Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s edited by Judith Barter (2017)

This is the book accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy of 45 or so oil paintings from the 1930s designed to give you an overview of the many different, competing and clashing visions of American art during that troubled decade, what the foreword, rather surprisingly describes as ‘aesthetically, perhaps the most fertile decade of the twentieth century.’

It significantly expands your knowledge and understanding of the period by including illustrations of many more paintings than are in the show, along with comparison art works from contemporary and Old Master Europe, as well as photos, sketches, architects plans and related visual information.

The book is structured around five long essays by experts in the period, each of which is fascinating and informative in equal measure (the writers being Judith A. Barter, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Annelise K. Madsen, Sarah L. Burns and Teresa A. Carbone). I picked it up for £15, a snip considering the high quality of the reproductions and the intelligence of the commentary and analysis.

Regionalism versus modernism

The squabble between the Regionalists and the New York-based modernists is only mentioned for a minute or so on the exhibition audioguide, but spills across several of the essays here. This allows you to understand its history, main participants, the arguments on either side, to weigh their merits, as well as considering the whole thing’s relevance to the present day.

Regionalism championed the depiction of realistic scenes of rural and small-town America primarily in the Midwest and Deep South. It was popular and populist. It defined itself against the modernism imported from Europe by New York-based artists, despite the fact that the trio of artists who became most associated with Regionalism – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry – had all made at least one study visit to Europe and were well aware of developments there.

Regionalism is itself subsumed under a broader term – the American Scene – which also covers ‘Social realism’ paintings, also realistic and figurative in nature, but more committed to the world of urban work than the predominantly rural Regionalist ethos. If it’s about small town life it’s American regionalism; if it’s a realistic work about the city, about industrial workers, and especially if it emphasises class consciousness, then it’s American Social Realism.

The most famous example of Regionalism is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts in a minutely detailed style reminiscent of early Flemish painters, a romantically unromantic vision of the gaunt, upright honest Mid-Western farmer. In the same spirit, though softer edged, is his Daughters of the Revolution (1932), its unflatteringness easy to confuse with a type of realism. Others of his rural pictures shown here are more gently bucolic:

The most fervent regionalist was Thomas Hart Benton. In the exhibition he’s represented by paintings of rural, especially Southern, life depicted with a distinctive wriggly serpentine style.

  • Cradling wheat by Thomas Hart Benton (1938) Note the wriggly lines in the clouds, the clothes, the distant hill.

But the book adds hugely to our understanding by expanding on his activities as a muralist, works which, by definition, can’t be shown in travelling art exhibitions. The New Deal administration, via its huge Public Works of Art Project, helped fund and commission a vast range of public art for public spaces – city halls, post offices, railway stations – across America. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. Benton was a leader in the field, producing works like America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In these he combines his sinewy, sinuous way with the human body with a kind of muscular social realist style to portray a fascinating cross-section of American activity and enterprise.

Benton not only painted, he engaged in a fierce polemic with a leader of the New York modernists, Stuart Davis, decrying modernism as effeminate, chaotic, elitist and un-American. You can see why his Mid-Western sponsors and many left-wing-minded artists and writers (some influenced by the new dogma of Socialist Realism emanating from the Soviet Union) would support his easily accessible, heroic depictions of the working man and woman, as the real America.

But of course they were up against New York, with its sheer size (with a population of 7 million, by far the largest US city) and its entrenched, articulate and well-publicised intellectual and artistic sets, such as the circle around critic and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (which included the artists Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe) or George L.K. Morris and the American Abstract Artists group.

It was the modernist painter Stuart Davis who ended up defending cosmopolitan modernism against Benton’s Regionalism, in a series of lectures, pamphlets, articles and a few bad-tempered personal encounters – attacking Regionalism as populist, demagogic, conservative even reactionary in form, naive, simple-minded and so on. He was even involved in a petition drawn up by New York art students to have one of Benton’s murals destroyed, because of its alleged stereotyping of African Americans. They hated each other.

Above all, the New York modernists thought Regionalism was holding America back, restraining and imprisoning American art and thought in a utopian fantasy of the past. It was provincial in the worst sense of the word, because it limited American culture to fantasies of a fast-disappearing rural reality while the entire world was urbanising and the great capitals – Paris, London, Rome, Berlin – were developing dazzling new techniques, styles and methods which it would be fatal to ignore.

Why go backwards when the rest of the world was hurtling into the new, they argued. America, above all other countries, should throw off the past and embrace the future.

There are several ways to think about this:

1. On purely personal terms, which do you enjoy most – now? To be honest, I like Grant Wood’s cartoony works and am impressed by Benton’s murals, idealised and muscular representatives of the spirit of the age. Whereas I like the overall impact of Davis’s work – extraordinarily bright and jazzy – but don’t respond to any individual work of his as strongly.

2. In terms of the debate, who do you think was right, at the time? Again, I’m inclined to think the American Scene artists depicted the country and its cultural and political moment better than Davis and the other wannabe modernists. They were right for their time. The Public Works of Art Project wanted art for the broadest mass of the public, which would reflect their local area, their local history, which would provide a unifying focus for thousands of communities across the States. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. It seems unlikely that a thousand variations on Davis’s watered-down Paris abstractions could have done that.

3. Who won? With the benefit of hindsight we know that Regionalism had nowhere to go: as America became more fully industrialised during the Second World War, it became more urbanised and rural life became more and more remote from most Americans. The Regionalist artists proved incapable of developing their style: even at the time it was acknowledged to be a romanticised, idealised vision which was actually far removed from the brutal reality of the Dustbowl droughts which were afflicting the southern states. (Captured in one bleak and almost science fiction painting here, Our American Farms (1936) by Joe Jones.) Regionalism proved to be in every way a dead end.

4. Also, in the new atmosphere of the Cold War, the Social Realism of much American Scene art came to look suspiciously like the same kind of thing being churned out by the Soviet Union and her satellites. When the House Un-American Activities Committee got round to investigating artists in the 1950s, it was the Social Realists they accused of being dangerous subversives: in total some 350 artists were accused by the committee of being communists or harbouring unhealthy left-wing tendencies. In the event, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock et al was to take the art world by storm at the end of the 1940s and, with government help, transform American aesthetics. Regionalism became an isolated backwater in the history of art.

