, tended to encourage rabble-rousing nationalism. The press in Serbia comes in for special criticism for its ferociously nationalistic warmongering, but the panslavic Russian newspaper, Novoe Vremia, was so consistently anti-German that the authorities in Berlin singled it out as a prime cause of the poisoning of German-Russian relations, pp.215, 220, 289.)

One of the few critics of the entire balance of power idea was Baron Roman Rosen (Russian minister to Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War, posted to Washington, then served on the Tsar’s Council of Ministers until 1917). Rosen thought that, far from creating a secure basis for peace, the so-called balance of power had merely created two armed camps which lived in constant fear of each other (p.138). As you read on in the book you can’t help agreeing with Rosen’s view. Lieven himself appears to agree, stating that the problem with the diplomacy of the 1900s was it was armed diplomacy, with the constant threat of violence behind it. This is what made it so inherently unstable – the slightest misunderstanding threatened to escalate into Armageddon (p.339).

Age of empires

It was an age of empires – the British empire, the French empire, the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. But Lieven’s book is at pains to make you put aside the traditional Anglophone notion of ’empire’ as power exerted over black and brown people far overseas in Africa and Asia. He is concerned with the great land empires of Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia, the empires which were mostly land-locked and had to expand, if at all, into territory contested by the other empires.

It was a zero sum game, meaning that Russia could only gain territory at the expense of the Ottomans or the Austrians; the Austrians, when they formally annexed Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908, did so at the cost of the humiliation of Russia, which considered itself to have a special leading role in the Balkans. And both Russia and Austria expected to seize or annex territory at the expense of the failing Ottoman Empire.

In fact it was almost an age of super-empires, for around 1900 there was a lot of chatter from journalists, writers, commentators and even politicians from the larger nations about consolidating themselves into ethno-religious power blocs.

What does that mean? An example is the way the hugely popular British politician Joseph Chamberlain proposed to create a new federation out of the white nations of the British Empire, bringing together Canada, Australia and New Zealand into a confederation with the UK, creating a free trade organisation, bringing their laws into harmony, to create a ‘British white empire-nation’ (p.21).

On an even bigger scale, some Brits and Yanks fantasised about bringing America into this union, to create a massive trading, political and military bloc – the Anglosphere.

(This is the background to a lot of Rudyard Kipling’s writings at the turn of the century, his marriage to an American, his friendship with America’s buccaneering Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, his hopes for a union of white English-speaking peoples. This explains conservative support for the Boer War, because the Boers were seen as a backward people who were blocking Cecil Rhodes’ great vision of a corridor of white imperialist rule running the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Alexandria. They imperialists had a vision, not of power for its own sake, but for the union of white English-speaking peoples to bring economic development and liberal civilisation to the non-white world.)

For their part, diplomats and statesmen in both Germany and Austria continued to speculate about a merger between the two countries to create a Greater Germany, something which had been debated since Bismarck had wondered whether to bring Austria into, or leave it outside, his project for a United Germany in the 1860s. Gross-Deutschland would then, of course, want to reclaim the German-speaking populations of the Czech lands and of Poland.

The other continental powers were well aware that this tendency to expansion was a powerful strand in German political thought (and, of course, it was revived by the Nazis with their claim for Lebensraum which led them to invade first Poland, then the Soviet Union 25 years later).

The price of failure And all the empires were nervously aware of what happened if your empire failed. They had before them the woeful examples of the Ottoman empire and, further away, the Chinese Qing empire, both of which were visibly falling to pieces. (Interestingly, Lieven uses the phrase ‘scramble for China’, which I don’t think I’d heard before, saying that if the 1880s saw a scramble for Africa, the 1890s saw a ‘scramble for China’.)

So everyone could see what happened to a failing empire. The great powers imposed unequal trade treaties on you, humiliated your government, annexed the tastiest parts of your lands, dismissed your culture and traditions. Total humiliation. China was probably the most humiliated: Russia and Japan signed conventions in 1910 and again in 1912 agreeing to divide ‘spheres of interest’ in China’s north-east borderlands (p.195).

None of these rulers could see forward a hundred years to our happy European Union of liberal democracies. The only alternative they could see in their own time to building up strong, aggressive empires was total collapse, anarchy and humiliation.

In the age of high imperialism, there was nothing strange in Austrian arrogance towards lesser breeds. In this era, Anglo-American Protestants most confidently stood at the top of the ladder of civilisation and looked down on everyone. The Germans were climbing the ladder fast, but their sense of superiority still lacked the confidence of their British rivals and could be all the more bruising as a result. The Russians knew that they stood well down the ladder of civilisation in Western eyes, which helps to explain many undercurrents in Russian culture and society of the time.  By despising and measuring themselves off against the weak, barbarous and un-Christian Turks, they in turn asserted their membership in the world’s exclusive club of European, civilised great powers. (p.208)

Hence the stress, hence the anxiety in so many of their calculations. It was a dog-eat-dog world. It was win, or be eaten alive.

Russian rearmament reflected a desperate search for security and status born of a deep sense of weakness and humiliation. (p.226)

But then, running counter to all these trends to expand and build up empires, the latter half of the 19th century was also the age of nationalism. In his epic biography of Karl Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones shows in detail how the virus of nationalism was spread by the troops of Napoleon’s army to the Rhineland of Marx’s boyhood, and the rest of Germany. The French revolutionary armies took it everywhere as they tramped across Europe in the early 1800s, telling peoples and ethnic groups that they should be free.

The struggle for Greek independence in the 1820s was an early example of the trend which was eclipsed by the massive central European struggles for the unification of Germany and Italy which dominated the mid-century.

But it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the spread of industrial technology led to the dissemination of at least basic education and literacy to more remote populations, and that the growth of interest in folk stories, languages and traditions among newly educated intelligentsias helped to foment ‘independence’ and ‘nationalist’ movements among the smaller nationalities – the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the long-suffering Poles, the Ukrainians and, fatefully, among the squabbling peoples of the Balkans.

Nationalism was, to use the Marxist notion of the dialectic, the antithesis to the thesis of imperialism. One bred the other. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century nationalisms popped up all across Europe as a result of the civilising impact of their imperial rulers, but which threatened to undermine the great land empires, continually jeopardising the famous balance of power.

So, the central political problem of the age for the administrators of empires was – how to handle the nationalist demands for independence which threatened to undermine the homelands of empire.

Ireland Lieven takes the unexpected but illuminating example of Ireland. Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards was so bitterly opposed by the British Conservative and Union Party because the British elite was well aware how relatively small and fragile the homeland of the global British empire – i.e. the four nations of the British Isles – really was. Knock away one of the four legs supporting the table and maybe the whole thing would collapse.

Austro-Hungary It is one of the many insights thrown up by Lieven’s book that he applies the same logic to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans. In the late 19th century virtually all the European nations clambered on the bandwagon of empire building, seeing it as the only viable way to maintain economic and political equality with the leading nations, France and Britain. Hence the ‘scramble for Africa’ in which even little Italy and puny Spain took part (claiming Libya and the north of Morocco, respectively).

Thus even landlocked Germany managed to seize some choice parts of Africa (German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa).

But Austro-Hungary was not only landlocked but – having lost territory in Italy and France in the 1870s – its rulers were struggling to hang on to what they’d got, struggling to manage the rising tide of Czech nationalism in the borderlands with Germany on the north, and the bickering of Balkan nationalities (Bosnians, Croats, Serbs) at the south-east fringe of Europe (p.205).

(Lieven quotes the opinion of Alexander Giers, ambassador to Montenegro, that there was little to choose between the Serbs, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Romanians: ‘They all hate each other’, quoted p.142).

Permanently anxious about her alliance with Germany, and permanently twitchy about the presence of the huge Russian Empire on her borders, the Austrians felt about the Serbs something like the British felt about the Irish. And reacted with just the same over-violence born out of prolonged stress and anxiety, as the British did to the Irish.

Serb nationalism Thus when Serb nationalists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, hawks in the Austrian government thought it would make an excellent opportunity to crush little Serbia’s bid for independence and put paid to bickering in the Balkans once and for all. Show them who’s boss. Make the Austrian empire secure for a generation.

This is just one of the many insights and fruitful comparisons thrown up Lieven’s deliberately non-Anglocentric perspective.


Russia

The majority of Lieven’s content is about Russia. He takes you swiftly by the hand through the highlights of the previous two hundred years of Russian history – Peter the Great (1682-1725), Catherine the Great (1762-96), Napoleon and 1812, Crimean War (1853-56), the emancipation of the serfs (1861) – Russia’s geographical resources and economic and political development – and shows how parties or factions naturally and logically arose from the specific Russian situation.

Court and country parties

For example, Lieven explains the fundamental fact that there were ‘court’ and ‘country’ parties in Russian government. The court party surrounded the young, inexperienced and shy Tsar Nicholas II. Sophisticated St Petersburg liberals, they thought Russia should welcome Western influences, Western industrialisation, Western technology and Western values. They promoted alliance with France and Britain. (p.106)

By contrast, the ‘country’ party despised Petersburg intellectuals, half of them had foreign (often German) names or Jewish ancestry, for God’s sake! The country party were based in Moscow, good old patriotic, heart-of-Russia Moscow (p.129). They thought the Tsar should reject western values. They thought Russia should ally with the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany, and her handmaiden, Austria. (p.70)

Some of the country party subscribed to various shades of ‘Slavophilia’ i.e. the notion that Russia was special, had a special Orthodox culture, a special social system, a special ruler etc, and so should emphatically reject all Western ideas and the Western route to ‘modernisation’, which were corrupt, decadent and irrelevant to Russia’s special traditions.

Another major thread of ‘Slavophilia’ was the notion that the Slavic Russians should support their Slav brothers in the Balkans, the peoples of Serbia or Bulgaria, defend and lead the noble Slavic inheritance.

Onwards to Constantinople

A complicated mix of motives kept the issue of Constantinople bubbling at the top of the agenda. One was religious-ethnic. Some Russian thinkers thought that Russia had a historic destiny to sweep through the Balkans and recapture Constantinople from the weak and failing Ottoman Turks. This would:

  1. Unite all the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, reviving and glorifying Slavic culture.
  2. Allow Constantinople to be reborn as a great Christian capital, as it had been until conquered by the Turks as recently as 1453. It would be a symbolic rebirth of the ‘second Rome’ of Byzantium to rank alongside the ‘third Rome’ of Moscow.

Less quixotic than these millennial religious fantasies, hard-headed military men also thought a lot about Constantinople. Russia possessed the largest territory in the world, with immense land, people and resources. And yet it was prevented from projecting that power outwards, unlike all the nations on the ocean e.g. Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and especially America, sitting astride the two great oceans.

(The importance of naval power was crystallised in the widely-read contemporary book by American theorist Alfred Mahan, summarised on page 160).

Russia possessed three big fleets and naval ports – in the Baltic, at Vladivostok in the far Pacific East, and at Crimea in the Black Sea – but all of them were problematic. The Baltic was nearest to homeland Europe but was frozen for half of the year, and egress was blocked by Germany and Denmark. Vladivostok was too far away from the European centres of power.

All thoughts were therefore focused on the Black Sea, where Russia’s main shipyards were, and on the Crimea, which was the base for a large, modern naval fleet.

Yet it was a permanent irritation to the Russian military that this fleet was blocked up in the Black Sea, prevented from sailing through the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. The subtle way round this perennial problem was to negotiate alliances and pacts with the other European powers to bring pressure to bear on the Ottoman controllers of the Dardanelles to allow the Russian fleet out to patrol the high seas and claim her rights as a Great Power.

The not-so-subtle approach was to launch the umpteenth Russo-Turkish War, march on Constantinople and seize the Straits, solving the problem once and for all. After all – as Lieven points out in a thought-provoking comparison, the British had bullied their way to seizing Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1882, and the Americans had created the country of Panama in 1903 solely in order to build a canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic, both empires acting in unashamed self-interest.

The only catch being that the major European nations would probably pile in to stop Russia – as they had during the disastrous Crimean War when Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid against aggressive Russian incursions into Ottoman territory.

All of these ‘country’ party ideas – Pan-Slavism, conquering Constantinople – were deprecated by the ‘court’ party, who thought they were:

  • low and vulgar, usually whipped up by rabble-rousing nationalist newspapers
  • contrary to Russia’s true interests – Russian peasants and workers couldn’t give a damn about Constantinople
  • and anyway, Russia’s course was best left to the professional, aristocratic diplomats like themselves, who knew best

Nonetheless, Russian leaders of all parties looked on with dismay as British ascendancy over the Turks, which had lasted into the 1880s, was slowly replaced by the influence of Germany, which sent soldiers to train the Turkish army and engineers to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. (As Lieven points out, the Germans were the only European power who had not at some stage tried to seize Ottoman territory – you can see how this might work in their favour in Istanbul.)

(And, of course, Turkey would end up joining the side of the Germans in the Great War. With the result that the Allies in 1915 themselves took up the Constantinople Question, floating the possibility that Russia would be encouraged to take the city. Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi was even named the future Russian commissar of the city. Wheels within wheels.)

West or East?

Another school of thought, and advisers, recommended leaving the complex problems of Europe to sort themselves out, and focusing on what Russia already possessed, namely the vast extent of Siberia and the East – a policy which, after the Revolution, would come to be known as ‘Eurasianism’ (p.143).