5. However, studying the debate in some detail throws up surprising insights into our present situation, where a demagogic president has been elected on a platform of appealing to ordinary folk, especially the working class disenfranchised by globalisation, and railing against Big City corruption and cosmopolitanism. There is unemployment – 4.7% (though nothing approaching Depression-era figures, which at their worst had 30% of the workforce without jobs). There’s disillusion with the conventional parties and a rise in racism and xenophobia. Powerful reminders that so many of a country’s political or social issues never really go away but are reborn in each generation in new disguises.

The above is a partial summary of the first of the five essays in the volume. The other four:

  • Transatlantic Expressions
  • 1930s Modernism and the use of history
  • Painting the American wasteland
  • Bodies for the 1930s

are just as in-depth and illuminating, adding to our understanding of a host of other artists of the time.

These include lesser known figures like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dover, Charles Green Shaw, Millard Sheets, Doris Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Walt Kuhn, Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, Archibald Motley, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Paul Sample – as well as, for me, the standout artist of the era – the great Georgia O’Keeffe, with her triumphant marriage of the distinctive New Mexico landscape with an unsettling modernist sensibility.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

New names

Presumably familiar to any student of American art, the following were artists who I first learned about at the exhibition and who then especially benefited from the longer treatment and further illustrations provided in this book:

Charles Sheeler

Represented in the show by his wonderful linear depiction of the River Rouge Ford Motor factory – American landscape (1930) – Sheeler is explored in further detail in the book. Not only did he produce these wonderful linear, monumental evocations of pure architecture, but also took many modernist photographs of industrial buildings, interiors and machines. Just my kind of thing.

But Sheeler is also one of the beneficiaries of the well-known phenomenon that some art works which are easy to overlook in the flesh, look much better in reproduction, in book form. Thus the exhibition – divided into 8 or 9 themes – has one devoted to interiors, generally depicting old-fashioned styles and furnishings, and it would be easy to overlook Sheeler’s item in the set, Home Sweet Home. But the book reproduces it in big and lovely colour detail and highlights the continuity between the fascination with geometry and lines evinced in his well-known industrial photos and paintings, and his more recherche interest in traditional fabrics, Shaker furniture and so on, which combine in this quiet but mesmeric interior.

Aaron Douglas

Represented by one work in the show, the impressive mural Aspiration, in the show, the book gives a lot more about his life and work – and searching the internet reveals a brilliantly dazzling talent. Douglas uses a kind of Art Deco silhouette-based style, flooded by geometric washes of pastel colours, to depict an amazingly bold, explicit overview of the African American story, from Africans in Africa dancing and celebrating, their capture into slavery, transport across the seas, to African Americans throwing off their shackles and then Ayn Rand-style monuments of them contributing to the building of the modern (1930s) city with its outline of soaring skyscrapers.

Conclusion

This is a genuinely interesting book, not just about American art but about a pivotal moment in American history. By the end you are ready to believe the claim made at the start (several times) that the 1930s was ‘the most artistically creative and important period of the twentieth century’ (p.24).


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (1986)

If we seek the roots of the success of European imperialism, we must be off to the Middle East, to Abraham, to Gilgamesh and the cultural ancestors of all of us who eat wheaten bread, smelt iron, or record our thoughts alphabetically… We – you who read and I who write this sentence – are part of that continuity; these words are in an alphabetical form of writing, a very clever Middle Eastern invention produced by peoples even more directly influenced by the Sumerian example than we are. The Sumerians and the inventors of the alphabet, and you and I, no matter what our genetic heritage, are in one category: heirs of post-Neolithic Old World cultures. All Stone Age peoples, including the few living, and all pre-Columbian Amerindians, however sophisticated, are in another. The indigenous populations of the Neo-Europes were in the second category until Europeans arrived from beyond the seams of Pangaea. The transition from one category to another was a harrowing one, and many individuals and even peoples faltered and failed. (Ecological Imperialism, pp.21-22)

Until I started reading it I hadn’t realised this book was published in 1986 (I was brought up short by the references to the Soviet Union and that world population was ‘thrusting towards 5 billion’ – it is, of course, now 7.4 billion). 1986 is a long time ago, especially in science, where new discoveries and perspectives arise each year. A lot of the argument – that European triumph over the rest of the world was as much to do with biological advantages as military skill or morality or civilisation etc – was familiar to me from Jared Diamond’s best-seller Guns Germs and Steel. Now I look closely I see the latter was published in 1998. Maybe it had the advantage of following up ideas Crosby pioneered.

Pangaea

Crosby takes a doggedly chronological approach and starts several hundred million years ago with our knowledge of Pangaea, the supercontinent consisting of all the world’s land surface compacted into one unit that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. Pangaea began to break up into our present continental units 175 million years ago, each continent driven apart by fault lines where new molten magma was forced to the earth’s surface, creating new crusts. Life forms on the newly separated continents evolved along different lines.

Some areas remained connected by land bridges for a while, but, after a long sequence of ice ages, the final ice age ended about 13,000 years ago, the ice caps melted, and the land bridges connecting Britain to Europe, Russia to America across the Bering Sea, and New Guinea to Australia, were flooded. The continents were sealed off in their isolation.

By about 100,000 years ago the human brain had evolved to the same size as it is today. By 40,000 years ago our species, Homo sapiens, had arrived. We spread out of Africa, across Asia, walked into Australia and across the land bridge into America. Then the seas flooded.

The Neolithic revolution

Crosby moves swiftly on to the Neolithic revolution(s). This began when humans started to grind and polish rather than chip their stone tools, and went on to include the development of agriculture, the domestication of farm animals, the beginning of food surpluses which gave rise to denser settlements and social hierarchy, eventually to cities with rulers who wanted records of their possessions and so to writing. The revolution was complete as humans learned how to smelt metal and work it into tools that stayed sharper for longer.

To some extent ‘the rest is history’, the history of successive empires which used these technologies to conquer (and generally enslave) their neighbours – the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the astonishing success of the Islamic caliphates, the long slow growth of the Chinese empires, alongside the rise of a Japanese state and more obscure (to us) empires in Thailand, Burma, the East Indies. Europe, abandoned by the Romans, slowly regrouped with strong leaders carving new empires, notably Charlemagne’s north European empire, crystallised by about 800, with King Alfred and his successors’ efforts to unify England under one king, complete by about 900.