It was under Nicholas II that the great Trans-Siberian Railway was built. Proponents of an Eastern policy pointed out that Siberia had huge untapped natural resources, it just needed:

  • the infrastructure to join up the tens of thousands of settlements scattered across this vast waste of steppe and tundra
  • the emigration of settlers into the vast empty spaces
  • the creation of new towns and cities
  • the harvesting of the country’s natural and human potential

Given peace in the troublesome West, given enough time, the Eurasian party believed that Russia could develop its economy and resources enough to compete with Germany, even compete with America, to become a truly great power.

The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5

All of these hopes came crashing down when Russia came into conflict with the new, aggressive and confident Japanese Empire in 1904 and was badly beaten. Beaten for a number of reasons – their army was big but badly trained and under-equipped, the navy had to steam all the way from the Baltic to the Far East, by which time the major land battles had already been lost, and in any case it was then comprehensively trashed by the much better-led Japanese navy.

Defeat rocked all the traditional pillars of Russian society. The Tsar was personally blamed, the Army and Navy looked like fools, even the Orthodox Church which had blessed the war as a ‘crusade’ was made to look powerless and irrelevant.

The war gave rise to a revolution whose specific trigger was when troops fired on a protest march in Petersburg on 22 January 1905, which went down in folklore as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and rebellion, mutiny, strikes and insurrection spread like wildfire across the country.

The revolution was, in the end, only quelled when the Tsar issued the October Manifesto of 1905 which pledged major political reforms such as the creation of a parliament – called the Duma – with elected representatives, plus land and industrial reforms. The strikes ended, the agrarian disturbances subsided, the mutinies were crushed – but to many, even committed supporters of the Romanov Dynasty, the clock was ticking.

Towards the flame

Believe it or not, everything I’ve just summarised is all just the introduction to the book’s core and is covered off in just the first 100 pages or so. If you recall, the text’s main focus is on the period 1905 to 1920, i.e. beginning after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution.

Having set the scene and established many of the enduring themes of Russian politics and diplomacy in the first hundred pages or so, Lieven now goes into very great detail about the personnel, the men who manned the key roles in the Russian government – Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Army, Navy and so on. These men’s backgrounds, their families and family connections, their beliefs and the policies they pursued are all described in a long chapter titled The Decision Makers (pages 91 to 181).

Lieven gives pen portraits of the main diplomats, their careers and their views, including:

  • Count Vladimir Lambsdorff, Foreign Minister to 1906
  • Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister 1906 to 1910, architect of the alliance with Britain
  • Sergey Sazonov, Foreign Minister from November 1910 to July 1916 i.e. during the crisis of 1914
  • Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia and Minister of Internal Affairs from 1906, who tried to counter revolutionary groups and pass agrarian reforms, until he was assassinated in 1911
  • Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, editor of the Monarchist newspaper, Grazhdanin, the only paper Tsar Nicholas read, an unpopular reactionary
  • Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, who replaced Stolypin as Prime Minister of Russia from 1911 to 1914
  • Count Sergei Witte, Finance Minister 1892 to 1903, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers 1903 to 1905, first Prime Minister of Russia 1905-6 during which he designed Russia’s first constitution – an intelligent businessman who thought Russia needed a generation of peace to blossom
  • Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi, epitome of liberal imperialists and the panslavic policy, head the Near Eastern Department of the Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for Balkan and Ottoman affairs 1912-14 i.e. at the heart of the 1914 crisis
  • Baron Roman Rosen, 1903 ambassador to Tokyo, ambassador to USA 1905, State Council of Imperial Russia 1911-17 – who believed Russia should forget Constantinople and the Balkans and focus on developing Siberia and the East
  • Alexander Giers, Consul General in Macedonia, Press Council 1906, who saw at first hand how unreliable and unpredictable the Balkan Slavs were and warned that the Serbs were manipulating Russia into backing them against Austria
  • Nikolai Hartwig, Russian ambassador to Persia (1906–1908) and Serbia (1909–1914), a strong pro-Slav, sometimes described as ‘more Serbian than the Serbs’

Lieven then gives similar treatment to the main military leaders of the period – heads of the army and navy, major military thinkers, their dates, relationships and the often bitter in-fighting between them for resources and about strategy.

Having established a) the deep themes or concerns of the Russian state and its ruling elite, and having b) described in some detail all the key personnel, all the ‘decision makers’ of the period – Lieven then takes us through the years leading up to Armageddon, with chapters devoted to:

  • the emergence of the Triple Entente 1904-9
  • the sequence of crises 1909-13, being:
    • The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905–06 – Germany challenged France’s control of Morocco – worsening German relations with both France and Britain
    • The Bosnian Crisis 1908 – Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been under its sovereignty since 1879 but which infuriated the Serbs and Pan-Slavic nationalism in the region
    • The Agadir crisis in Morocco, 1911 – the French sent troops into Morocco, angering the Germans who sent a gunboat to Agadir, eventually backing down but the crisis cemented the alliance between France and Britain
    • The Italo-Turkish War 1911–12 – Italy invaded what is today Libya but was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Nobody came to Turkey’s aid, showing that Turkey was now friendless – which meant that land grabs in the Balkans would be unopposed – i.e. the delicate balance of power had vanished
    • The First Balkan War October 1912 to May 1913 in which the Balkan League (the kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) defeated the Ottoman Empire and seized almost all of Turkey’s territory in Europe
    • The Second Balkan War June to August 1913, in which Bulgaria, dissatisfied with the settlement of the first war, attacked Greece and Serbia, and also managed to provoke neighbouring Romania, all of whom defeated Bulgarian forces, forcing it to concede territory to all of them
  • the crisis of 1914
  • The First World War and the Russian Revolution

Some thoughts

The backwardness and repressiveness of Russia bred a special kind of fanatic – extreme socialists or anarchists – who thought they could bring about change through strategic assassinations.

Russia was riddled by extremist political factions for the fifty years before the revolution, and plagued by the assassinations of high officials. As Lieven points out, it is no coincidence that the Russian aristocracy and gentry produced the two greatest anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century, Prince Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin (p.119)

But the entire strategy of assassination was almost always counter-productive. It is a great irony that the assassins who murdered Tsar Alexander II in 1881 did so just as he was about to authorise a set of liberal laws. His successor, Alexander III, was an old-style, clumsy, bearish, paternal reactionary who inaugurated thirty years of repression, thus condemning Russian radicals to decades of arrest, Siberian imprisonment and exile, and polarising the intelligentsia even further.

The view from the upper classes

Lieven is posh. From Wikipedia we learn that:

Dominic Lieven is the second son and third child (of five children) of Alexander Lieven (of the Baltic German princely family, tracing ancestry to Liv chieftain Kaupo) by his first wife, Irishwoman Veronica Monahan (d. 1979).