All this is interesting but the key fact for the history of European empire was the fact that all the other human populations not directly linked to the Middle East (where the Neolithic revolution took place, starting in Sumeria, modern Iraq) fell behind and were outstripped. In Saharan Africa the empire of Mali arose and in South Africa several empires, latterly the Zulus. But in Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific islands and in North America there was no Neolithic Revolution. The people continued the old style of hunter-gatherer living. Only in Central America was there a semi-revolution – when the conquistadores arrived they found the Aztecs could smelt metal – but only to use as decoration, not weapons; and they had invented the wheel – but only as a decorative toy, not to carry heavy weights long distances. Why? Because they had no domesticated large mammals to pull any wheeled vehicle (unlike us Eurasians, blessed with domesticable horses, cattle, oxen and so on).

Thus when the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch and – right at the end – the British set sail in their advanced ships, with highly developed sailing and steering technology, maps, knowledge of the winds, horses, armour, cannons and guns, it was all too often to encounter indigenous peoples who were still living in the Stone Age and were easy to fight, kill, round up and enslave, shoot and loot and dispossess of their land.

Eurasian biology

There is not as much biology as the title suggests, in fact the book is rather disappointing from this point of view, and not as focused and memorable as Diamond’s book. Why was agriculture more successful in the West? Because:

  • There was a broader variety of domesticable edible plant species to begin with e.g. wheat, barley, peas and lentils.
  • Wheat was highly productive of edible seed from the start, encouraging agriculture and surpluses, whereas new World maize was far less productive and took a lot longer to be developed.
  • The growing seasons of a temperate climate are more supportive for arable crops (unlike tropical rainforest or desert).
  • And for the simple but amazing reason that the Eurasian land mass runs East-West with a broadly similar climate all through it – what can be grown in the Caucasus can be grown in France or southern Britain and grown on the Russian steppe. Agriculture, and agricultural innovation, could spread unhindered across this vast area (albeit very slowly). There just wasn’t the same geographic scope for the Central Americans to spread and share innovations because they were blocked by the Mexican desert to the north and Amazon rainforest to the south. North America turned out to be fantastically fertile but having never had a Neolithic/agricultural Revolution the native Americans weren’t in a position to realise this. Similarly, the Aborigenes in Australia remained a relatively small scattered population of doggedly hunter-gatherer tribes in a vast and generally inhospitable land.

Which brings us to animals and the bald fact that Eurasia simply happened to possess more and more easily domesticable animals – horses, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, reindeer, ducks. At the opposite end of the scale no-one managed to tame Australian fauna – the kangaroo, dingo, koala bear. Native Americans hunted and killed bison but never tried to produce tame populations of them in fenced farms – they didn’t need to.

We had all kinds of advantages. An apparently minor one, which becomes more important the more you think about it, is that Western people have a gene which allows us to digest milk after we’ve stopped being babies. Many other peoples – Amerindians, Aborigenes – don’t.

Few adult black Africans or East Asians, and fewer yet of the adult indigenes of Australasia or the Americas, can tolerate milk in any but small amounts after infancy. In fact, it makes them quite sick. (p.27)

In many times and places the ability to drink cow or goat’s milk in bleak winters or times of dearth made the difference between survival or extinction for all kinds of Western settlements. Just one way in which we had more biological and technological resources than the first peoples we met.

Eurasian disease

The main biological component, however, was disease. For thousands of years Westerners lived in towns and cities large enough to foster urban diseases like smallpox and measles. Not that these were a weapon in any way consciously deployed against native peoples or that only hurt non-Westerners: Crosby shows how waves of plague and other diseases decimated the West again and again and again before any imperial voyages began. Some historians attribute the collapse of the Roman Empire to a deadly plague which decimated its population.

The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at least 13% of the world’s population). (Wikipedia)

Plague continued to ravage Europe for centuries, notably the Black Death of the 1340s when up to 200 million Europeans died, the famous recurrence in the 1660s which killed about a quarter of London’s population. Well into the 19th century Londoners were dying of cholera, typhoid and diphtheria and of course the early 20th century witnessed one of the worst pandemics of all time.

The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus. It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world’s population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. (Wikipedia)

Generations of Eurasians had survived these remorseless plagues and epidemics, and become hardened and immune. But when European explorers arrived at any settlement of humans outside the infection zone, the result was inevitably devastation, and there is a long melancholy list of native peoples in America north and south, in the Pacific islands and Australia who were wiped out by European disease.

Disease was also a major factor in limiting where white Europeans could realistically settle. Crosby gives examples of the high death rates of white people in the Tropics, which complement the accounts I’ve read in John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire and Tom Pocock’s harrowing Battle for Empire. In the early 19th century over half the British troops stationed on the Gold Coast died of disease. Joseph Conrad reported that only about 7% of white men served out their three year contracts in King Leopold’s Congo, the rest dying or being forced home by disease. Of the first freed slaves resettled to Sierra Leone about 40% died from disease. Compare with Pocock’s report that, of the 14,000 British soldiers and sailors who took part in the five-month-long siege of Havana, Cuba in 1762, no fewer than 10,000 died or were disabled by disease. Similarly, between 1793 and 1796 the British Army stationed in the Caribbean lost about 80,000 men, about half to yellow fever alone.

No wonder John Darwin points out that the best survival strategy for white settlers in the Caribbean was to pay local agents to run their plantations for them, and leave as quickly as possible. Even temperate climates were harsh for the first white settlers: in the first winter, half of the original Pilgrim Fathers who landed in New England died of disease, exposure or malnutrition.

Just one more reason why the Neo-Europes are pretty limited geographically, to the more temperate parts of America, southern South America, and Australasia, where not only do diseases not thrive, but the native populations were so thinly spread that they hadn’t incubated and helped evolve vicious strains of communicable disease. The direction of fatal diseases was almost all in the other direction, from Old World to New.

Eurasian biota

And not just disease. Europeans brought the livestock and plants they knew they wanted to farm – horses, cows, sheep; wheat, barley, peas – but also unintended passengers which played havoc with local biota. The most notorious example is the rabbit, which ran rampant in Australia, eating all the crops, but we also took the European rat wherever we went, and the rat is a key vector for disease. And among the seeds of useful crops were seeds of all kinds of European weeds. The common plantain was brought to America by Europeans and, apparently, nicknamed the ‘Englishman’s foot’ by native Americans. That infestive weed the dandelion is now found in all temperate climates around the world.