He is the elder brother of Anatol Lieven and Nathalie Lieven QC, and a brother of Elena Lieven and distantly related to the Christopher Lieven (1774–1839), who was Ambassador to the Court of St James from Imperial Russia over the period 1812 to 1834, and whose wife was Dorothea von Benckendorff, later Princess Lieven (1785–1857), a notable society hostess in Saint Petersburg.

Lieven is ‘a great-grandson of the Lord Chamberlain of the Imperial Court’ of Russia.

He was privately educated at Downside School, the famous Benedictine Roman Catholic boarding school.

Having just read Edmund Wilson’s long study of the communist tradition, and Engels’s powerful pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, my head is full of revolutionary thoughts about the industrial proletariat and about the way the ruling classes everywhere use repressive ‘ideologies’ to keep the exploited in their place, ideas like ’empire’ and ‘tsar’ and ‘religion’, ‘honour’ and ‘duty’ and ‘fatherland’.

There is little of that Marxist sensibility present in Lieven’s book. Lieven takes it for granted that there were empires and that they were ruled by an extraordinarily privileged aristocratic elite. I’m not saying he’s naively in favour of them. But he takes them on their own terms. This became obvious during the long, sometimes pretty boring chapter, about the Decision Makers. Prince so-and-so of the court party was related to Count so-and-so who took a slavophile line, while his cousin, the archduke so-and-so was more a supporter of the policy of eastern expansion. And so on for a hundred pages.

In a way typical of prewar European diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry and Russian diplomacy were a nest of the aristocracy and gentry. The nest was very, very small: in 1914, there were fewer than two hundred men of all ages who had passed the diplomatic exam and in principle were eligible for mainstream posts. (p.119)

Later he points out the importance of notions of honour to the Russian aristocracy, and the vital importance of remaining a great power to the entire diplomatic, military and political leadership.

But to the ordinary Russian, these concepts were all but meaningless. The Russian ruling classes thought that, when push came to shove, the masses would demonstrate their love for the Tsar and for Mother Russia and the Great Pan-Slavic Cause, but they were wrong, so wrong.

Exciting the Russian masses about Constantinople or their Slave brothers proved an impossible task. In 1909, Grigorii Trubetskoy’s brother Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy wrote that only someone who believed Russia to be a ‘corpse’ could imagine that when it stood up for its honour and the Slav cause against Germany, there would not be a surge of ‘powerful and elemental patriotism’.

The First World War was to prove him wrong. (p.131)

What makes it puzzling is that the Russian elite had already had the test drive of the 1905 revolution in which they should have learned that far from rallying to the cause of Mother Russia, peasants and workers all across the country rose up against the court, the aristocracy, the police, the Church and everything the elite believed in.

For me the big question is, ‘How was the Russian ruling elite able to persist in their obtuse ignorance of the true nature of the country they were living in?’

Without doubt the tiny coterie of men Lieven describes made up the diplomatic and foreign policy elite, and their decisions counted, and it was the clash of their policies and ideas which made up ‘debate’ in the ruling elite and determined Russia’s strategy through the decade of crises leading up to 1914.

Without doubt this is precisely the point of Lieven’s book, to give an unprecedentedly detailed account of the sequence of events 1905 to 1920 from the Russian point of view, explaining the key personnel and their ruling ideas and concerns and how they reacted to, and created, events.

In this aim the book doubtless succeeds and can’t help impressing you with the depth of its research and the thoroughness of its analysis.

But it feels so airless, so claustrophobic, so oppressively upper class. Clever, well educated, sensitive and sophisticated though the Russian ruling class so obviously are, you can’t help cheering when the enraged workers storm their palaces and throw all their fancy paintings and porcelain out into the street.

To put it another way –  as Lieven himself does half way through the book – the Russian ruling élite believed its own ideology, defined itself in terms of its preposterously unreal, disconnected value system – forged its identity in terms of Russian dignity and nobility and honour and the need to remain an Empire and a Great Power.

So they were staggered when they discovered that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people didn’t give a toss about these fantasies, was incapable of defending them, and eventually rebelled against them.

In a nice detail, Lieven tells of a German officer during the Great War, whose job was to debrief Allied prisoners of war. He discovered that the French and British soldiers had a clear sense of what they were fighting for, but the Russian soldiers didn’t have a clue. Pan-Slavism – what was that? Controlling the Turkish Straits – what were they? Preserving the European Balance of Power – what on earth was that?

The over-educated, incestuous, airless narrowness of Russia’s elite condemned itself to extinction.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

War Stories and Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1990)

An excellent Oxford University Press collection edited by Andrew Rutherford, showcasing Kipling’s fictional and poetic responses to three distinct military eras:

  • the small wars of the Late Victorian period 1889-1899
  • the Boer War 1899-1902
  • the Great War 1914-18.

Despite setbacks and defeats, in the first period nobody doubted the duty of Empire to expand and spread good government and law; the Boer War disheartened both the nation and Kipling with its evident mismanagement and incompetence; and the Great War left millions bereaved, not least Kipling himself, who lost his only son, John.

Thus, as Rutherford shrewdly points out, the tone of Kipling’s writing about the three periods can be broadly divided into epic, satiric, and elegiac.

Having seen the incompetence of the Boer War at first hand, Kipling spent the next decade warning the country that it wasn’t taking the threat to its security seriously enough, despite some military and naval reforms, in a series of minatory poems and warning stories.

When the Great War came, Kipling was goaded to fierce anger by the aggression and cruelty of the Hun, resulting in the white hot anger of the early war stories, such as ‘Swept and Garnished’ and Mary Postgate, both written in 1915. In September of the same year his son was declared missing presumed dead on his first day in action. For the rest of the war Kipling kept up a steady, indeed impressive, rate of journalistic reporting in support of the war effort – writing France at War, The Fringes of the Fleet, Destroyers at Jutland, The War in the Mountains and The Eyes of Asia – but avoided writing fiction about it.

Moreover, in 1917 Kipling took on the task of writing the official history of his son’s regiment, the Irish Guards, a task which required interviewing soldiers in person, and reading soldiers’ letters and diaries over a sustained period. It was a demanding labour which took until 1923 to complete.

It is only then, with his debt to the dead fulfilled, that Kipling seems to have been able to return to the subject of the War in fiction, and the stories he wrote in the 1920s – especially the series of tales set in the London Freemasons’ Lodge for ex-soldiers – ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, The Janeites, A Madonna of the Trenches, A Friend of the Family – have a new depth and subtlety, an empathy and pity which is a new flavour in his work. This deeper mature tone is part of what helps to make his post-war collection, Debits and Credits, his best book.

Imperial Frontiers

  1. The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889)
  2. A Conference of The Powers (1890)
  3. The Light That Failed, chapter two (1891)
  4. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891)
  5. The Lost Legion (1892)
  6. Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897)

The Boer War

  1. The Way That He Took (1900)
  2. The Outsider (1900)
  3. A Sahibs’ War (1901)
  4. The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902)
  5. The Captive (1902)

The Great War

  1. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915)
  2. Mary Postgate (1915)
  3. Sea Constables (1915)
  4. Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War
  5. A Friend of the Family (1924)
  6. A Madonna of The Trenches (1924)
  7. The Gardener (1925)

1. The Imperial Frontiers

The Drums of Fore and Aft (1889) Quite a long story, the gist of which is that an inexperienced Indian Army regiment is brought up to the North-West Frontier, and involved in a massed attack on a force of Pathans, alongside a Gurkha regiment and some Highlanders. Being completely inexperienced and – crucially – lacking older soldiers and officers with experience of the terrain and of fighting Afghans, the first attack of fifty or so Muslim fanatics armed with terrifying man-high machetes makes the Fore and Aft break in a screaming panic and run back to the pass they emerged from. The two coarse orphan fourteen-year-old drummer boys who were with the band, Jakin and Lew, are left behind in the mad flight, recover a drum and fife, have a swig of rum from a canteen of one of the casualties, and set about playing the stirring military tune, ‘the British Grenadier’, marching up and down between the Afghan lines and the trembling regiment cowering in its retreat. Shamed by their officers and humiliated by the example of the boys Jakin and Lew, the regiment regroups and charges back out, this time co-ordinated with attacks by the Gurkhas and Highlanders on its flanks, and decimates the Afghans, though not before both boys have been shot dead by the enemy.

There’s story enough here, but not much below the surface is a blatant tract or pamphlet lamenting the lack of training, the shortness of service and the disorganisation which can lead to such lamentable catastrophes. Also it is very violent. Early on, while still in barracks, Lew and Jakin establish their street credentials by kicking the crap out of an officer’s son they find spying on them. The battle itself is described with, for its day, pretty stomach-churning realism.

The English were not running. They were hacking and hewing and stabbing, for though one white man is seldom physically a match for an Afghan in a sheepskin or wadded coat, yet, through the pressure of many white men behind, and a certain thirst for revenge in his heart, he becomes capable of doing much with both ends of his rifle. The Fore and Aft held their fire till one bullet could drive through five or six men, and the front of the Afghan force gave on the volley. They then selected their men, and slew them with deep gasps and short hacking coughs, and groanings of leather belts against strained bodies, and realised for the first time that an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them.
But they had no old soldiers in their ranks.
The Gurkhas’ stall at the bazar was the noisiest, for the men were engaged — to a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block — with the kukri, which they preferred to the bayonet; well knowing how the Afghan hates the half-moon blade.

‘To a nasty noise as of beef being cut on the block’. Wow.

A Conference of The Powers (1890) The narrator hosts a reunion in his London apartment for his friends, ‘Tick’ Boileau, ‘the Infant’ (who is to appear in other Kipling stories for the next 30 years), and Nevin. All are under 25 and have seen active service in India and on its frontiers. They are yarning away and putting the world to rights when there’s a knock and in comes the noted older novelist, ‘Eustace Cleever’. The rest of the ‘story’ amounts to the older man listening to the stories the young Army officers tell about their experiences and realising how little he understands about the lives of the men who maintain the Empire and keep him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. Particularly a long account by the Infant of a punitive expedition he led into Upper Burma to capture the leader of some dacoits or bandits, known as the Boh.

The story emphasises the pampered ignorance of London-based Liberals – and contrasts it with the clear-eyed enthusiasm and modesty of the Empire’s devoted servants. It also doesn’t scant on the reality of guerilla warfare and the dacoits’ savagery:

The Burmese business was a subaltern’s war, and our forces were split up into little detachments, all running about the country and trying to keep the dacoits quiet. The dacoits were having a first-class time, y’ know — filling women up with kerosine and setting ’em alight, and burning villages, and crucifying people.’
The wonder in Eustace Cleever’s eyes deepened. He could not quite realise that the cross still existed in any form.
‘Have you ever seen a crucifixion?’ said he.
‘Of course not. ‘Shouldn’t have allowed it if I had; but I’ve seen the corpses. The dacoits had a trick of sending a crucified corpse down the river on a raft, just to show they were keeping their tail up and enjoying themselves. Well, that was the kind of people I had to deal with.’

No wonder Kipling’s forthrightness made such a shattering impact on a literary world used to Tennysonian idylls.

The Light That Failed, chapter 2 (1891) The protagonist of Kipling’s early novel is an artist, Dick Heldar. His boyhood love for Maisie is frustrated so, like so many Victorian young men, he goes off adventuring round the Empire, only not as a soldier but as a freelance war artist. He bumps into a journalist named Torpenhow and Kipling packs in references to a lot of the small wars of the late 1870s and 1880s which they report and illustrate together, before they find themselves part of the expeditionary force sent up the Nile to rescue General Gordon, trapped in Khartoum, capital of Sudan, by the forces of the Muslim religious leader, the Mahdi. In the climax of the novel, Dick, Torpenhow and a host of British troops are all relaxing by the Nile, fixing boats and sails and clothes when they are subject to a surprise attack by several thousand Sudanese. The Brits quickly form into a square to fight off wave after wave of fanatical attackers, until the square gives and becomes the cockpit for savage hand-to-hand fighting.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded, who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the enemy’s feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.
Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to ‘collar low,’ and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the man’s eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a helmetless soldier fired over Dick’s shoulder: the flying grains of powder stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab, both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick’s revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned face lacked one eye.

I wonder if anyone had described contemporary warfare with quite such brutal honesty before.

The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was). Some officers are leading a night-time cavalry foray into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah. But they keep on hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them rather than in front; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent.

Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror about something. Our chaps realise it’s because down in the valley the Afghan bandits can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment, which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts have returned to haunt and paralyse the Afghans. Their dread allows the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

Slaves of The Lamp, part two (1897) ‘The Infant’ who told the novelist Eustace Cleaver the long account of his capture of the dacoit Boh in Burma in the story ‘A Conference of the Powers’ – is now 30 and has inherited a vast country house. He invites the narrator – identified as ‘Beetle’ from the Stalky stories – to come along to a reunion of boys, now men, from the old Coll.

There’s much larking about and reminiscing which, basically, turns into hero worship of Stalky himself, three of the men describing their encounter with him in the North-West Frontier, fighting the Afghans. Stalky is portrayed as a super-hero, at one with his men (Sikhs) who worship him, given to sneaking off for acts of derring-do. Since he and his men are besieged in an old fort by two Afghan tribes, Stalky sneaks out and kills some of one tribe, marking them with the victor’s sign of the other tribe. Next day, when the fort is under attack, he again sneaks out of the secret passage he’s found, with his Sikhs, and shoots at one tribe from the lines of the other, thus leading both tribes to end up fighting each other.