The spread of European disease, weeds and pests throughout the world is one of the greatest examples of the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

Pre-imperial European colonising attempts

I feel I’ve read quite a lot about the European conquest of India or Africa, therefore I found Crosby’s earlier chapters the most interesting, where he describes in detail the Norse voyages of exploration, to Iceland, Greenland and then onto Vinland, with detailed discussion of the crops and livestock the Vikings took with them, and the reasons for their initial success and ultimate failure, a combination of insufficient numbers, economic unviability (nobody wanted the goods the colonies could produce), conflict with the natives – the skraelings as the Vikings called the inhabitants of America.

He gives an account of the Crusades, again analysing the reasons for their ultimate failure – they came up against well-populated, well-organised native states and cultures, and not enough Europeans wanted to emigrate there. Result: collapse, withdrawal. The last Crusader territory was abandoned in 1202.

He claims that European Imperialism really begins around 1400 with the settlement of the Canary, Azores and Madeira Islands and this is a story I’d never read about before. It set the pattern for everything which followed – including long bloody campaigns against the natives – the Guanches – the eventual extermination of their populations through war but mostly waves of infectious disease, the setting up of sugar cane plantations with their insatiable appetite for manual labour solved by the importing of slave labour (often not black African, but North African Berbers or Jews or heretics from Europe).

This economic, social and technological model was to be exported to innumerable other ‘plantations’ in the centuries ahead. And it shows the general rule: a technologically more advanced society will tend to conquer, enslave and completely re-order a technologically inferior culture remodeling it to supply its economic needs. This rule applies in all times and places: wherever a more powerful population can overpower and dominate a weaker one – it will.

World winds and global exploration

The middle chapters give a highly detailed account of the early explorations by the Portuguese and Spanish pioneers, notably de Gama, Magellan and Columbus, but focusing not on armaments or economics but on winds. The story is told as the slow steady and thorough exploration of the world’s wind systems – in an age of sail, effectively the discovery of the world’s motorway systems – complete with several complex and fascinating maps. Obviously the era of great Explorations was a pre-requisite for European expansion but this chapter has nothing directly biological about it. It’s an example of the way the book has a chatty, discursive feel, and Crosby writes in a relaxed, slangy, sometimes jokey style quite unlike the sensible academic prose of John Darwin or the impassioned opinionating of Niall Ferguson. One of his catch phrases is ‘and what have you’. Thus:

The Asians and their plants and animals had existed in and around thousands of villages and cities for thousands of years, and along with them had evolved many species of germs, worms, insects, rusts, molds, and what have you attuned to preying on humanity and its servant organisms. (p.135)

The Neo-Europes

The second half of the book turns to look in closer detail at its main subject: the success of the ‘Neo-Europes’, lands with temperate climates, inhabited overwhelmingly by whites descended from European settlers and which, in an angle I hadn’t thought about before, are characterised by producing, consistently year after year, surpluses of food, something almost all the rest of humanity fails to do. He’s talking about North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the southerly part of South America.

The timing of these migrations is fascinating because it was slow slow slow – and then a torrent. Thus in 1800, after two centuries of colonisation, North America still only had a population of about 5 million whites and a million black slaves; southern South America only half a million whites; Australia 10,000 white settlers.

Then bang! The nineteenth century is the great century of mass white emigration. Between 1820 and 1930, over 50 million people emigrated to the Neo-European lands, about a fifth of the entire population of Europe! Why? The agricultural revolution fuelled a population explosion which put pressure on land and resources; war and instability; persecution of minorities in increasingly nationalist countries – and the rapid growth of transport, better long distance sailing and then steamships, train networks across the Neo-European lands opening up vast new frontiers for settlement; mass media i.e advertising campaigns giving tantalising pictures of the wealth to be won abroad.

The chapters which follow deal with the fauna and weed we exported – chief among which seems to have been plantain and sow thistle; the animals we exported – cattle, pigs, sheep, rabbits, rats; the illnesses white men took with them, most devastatingly smallpox whose ravages, destroying half or third of entire populations, again and again, rendering populous countrysides empty just as the colonists arrived.

The longest chapter in the book takes New Zealand as a case study of the colonisation of a New Europe, by all the elements discussed – flora, animals, disease, whitey – with the usual baleful impacts on local ecosystems and above all the poor Maori people. But, as Darwin pointed out, the Maori story is a bit different because they were annexed by the British Empire after requesting it themselves, and signing a formal treaty. This Treaty of Waitangi (1841) was later to form the basis of claims against the government and is the subject of dispute to this day.

The final chapter of ‘Explanations’ draws all the previous discussions together. One giant conclusion leaps out. At several places in the text, Crosby had mentioned that fossil and bone records suggest that the original large animals in America, Australia and New Zealand died out at just around the time the first humans arrived in these places. Humans arriving with stone axes and arrow tips came across enormous walking meals which were unafraid of humans – and they devastated them. When Crosby was writing this was still a controversial theory. But if true, it has the supplementary effect of providing a strong additional reason why the Neo-Europes were so vulnerable to invasion from Old World flora, fauna, disease – because all these places were still reeling from a first decimation of large mammals, their predators, their pest and the diseases they carried. Without realising it the Europeans arrived in countries with, biologically speaking, yawning gaps in their ecosystems – and their imported animals – pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, rabbits, rats – as well as the wheat and innumerable weeds – stormed into the vacant slots. From nature’s point of view the Amerindians, Aborigines and Maoris on the one hand, and the European invaders on the other, are not adversaries, with natives passive and whites active: they are both invaders of the same destructive species, the first wave acting as shock troops to clear the way for the second wave which arrived with its complex technologies, economies, biota and overwhelming numbers.

Quite a radically different way of seeing imperial history from the usual “bad white imperialist destroys eco-friendly native paradise” picture.

Rare words

  • endogeny – development or growth from within.
  • helminthic parasites – helminths, also commonly known as parasitic worms, are large multicellular organisms, which when mature can generally be seen with the naked eye. They are often referred to as intestinal worms even though not all helminths reside in the intestines.
  • indigenes – a person or thing that is indigenous
  • ‘Neo-Europes’ – a country or territory with a temperate European-style climate, inhabited by whites descended from European settlers e.g. America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
  • northing – distance travelled or measured northward, especially at sea.
  • pelagic – Any water in a sea or lake that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone.
  • virgin soil epidemic – a term coined by Crosby himself, who defines it as epidemics ‘in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless’ i.e. decimated by illnesses they have never encountered before.
Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)

Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)


Credit

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby was published by Cambridge University Press in 1986. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Canto paperback edition.

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Other blog posts about Empire

Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling (1937)

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

For me the two lasting impressions of the book are

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

Something of Myself is divided into eight chapters:

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

Themes

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

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

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

And then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it made him what he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writing

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

We possessed a paradise which I verily believe saved me…

Often and often afterwards…

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

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

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

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

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

Which things are a portent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

This is unashamedly a children’s book. It was published as a monthly serial in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature from June to October 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’ (the same pen name Stevenson used for Treasure Island). Still, I am reading and experiencing it as an adult.

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

The Wars of the Roses

The story is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a confusing conflict when the weakness and mental illness of King Henry VI allowed a major civil war to develop between followers of two large noble families – York and Lancaster, each fighting for the crown – which dragged on for a generation, from 1455 to 1485. (Hence the novel’s sub-title, A Tale of the Two Roses.)

There is no high-level explanation of any of this in the novel, and no date given to help the reader orientate themself. We see the conflict not from the vantage of courts and kings, but reflected in the microcosm of what seems to be a small area of the Fenland i.e East Anglia, around the fictional village of Tunstall, with its Moat House and nearby Holyrood Abbey.

The novel opens with a confused throng of villagers, the publican, the local parson Sir Oliver Oates, the lord of the manor Sir Daniel Brackley, and his ward the young teenager Dick Shelton, as they get confused reports of a battle, or at least of another nobleman in some kind of warlike trouble, nearby.

Things are further confused when Brackley’s man, Bennet Hatch, takes Dick to go and talk to old Nick Appleyard, the oldest man in the village who saw service under Henry the Fifth. Hatch wants to ask him to form a small troop to defend the village while the other men ride off to the battle. But they’ve barely started talking before out of nowhere a big arrow whizzes past them, embeds itself between Appleyard’s shoulders and, after a few, shudders, he dies. There are enemies in the woods across the valley. But who? Why?

Brackley is rallying his men outside the village pub when some of them spot a figure fleeing from the churchyard across fields and into the nearby woods. Dick runs over to the church and finds a parchment nailed to the door which promises revenge against oppressors and is signed ‘Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship’. It is in the form of doggerel verse:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.

it goes on to name four specific individuals who it threatens with death for their ‘crimes’.

One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.

One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.

It seems to be blaming all four for taking part in the murder of Harry Shelton (Dick’s father) and the burning down of his house. When, in the next scene, we see the slippery and corrupt Sir Daniel Brackley extracting money with menaces i.e. doubling his tenants’ rents to him or else promising to hang them, we quickly come to suspect the poetic accusation is correct. Brackley has brought Dick up, harsh but fair, but the poem seems to implicate him in the murder of Dick’s father when Dick was a small child, and the burning down of his family’s house, Grimstone. You don’t have to be a genius to suspect that young Dick will find himself falling out with his guardian and in with Jon and the romantic woodland ‘fellaweship’.

Adventure and excitement

Stevenson possesses in abundance the boys adventure skill of creating tense moments which set the pulses racing and inflame the teenage mind in all of us. When Brackley (not suspecting the boy’s growing suspicions) sends Dick on an errand to nearby Tunstall Moat House, he finds himself falling in with another young lad who was at the inn and is (for some reason) also going the same way. Once they’ve identified themselves to each other, they carry on through the snowy woods (the novel is set in the depths of winter).

In this scene, the boys have arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out mansion, only to realise there are other people around in the neighbourhood, then realising it is the ‘woodland fellaweship’. They climb warily through the debris and look out through a ruined windowframe:

Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt.
(Chapter IV – A Greenwood Company)

The story is chock full of such moments of suspense, confrontation, escape, fights, battles, storms at sea – Stevenson threw everything he could think of and the kitchen sink into the plot.

Fast-moving plot

This other lad Dick has teamed up with is called John Matcham. They watch the outlaws interrupt their meal in the clearing to go off and attack a line of Brackley’s men who are wending through a different part of the woods. Continuing on their way, they encounter a strange leper slowly ringing a mournful hand bell, who reveals himself to be Brackley in a disguise he’s adopted to navigate the dangerous woods. All three finally make it to the safety of Tunstall Moat, Brackley’s base.

Book II – the Moat House

Here, Dick confronts Brackley with his suspicions and makes him swear he had nothing to do with murdering his (Dick’s) father – which he does with easy fluency. But the parson also named in the doggerel accusation, Sir Oliver Oates, can’t bring himself to take an oath, stuttering and hesitating and turning red, pretty much incriminating himself.

Moreover, one of Brackley’s men brought wounded to the Moat House after the attack on them by the outlaws which Dick and John witnessed, and who is now dying – one John Carter – more or less confesses to the murder and implicates Brackley.

Right. So we have established that Sir Daniel Brackley is the man who helped or was responsible for murdering Dick Shelton’s father and burning down his ancestral home, years ago, but who then adopted and raised Dick. The scales fallen from his eyes, Dick and John decide to escape from the Moat House. But this proves easier said than done since it is a medieval fortress and full of Brackley’s men on high alert for an attack. There is a lot of creeping along spooky, dark castle corridors holding only a rushlight.

Illustration for The Black Arrow by the wonderful N.C. Wyeth

Illustration for The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth (1916)

Eventually they are discovered and flee into a vacant room, barricading themselves in against attackers. After repelling an attack through an unsuspected trap door – John Matcham finally reveals that ‘he’ is a maid in disguise. ‘He’ is Joanna Sedley, heir to a fine estate etc etc. whose family are all dead and so has spent her life being held hostage by a number of great lords, all planning marriage deals for her.

Now Brackley has possession of her and wants to marry her off to another lord who will pay a fine price. There is just time for Dick and Joanna to realise they are in love with each other! before the door is forced open by Brackley’s men who seize Joanna and almost grab Dick, who wriggles free, plunges out the window into the moat below, swims across it and scrambles to safety under cover of darkness. Phew!

Book III – My Lord Foxham

Several months have gone by and the House of Lancaster is in the ascendant with the Yorkists defeated – the small port of Shoreby-on-the-Till is full of Lancastrian nobles including Brackley, sucking up to the new masters of the land.  Now we learn that Dick has been hiding out all this time with the outlaws in the forest and that their leader is called Ellis Duckworth. He has loaned Dick some of his cut-throats, criminals and deserters to tail Brackley to Shoreby and now the chapter opens with them hiding out, drinking and grumbling, in a low pub.