The others compound this by saying Stalky went on to pacify the border, dragoon the tribes into building roads, doing everything bar mint his own coinage, before being called to Simla to explain himself to the Imperial authorities.

The story brims over with schoolboy slang and enthusiasm. Stalky had adopted a tune from the pantomime of Aladdin which the boys had put on as schoolboys, as a signal to his troops, and the group of men convened at the Infant’s house keep stopping their tale to sing it, falling about laughing, all clamouring for more details of Stalky’s acts of heroism. Alas, Kipling’s boundless schoolboy confidence was to come a cropper in the Boer War, where the true Stalkies, the canny, sassy, unconventional fighters, turned out to be the Boers.

2. The Boer War (1899-1902)

The Way That He Took (1900) One of four stories about the Boer War published in the Daily Express then collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. It is a good atmospheric depiction of the landscape and people of South Africa, showcasing Kipling’s trademark research and understanding. In the first part a troop train pulls into a siding where detachment of Mounted Infantry are waiting. A captain gets talking to a nurse from the train and she turns out to have been born in the country, and have wonderful memories of a carefree childhood in the wide open spaces. This is the only scene of a man and a woman being tender and speaking softly under the stars that I can recall in any Kipling.

The second part commences a few months later when the captain has joined his regiment and they are in operations out on the veldt. In fact we first of all have a long scene where the leader of a Boer commando outlines a cunning plan – to send off the cattle trucks and some auxiliaries to stir up a lot of dust, and then wait on the low hills surrounding a little valley for the British regiment to come up – and shoot them like pigs in a pen. He knows the Brits will send a scouting party – who will poke around, draw the false conclusion the Boers are retreating, and return to the main force – and then lure them into the trap. It is crucial that a handful of men on a slope take a few pot shots at the scouting troop, enough to give them the impression they’re a rear-guard action – this will make the retreat seem even more real.

Sure enough the Brits see the dust cloud and send a scouting party. It is led by the captain we met talking to the nurse. He trots with his men through the twisting valleys to the place where a camp has apparently been struck and seems to be falling for the ploy. But then in a few vivid paragraphs, he realises something is wrong. It is as vivid as a movie. The hairs on his neck rise as he realises it’s a trap and it seems like someone else’s voice speaking when he gives the order to his sergeant, calmly to turn the men and go back.

At the last minute he remembers something the nurse had told him about her childhood, about how she and her siblings, on all their many ramblings, never went back the way they came. And suddenly taking this as his inspiration, the captain orders the men not to go back through the winding valley where (we know) a handful of Boers are waiting to take pot shots at them and one of them had singled him out as the officer to be killed. Thus, into this very military story, an element of voodoo slips. For it was the happenstance of remembering the nurse’s casual words, which saves the captain’s life.

The Outsider (1900) Another of the stories originally published in June 1900 (i.e. still in the early phase of the Boer War) in the Daily Express and only much later collected in a volume called Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides. Like the one above, it is a vivid impassioned story. Simply, but with great detail and persuasiveness, it contrasts the hard professional life of Jerry Thumper, an engineer on the Rand, and the privileged, limited worldview of a dunderheaded Army officer named Walter Setton. While his father the vicar and his mother fuss about buying Walter the correct socks for his posting to South Africa, Jerry is commanding men at the gruelling work of gold-mining on the Rand.

Their separate lives and experiences clash when Walter – wounded after a stupid attempt to capture a solitary Boer which turned out to be a trap and from which he only escaped with his life due to the canniness and bravery of Australian Irregulars – is posted to the most out-of-the-way railway station the Army can find to hide him. But even here he causes damage, because Jerry and his mates – kicked out of the Rand by Dutch rebels – have formed a corps of Railway Volunteers and are skilfully repairing the railway lines which the Boers have been at pains to blow up, and which are vital for ferrying British troops around the battlefield.

Kipling describes in great technical detail the engineering challenge Jerry and his men face trying to rejoin two severed lengths of railway line, and are right at the vital moment of riveting them together, when ignorant, stupid, blinkered, narrow-minded, officious Lieutenant Setton intervenes, demanding to know who gave them orders to do this work, and insisting they stop immediately until he receives written authority etc etc – intervening just long enough for the girders to collapse and knock over some braziers which start a small bush fire, insisting his soldiers escort the furious engineers to his tent for a dressing-down. In fact later that day it is Setton who is visited by an incandescent Colonel of Engineers who gives him an epic bollocking, and we last see him reduced to overseeing a saddle-cloth and boot-lace division.

The ‘story’ seethes with Kipling’s anger at the grotesque incompetence, narrow-mindedness and baseless snobbery of the English officer class – a long way from the hero worship of Stalkey and his mates. Every other nationality – the Australians and New Zealanders, the Canadians and especially the Boers themselves, are superior men and soldiers in every way.

The life of Second-Lieutenant Walter Setton followed its appointed channel. His battalion, nominally efficient, was actually a training school for recruits; and to this lie, written, acted, and spoken many times a day, he adjusted himself. When he could by any means escape from the limited amount of toil expected by the Government, he did so; employing the same shameless excuses that he had used at school or Sandhurst. He knew his drills: he honestly believed that they covered the whole art of war. He knew the ‘internal economy of his regiment’. That is to say, he could answer leading questions about coal and wood allowances, cubic-footage of barrack accommodation, canteen-routine, and the men’s messing arrangements. For the rest, he devoted himself with no thought of wrong to getting as much as possible out of the richest and easiest life the world has yet made; and to despising the ‘outsider’ — the man beyond his circle. His training to this end was as complete as that of his brethren. He did it blindly, politely, unconsciously, with perfect sincerity. As a child he had learned early to despise his nurse, for she was a servant and a woman; his sisters he had looked down upon, and his governess, for much the same reasons. His home atmosphere had taught him to despise the terrible thing called ‘Dissent’. At his private school his seniors showed him how to despise the junior master who was poor, and here his home training served again. At his public school he despised the new boy — the boy who boated when Setton played cricket, or who wore a coloured tie when the order of the day was for black. They were all avatars of the outsider. If you got mixed up with an outsider, you ended by being ‘compromised’. He had no clear idea what that meant, but suspected the worst. His religion he took from his parents, and it had some very sound dogmas about outsiders behaving decently. Science to him was a name connected with examination papers. He could not work up any interest in foreign armies, because, after all, a foreigner was a foreigner, and the rankest form of outsider. Meals came when you rang for them. You were carried over the world, which is the Home Counties, in vehicles for which you paid. You were moved about London by the same means, and if you crossed the Channel you took a steamer. But how, or why, or when, these things were made, or worked, or begotten, or what they felt, or thought, or said, who belonged to them, he had not, nor ever wished to have, the shadow of an idea. It was sufficient for him and for high Heaven (this in his heart of hearts, well learned at his mother’s knee) that he was an officer and a gentleman incapable of a lie or a mean action. For the rest his code was simple. Money brought you half the things in this world; and your position secured you the others. If you had money, you took care to get your money’s worth. If you had a position, you did not compromise yourself by mixing with outsiders.