One of their spies comes in to report that Brackley is going to a midnight assignation at a house by the sea – Dick and his men follow, Dick climbs over the wall and peers through the window and sees the house contains Joanna Sedley, now magically transformed from the ‘boy’ he shared adventures with in book one into a tall, stately, womanly figure – he is even more in love with her, though a little daunted by her fine womanhood.

Other figures are seen moving suspiciously around the walls and so Dick’s men attack them, leading to a scrappy fight. Dick kills one then tackles a good-sized man in a fight which spills into the sea – Dick manages to trip him, get him under the waves and forces him to yield. It turns out to be Lord Foxham, himself no friend of Brackley, himself come to spy on Joanna. Realising they’re on sort of the same side, Dick and Foxham arrange to meet next day at St Bride’s Cross, just outside Shoreby, ‘on the skirts of Tunstall Forest’. Here Lord Foxham confirms his identity and that he is the rightful protector of the fair Joanna Sedley. Dick’s passionate protestations about her safety persuade Foxham that Dick truly loves her, and he declares that Dick shall marry her. Only the slight problem that she is held captive by Brackly and betrothed to Lord Shoreby stands in the way.

So Dick resolves to rescue fair Joanna from the house by the sea. Since his fight with Foxham’s men the night before was pretty conspicuous, Brackley has doubled his guard, placing armed men round the house and knights on the approach roads, so Dick has the bright idea of approaching by sea. In a series of rather contorted events which are typical of the novel’s contrived storyline, Dick commissions his pack of criminals to steal a ship, which they do by hailing the master of a boat newly arrived in the port of Shoreby, as he comes ashore, then plying him with so much drink that he is easy to lure outside, mug and tie up. Then the gang row back out to the ship – the ironically named Good Hope – take command of it and sail it to a rough pier not far from the isolated house where Joanna is being held.

But when our men leave the ship and walk along the rough pier they find themselves instantly attacked, coming under bow and arrow fire, killing and injuring many, the whole crew panicking and rushing back to the ship, some falling into the water and drowning, others expiring on the deck. Quite a bloody scene.

Even Lord Foxham, who we only met ten pages earlier, is wounded, and carried to a cabin below decks. Here, once the ship has weighed anchor, he tells Dick that he was scheduled to meet the young Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) of the house of York, with notes about the deployment of the Lancastrian forces around Shoreby. Dick must now undertake this mission. And Foxham names Dick the rightful husband of Lady Joanna in the letters he asks Dick to bear – but it is up to him to actually secure her.

In further melodrama the ship is now driven by heavy seas to shipwreck on the sand not far from Shoreby. Once the tide has gone out all the survivors of the vain attack on Brackley’s house struggle ashore and traipse inland, but not without – in yet more action – briefly coming under attack from a platoon of men apparently place there to defend the coast. But they escape without any more casualties.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the depth of winter, with darkening stormy skies, high seas, and snow storms. It is all very atmospheric and well described but the underlying scenario is too far-fetched for the reader to buy into.

Book IV – The Disguise

Dick pays off the motley crew, all too happy to leave their unlucky (and very young) leader, and elects to stick with Lawless. This outlaw has emerged with higher stature then the other cut-throats: it was he who Dick saw in the clearing cooking the outlaws’ meal; it was he who took control of the Good Hope‘s helm, steered it through the storm and ensured it survived the wreck. Now Lawless takes Dick through the snow-struck forest to his secret lair in the woods, a warren created when a tall beech tree was blown over, with the sides shored up with earth and turf and the entrance covered with brushwood.

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

It is, in other words, a fantasy version of a boy’s den in the woods. Inside it is surprisingly warm and snug, especially after Lawless lights a fire, they cook and eat some food and share some sweet wine, and Dick tells his story. ‘You want Lady Joan?’ Lawless asks Dick. ‘Let’s go and get her.’ So Lawless opens one of the several trunks stashed round his den and gets out several friar’s cassocks, complete with rope belts. And a tray of make-up pencils (a sort of indication of the theatrical origins or references of much of the language and plot of the novel). He gets Dick to put on the friar’s costume and then applies make-up to make him seem older, a wise old wandering friar. They head off through the snowy woods, back towards Sir Daniel Brackley’s residence in Shoreby.

Here, in the chaos of an over-packed lord’s house, Dick sees two fine ladies heading upstairs and follows them, till he encounters Lady Joan again, in the company of her serving lady. But oh alas and alack! Joanna reveals that she is to be married next day to Lord Shoreby. She and the lady must go back downstairs to the marriage feast while Dick stays hidden. Off they go but only a few minutes later a malevolent dwarf-jester comes snooping around and, as he discovers evidence of Dick hiding, Dick leaps out, they tussle, and Dick stabs him to death with his poniard. (For the hero of a children’s story Dick kills quite a few people – he killed one of Foxham’s men in the fight by the sea, he kills the dwarf – and all this pales next to the slaughter in book V. It’s a surprisingly violent book.)

When the dwarf’s body is discovered by servants there is much alarm and shouting but Dick stays hidden in Lady J’s room, when she returns for a further clasping of hands and bosoms and protestations of love – all watched by the ironic lady-in-waiting, before Dick tries to make his escape.

Since he is still in his disguise as a friar, he tells the house guards that he is going to the nearby church to pray for the dwarf’s soul (his body having been laid in state there), but the guards take him at his word and frog-march him to the church. Here he is no sooner introduced to the parson, Sir Oliver Oates, who begins to recognise him through is disguise than Dick throws himself on his mercy. In an unguarded moment the parson, for his part, admits that he was used as a decoy to lure Dick’s father to his death all those years ago, but swears he didn’t know that was what was going to happen. The soldiers are sitting in the pews watching him suspiciously so there’s no way Dick can escape the church, and so he spends the night next to Sir Oliver, pretending to mutter prayers for the dead dwarf.

Next morning they are woken early by the grand procession for the wedding of Lord Shoreham to Lady Joanna. But barely has the fine lord entered the church, richly caparisoned and accompanied by his fragrant retinue than a brace of arrows ring out, shooting him dead on the spot, injuring Brackley, creating hysteria and panic among the attendants and ladies.

This is stilled by the imperious voice of Lord Risingham, the noblest man present. To Dick’s dismay the parson immediately betrays him and Lawless (his fellow fake friar) and they are dragged before Risingham and all kinds of accusations thrown at them of being in league with the fellowship of the Black Arrow and therefore involved in this sacrilegious outrage.

Brackley is incensed and wants to drag Dick off and torture him to death, but Lady Joanna intercedes to say she never wanted to marry Lord Shoreby and loves Dick, and her (cheeky) lady in waiting backs up the story and so Risingham, who has seniority, has Dick taken by soldiers to his own chambers to judge.

Here Dick saves the day by admitting that he guilty to some extent of falling in with the fellowship of forest crooks, but he only did so after learning that Brackley murdered his father. He clinches his case by handing over to Risingham a letter he had conveniently found on the murdered dwarf in which the villain Brackley plots to overthrow the Yorkist interest – which includes Risingham – and then hand over Risingham’s lands to Lord Shoreby. Risingham is incensed and instantly releases Dick, making him swear to mend his ways.

So Dick finally gets to escape the house and trouble and is walking free across Shoreby when, of all the bad luck, as he is passing one of the inns on the dockside, out of it stumble some very drunk sailors which include Arblaster, the unfortunate captain who Dick’s men got drunk, mugged and then whose ship they stole and wrecked. He doesn’t recognise him but his wretched dog does, coming barking up to him and lawless, still in their silly friar disguises. The drunks grow in suspicion and when he tries to bolt, grab him, tie him up and drag him back into the pub. Here Dick spins a long cock and bull story, admitting he is one of the outlaws but has grudges against them, and that the outlaws have a vast pile of treasure in the woods, and persuading Arblaster and his mates that he’ll lead them to it. In its way this is a curious and flavoursome scene. They are by this stage very drunk and Dick makes them show him the only possession of his which they found and therefore took off him – Lord Foxham’s signet ring with which he was to identify himself to Richard of Gloucester – when Dick snatches it, up ends the tables in their faces, and scarpers out the door and along the quayside into the night. Phew.

Book V – Crookback

Though as convoluted in detail as the others, this is in some ways the simplest book. If you remember, Dick had promised Lord Foxham he would rendezvous with Richard Duke of Gloucester and give him Foxham’s writings on the disposition of enemy (Lancastrian) forces in Shoreby. Now, Dick hid those papers when he was at Lawless’s den in the woods, which is why Arblaster and his drunk shipmates didn’t find them when they searched Dick the night before.

Now, the next morning, Dick is on his way through the woods back to Lawless’s den to get them, when he comes across a man defending himself against several attackers. Dick throws himself into the fray, coming to his defence, and together they beat the men off. At which point the other blows his horn and a brace of horsemen arrive and quickly identify the man he’s saved as Richard Duke of Gloucester, known as Crookback and as every schoolboy in 1888 knew, the man who would become King Richard III, according to legend the most wicked monarch in England’s history.

At this point, if it hadn’t been obvious before, the reader realises that this is a novel not only about two roses but about two Richards. For immediately the duke of Gloucester reveals the manic glint in his eye and the intensity of his ambition.

Gloucester explains to Dick that he is about to attack Shoreby and Dick gives him an eye-witness description of the Lancastrian forces every bit as good as Foxham’s. Gloucester knights Dick on the spot, from this point onwards Sir Richard Shelton. But says now he must command a troop during the forthcoming battle of Shoreby.

The (fictional) Battle of Shoreby is described across two chapters in impressive detail. The reader feels this is what it must be like to attack a medieval town through narrows streets and, as Dick does, command his men to raise a barricade with furniture looted from the rickety houses and then withstand attacks from massed archers and from armoured knights on horseback. It is rip-roaring exciting stuff.

Eventually the battle is won and Richard asks permission to ride and rescue his lady love, and Gloucester gives him a troop of men. Off they go trailing Brackly and his forces through the forest. After various delays and losing of the tracks, Dick and his men creep up on Brackley’s party gathered round a fire which includes Lady Joanna. They gather and attack, but Brackley’s men were waiting for them and mount a a surprise counter-attack. Joanna runs to Dick in the confusion and they escape the confusion of battle into the dense forest.

(It’s worth noting that although the novel is made of clichés, there keep coming unexpected complications and rebuffs, which give it a sort of realistic but also quite a frustrating feel. When Dick and his gang stole the ship and sailed it round to attack Brackley’s house by the sea I thought it would be a storming triumph, so was very surprised when they are beaten back and many killed or injured by bowfire before they’ve barely got off the jetty.)

Briefly, Dick and Joanna make it back to the safety of Lord Foxham’s house. There is a further encounter with Gloucester where Dick displeases the great man with a notable request. Gloucester says he will give Dick anything he desires, and at that moment – as it happens – amid the chaos of post-battle Shoreby, some troops come past hustling some captives who Gloucester, barely bothering to look, orders to be hanged. And Dick recognises among them Arblaster, the wretched sea captain who Richard has twice wronged, stealing his ship and ruining his livelihood, then throwing a table at him in the quayside pub. Now Dick sees a way to atone for his past sins and asks Gloucester to spare this man’s life. Irritated at the triviality of the request, Gloucester agrees to do so – since he has given his word – but fiercely tells Dick that he can’t expect to rise in his army, in his cause, if he throws away favours on trifle. And so Gloucester gallops off.

Next morning Dick is up betimes, accoutred and arrayed in the finest regalia Foxham can provide, ready for his wedding to Lady Joanna. He strolls around the town, surveying the triumphant Yorkist troops, before straying further afield and ends up walking through the (by now very familiar) snowy woods.

And it is here that the psychological climax of the book comes, when Dick disturbs a figure lurking in the woods in disguise and it turns out to be none other than Sir Daniel Brackley. They argue. They nearly fight but Dick refuses to shed blood on his wedding day. In fact he admits – to Brackley, to the reader, to himself – that he has done too many bloody deeds recently, spilled too much blood. Although he has all the justification for it, he will not harm Brackley. He tells him to go before he calls the guards. And so Brackley shuffles off, suspiciously.