Rarely has Kipling’s dichotomy between the dirty-handed, practical-minded men who do things – his beloved engineer class – and the superior, snobbish, ignorant English upper-classes been more fiercely delineated. It’s brilliant.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa, tasked with going to Stellenbosch to collect horses. The text is his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas. The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason being it is a White Man’s war. Umr is not happy to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’, Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’. But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn – both of whom volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – are tricked by Boers in an ‘innocent’ farmhouse who in fact organise an ambush of them in which Corbyn is killed.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and taking the mentally sub-normal son to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment for the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife. At which point the spirit of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

Epitomised in the last few lines when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the Australians (a platoon of whom were with Corbyn and Umr when they were ambushed) – but that the farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’. The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon. The Boer descants at length to Alf about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British. But he gets a shade too close to Alf, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch.

Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous, arrogant, deceiving Boers. Now it’s Alf who takes the stunned Boer captive and marches him back to the the English lines. Here they arrive to discover that Alf’s mates are looking over a British Liberal paper, which is, as usual, blackening their names, attacking the whole idea of ‘Empire’ and accusing British soldiers of abuse and worse. A fellow Tommy of Alf’s jokingly quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but, Oh yes he does, and Oh no he isn’t, respectively! The humiliation of the Boer is part of the enjoyment of the story and, by extension, the humiliation of the hated Liberals at home by the reality of the tough-minded, no-nonsense British soldier.

The Captive (1902) – Starts as a third-person account of a journalist visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). He is free to walk among the prisoners and gets talking to one in particular, at which point the narrative changes into a long, rambling, first-person account given by an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio.

Zigler brought over a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, fighting in the field alongside them against the British, until finally captured and brought to this camp. Kipling characteristically stuffs the man’s monologue with technical know-how about the artillery piece, the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader.

It’s hard not to find Zigler’s facetious tone as he jokes about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer? In this account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being complimentary; often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the monologue describes a dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, comparing notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years or so, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floor-walkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which, although put into the mouths of fictional characters, Kipling was so criticised. The ‘story’ is rammed full of political point scoring, relentless sarcasm about the stupidity of politicians and so on – though these are couched in Zigler’s down-home Yankee terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

Overall the story is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed.

3. The Great War

‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

Sea Constables (1915) ‘A tale of ’15. In February 1915 the German High Command declared the North Sea a war zone in which all merchant shipping, including neutral ships, were liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. This story describes four Royal Navy men meeting at a choice restaurant in London.

The four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.

In Kipling’s usual late manner they settle down to telling stories, then concentrate on swapping notes about the Neutral vessel (presumably American, though it isn’t stated) which they were all partly involved in tailing through the North Sea, down the Channel and round into the Irish Sea. Winchmore starts it and hands over to Maddingham who played the lion’s share. The ‘Newt’, as they nickname the neutral vessel and its captain, claims to be carrying oil for Antigua, which they think a likely story. Maddingham follows him into an unnamed West coast port where the American captain prompts a Court of Inquiry into the way he’s being closely tailed and chased. This is given as one of the several examples in Kipling where the British bend over backwards to be fair and above board to an enemy which is utterly unscrupulous – an approach he thought bedevilled our efforts in the Boer War, the kind of ‘health and safety gone mad’ sentiment you can read any day in the Daily Mail. One of the four at table, Tegg, was a lawyer during the inquiry.

And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’

The Newt goes back to sea, closely followed again by Maddingham who tags him up and down the Irish Sea, in stormy foggy weather, regularly hailing the captain on his bridge and exchanging insults. Maddingham and the others suspect he was planning to rendezvous with a German submarine and transfer his cargo of oil to it. Eventually the Newt puts into Cloone Harbour, where the captain takes to his bed, ill with bronchial pneumonia. Dying, he asks Manningham to help him organise his affairs and write a will. Manningham sticks to his orders and refuses.

This is taken as the crux of the story, where a usually decent man fails to show common humanity / oversteps some moral mark, and is interpreted in some commentaries as an example of how war deforms morality. As usual the text is dense with naval jargon as swished around by a bunch of chaps used to shorthand expressions, fleeting references, who share the same values and so don’t have to explain their sentiments and views. A number of critics point to the clipped approach of these later stories, and the way they’re couched in talk, in reams of highly technical or slang or dialect speech, as evidence that Kipling had forged a kind of ‘modernist’ style of his own. Maybe. This is how the main talker, Maddingham, talks:

‘He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middle-aged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’

Introduction to The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923) A few years after his son’s death in 1915, serving with the Irish Guards, Kipling was approached to write the official history of the Irish Guards during the war. He took the task very seriously, suspending his fictional writing and working his way through a mountain of official records, soldiers’ letters and diaries, and also interviewing scores of survivors of the various battles and campaigns. The result has often been praised as a thorough and unflashy chronicle of the regiment’s war. Throughout Kipling is concerned with the life of the soldier, from the soldier’s point of view, consistent with the Tommy’s-eye-view he had developed even before the Barrack Room Ballads.

The introduction is short but powerfully conveys the speed of events, the complete unpreparedness of the British forces, the scale of the slaughter and the terrifying turnover of men, and all the time the buzz of men’s conversations.

They speculated on all things in Heaven and earth as they worked in piled filth among the carcases of their fellows, lay out under the stars on the eves of open battle, or vegetated through a month’s feeding and idleness between one sacrifice and the next.
But none have kept minutes of those incredible symposia that made for them a life apart from the mad world which was their portion; nor can any pen recreate that world’s brilliance, squalor, unreason, and heaped boredom. Recollection fades from men’s minds as common life closes over them, till even now they wonder what part they can ever have had in the shrewd, man-hunting savages who answered to their names so few years ago.
It is for the sake of these initiated that the compiler has loaded his records with detail and seeming triviality, since in a life where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial, and bald references to villages, billets, camps, fatigues, and sports, as well as hints of tales that can never now fully be told, carry each their separate significance to each survivor, intimate and incommunicable as family jests.

A Friend of the Family (1924) Frame: The fourth in a series of stories Kipling wrote set in the Masonic Lodge, ‘Faith and Works 5837’. Four chaps get chatting over dinner – Bevin, Pole, a sassy Australian with a glass eye named Orton, and the narrator. They yarn about their respective trades (Bevin owns a chicken farm and is diversifying into herbs). They all grumble that all they wanted after the War was Judgement and justice, instead of which they got talk talk talk. Grumble grumble grumble.

‘We didn’t want all that talk afterwards — we only wanted justice. What I say is, there must be a right and a wrong to things. It can’t all be kiss-an’-make-friends, no matter what you do.’

But if any generation had a right to grumble it’s the men who went through the war. Kipling conveys the way they fall to remembering incidents e.g. on the beach at Gallipolli, then go quiet, their faces suddenly tight, with the awful memories.

Story: Once they’re all comfortably settled after dinner, Bevin tells the story of Hickmot, a quiet Australian from the back of beyond, ‘brought up among blackfellas’, who was the only survivor of his battalion at Gallipolli and seconded to what was left of Bevin’s battalion. He was very quiet, very unobtrusive. Then a new draft came out including a man from the narrator, Bevin’s, village, one Bert Vigors. His dad was a market-gardener and they tried to exempt Bert on account of the family business but the local tribunal didn’t listen and he was drafted. The same tribunal exempted the son of a Mr Margetts, also a market gardener, because he hired a canny lawyer and was friends with some of the tribunes. Result: Vigors’ business goes bust, Margett’s old man buys it up.

Vigors won’t stop moaning to anyone who’ll listen about his Grievance, so quite quickly all the boys nickname him ‘the Grief’ and avoid him – all except Hickmot. He’ll listen to Vigors about his Grievance for hours so long as Vigors will then listen to him talking about sheep in the Outback. The two become inseparable. Soon Hickmot cops it in the leg and is shipped home and then Vigors is killed.

Bevin knows he right on the edge of a breakdown and wonders whether he’ll win a VC for some reckless exploit or go postal and shoot everyone around him. Just in time he is brought out of the trenches. He is posted back to England as a bomb instructor. Since the training camp is near his home village, he is able to marry his sweetheart – who just happens to have been Bert Vigors’s sister – and sleeps at home in his own bed, before going off to instruction duty every day.

Then they get a letter from the Brighton hospital where Hickmot is recovering from his wounds, asking if he can come and stay. Since Bert’s sister (now Bevin’s wife) had read so much about Hickmot in the letters which Bert sent home, she says Yes. Hickmot arrives for  his visit, with one leg amputated above the knee, hardly says a word, but fits right in and does all the chores. One day he unobtrusively accompanies Bevin to bomb instruction, holing up in the dugout where the duds are kept till used, then accompanying Bevin home at the end of the day. Then they see him onto the train to Roehampton, where he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

That night there is a series of explosions in the village, the villagers initially thinking they must be stray bombs from an air raid and running out into the street in panic. But Bevin and another officer quickly realise the damage is suspiciously localised; in fact, it is limited to the market gardener Margett’s property: the roof of his house has been bombed, so it burns down, two hay ricks set afire, the furnace in his greenhouse has exploded, demolishing the building and all his horses been mysteriously released to trample and graze in the new fields he’d bought off Vigors’s dad. Oddest of all, Bevin had applied to the local council to dam a local stream to create a duck-pond for his wife’s ducks but been refused permission. But a bomb happens to have exploded under the bank of the stream and blocked it exactly where Bevin wanted. Fancy that!

By now Bevin’s dinner companions are laughing. Silent Hickmot must have listened to all Vigor’s grievances in the trenches, and made a plan to enact justice for the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and his death. Asking to come and stay with Bevin was just a ruse to see the lie of the land and, when he learned that Bevin was giving bomb training, Hickmot hatched his brutal revenge on the all-conquering Margett family.

Revenge: So it is one of Kipling’s many ‘revenge’ stories, but this time the brutality of the war somehow justifies it, and also justifies it as comedy, or farce – and also – in the injustice of Vigors’s drafting and death – makes it very moving. On the surface it’s a story about how at least one soldier carried out poetic justice. But the real impact of the story comes from the many little touches in it indicating just how psychologically damaged and scarred by war the talkers are. There are several moments in his telling where Bevin’s face grows stiff and his hands go to tighten a belt he isn’t wearing, unconsciously carried back to the trenches.

More overtly, he admits that, after Hickmot’s wounding and Vigors’s death, he was reaching breaking point: he had a funny taste in his mouth and a sense of being distant from everything – just when his superiors had the sense to post him home as a bomb instructor. He is, in fact, just one more of Kipling’s many, many men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

‘It took ’em five minutes to make me understand I was saved. Then I vomited, an’ then I cried. You know!’ The fat face of Bevin had changed and grown drawn, even as he spoke; and his hands tugged as though to tighten an imaginary belt.’

A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – had died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face to join her – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why he broke it off – but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death, have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge… is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband! Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

The Gardener (1925) Written 10 years after Kipling’s own son, Jack, went missing during the Battle of Loos, this short story is about a well-off single woman, Helen, who adopts the orphaned son of her scapegrace brother, George, who had got an unmarried woman pregnant.

When George died in India, Helen arranged the passage home of the baby, named him Michael, and raised him as his ‘Aunty’. Michael goes through prep and public school and is scheduled to go up to Oxford when the Great War breaks out. He enlists into a regiment which is posted to fill the gap in the Loos Offensive. (This is the prolonged battle during which Kipling’s only son was killed, aged barely 18.)

Helen at once accepts the terrible message of the telegram, and communes with the vicar and others in the village who have also lost sons.

After some years she gets an official letter notifying her that Michael’s body has finally been found and buried in Hagenzeele Third graveyard, the letter giving the grave’s row and number.

Helen decides to go and visit it and finds herself entering what Kipling describes as a well-established process for travelling to France, feeling like she is entering a sausage factory, a production-line type machine, which had been set up to process literally millions of grieving relatives.

She arrives at the pre-booked hotel in France, where she has a strange encounter with an insistent fellow grave visitor, who insists on sitting with her at dinner and nattering on about this and that, before she more or less forces her way into Helen’s bedroom to confess that, when she said she was visiting her friends’ sons’ graves, she was lying – she is in fact compulsively visiting and revisiting the grave of the only man she ever loved but who belonged to another.

Helen gets rid of her and lies in bed shaking. Everybody’s lives seem wracked. Next morning she walks to the graveyard and is appalled by the rows upon rows of graves, some 20,000 in total. A young man planting flowers helps her, asking the number of Michael’s grave and takes her to it. In the very last line there is the strong, ghostly implication, that the young man is Christ.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

A masterpiece, a genuinely great story, which is all in the selection, the paring back to the barest essentials, just three short scenes conveying the relationship between the growing Michael and his Aunt – the disconcerting scene at the hotel with a distraught fellow grave visitor – and then just these seven sentences at the end. I’m crying as I write this.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish and accessible layout, and to the comprehensive notes provided on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

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