At which point there is the twang of a bow and from a nearby thicket an arrow is despatched which embeds itself in Brackley, who falls to the ground. Dick rushes to him and just has time to tell him that, yes, it is a Black Arrow, when Brackley expires. And Ellis Duckworth comes from the thicket holding his bow. He heard Dick forgive Brackley, but he can’t forgive. He asks Dick to pray for his soul. And Dick notes that vengeance hasn’t made Duckworth feel good, in fact he feels sick and guilty. Give it up, says Dick. Hatch died in the Battle of Shoreham. So three of the four mentioned in the original verse threat are now despatched. Dick asks forgiveness for the parson and Duckworth, reluctantly agrees.

‘Be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore—the fellowship is broken.’

“But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore”. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

‘But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore’. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

In the short conclusion to the book, Dick marries his Joan. Richard Crookback makes a last appearance riding by with the long train of his armed men, going towards the next battle, and parries banter with Foxham, Joan and Dick, offering Joan the husband of her choice. Of course she cleaves to honest Dick, and Gloucester pshaws, turns his horse and gallops off towards his destiny.

And in the last few sentences we learn that Dick and Joan lived out their lives in peace and happiness far from the wars and that two old men – Arblaster the shipman and Lawless the rogue – also live out their lives in peace. Dick has, in some measure, atoned for his youthful bloodthirstiness, by at key moments, interceding and saving both their lives. And with that thought, or moral, the book ends.


Reasons for The Black Arrow’s relative failure

The relative failure and comparative neglect of this novel makes you appreciate the elements which made the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped such successes. I identify four reasons:

1. In those novels there is one boy hero (Jim Hawkins, David Balfour) – clearly identified in the first sentence – and you are thrown immediately into his plight – which is also described clearly and obviously. In The Black Arrow the picture is much more confused: it takes fifty pages or more to become really clear that the story is about a young lad, Master Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, the ward of the wicked Sir Daniel Brackley, and this is because quite a few characters are introduced in the confused and busy opening scenes.

2. The successful tales are first-person narratives, throwing you directly and immediately into the adventure at first hand. The Black Arrow has a third-person narrator who is not, for some reason, very believable, partly because of the confusion of plot which dogs a lot of the story.

3. Good guys and bad guys In his classic works you know who they are – the pirates in Treasure Island, the ship’s crew and then the loyalist British army in Kidnapped. In this book it is much harder to tell for several reasons:

a) it’s a civil war so there’s no immediate way of knowing who’s on whose side, except by asking
b) characters change sides, including the hero who is not wholeheartedly for either side

4. A charismatic anti-hero When Richard Crookback appears in the fifth act, the reader realises that this is the fourth reason why this novel isn’t as successful as Kidnapped or Treasure Island – the presence of a charismatic baddy.

Both those stories introduce fairly early on a hugely charismatic, charming, threatening, adult hero who enthrals the boy narrator and comes to dominate the story – namely Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Their presence, their charming rogueish amorality, lifts both books onto a completely different level.

In this book, the dangerous charismatic adult is Richard Crookback – he immediately captures our attention by his spirited self-defence against four or five attackers, and then with his arrogant nonchalance as soon as he starts talking to Dick. From now to the end of the novel the story lifts and sails whenever he is present – he is a pantomime villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his arrival makes you realise that he is what the preceding four-fifths of the book have been missing.


Medieval vocabulary

Apparently Stevenson used the Paston Letters, a collection of authentic correspondence from the period, as his model, and – as someone who studied medieval literature at university – I did feel it had some of the tang and hempen antiquity of the older language, albeit interlarded with what I thought were Shakespearian useges from 200 years later, and some speeches which had a Scots ring to me. You have to be prepared to enjoy exchanges like this:

She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
‘By the mass!’ he cried, ‘y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!’
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.’
She answered nothing.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!’
‘Why, Dick,’ she cried, ‘would I be here?’
‘Well, see ye here,’ continued Dick, ‘an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t.’ (Chapter III The Room Over The Chapel)

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of reading old literature, especially something as conventional in its way as this ripping yarn, is the logical habits of mind of writers brought up in previous ages. There is a lovely logic to the deployment of the material in the opening of the chapter ‘In Mine Enemies’ House’ – the way the place is identified, then described, then the attitude behind its busy state, then a specific setting in time given, and then the weather: the whole impression being rounded up and summarised in the witty sentence about the eye of the modern.

Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.

There is a pleasure and a seduction in the logical disposition of the material, a pleasing old-fashioned storytellingness. As a thread through the reading, I made a note of sundry medieval words which, although I’ve often read before, I don’t actually fully understand.

  • arbalest – a crossbow with a special mechanism for drawing back and releasing the string
  • baldric –  a belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
  • brigandine – a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric
  • buckler – a small shield, up to 18 inches in diameter, held in the fist with a central handle behind the boss
  • cresset – a metal cup or basket, mounted to a pole, containing flammable substance like oil, pitch or a rope steeped in rosin, burned as a light or beacon
  • gyves – a shackle, especially for the leg
  • losels – a worthless person or scoundrel
  • lout – verb: to bow or stoop
  • murrain – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight
  • poniard – a small, slim dagger
  • pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish
  • sallet – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor
  • shaw – a coppice or thicket of trees
  • tippet – a scarf-like narrow piece of clothing, worn over the shoulders
  • tucket – a flourish on a trumpet
  • windac – a piece of equipment to pull back the tight string of a crossbow

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released, with disastrous results – while Belinda drives with the unconscious Esmond back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.

Cornwall

He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.

Firefight

Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).

Conclusion

Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.


God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


Credit

The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis (1992)

Richard had reached a kind of steady state of indecision. Everything that had happened seemed to make it harder to know what to do about anything. (p.179)

Richard Vaisey’s circle

Another novel set among the professional middle classes in London, this time focusing on Dr Richard Vaisey, lecturer in Russian Literature at the (fictional) London Institute of Slavonic Studies. He is married to the stunningly beautiful if odd, the mannered but reassuringly rich, Cordelia. It’s Cordelia’s second marriage; previously she was married to theatrical set-designer Godfrey Radetsky. Richard has been surprised to find himself becoming quite friendly with Godfrey’s plummy brother, Crispin Radetsky, QC, i.e. top lawyer, less so with his bitchy wife, Freddie, who cordially dislikes Cordelia. Nonetheless, Richard goes by himself to a dinner party at their house, where there’s an unexpected third party, Sandy, a middle-aged woman friend of theirs who’s always fancied Richard.

Richard is flattered but also worried to realise that, during the dinner, Crispin is trying to steer the pair together. After dinner Richard finds himself giving in to Sandy’s invitation to accompany her to a party somewhere in north London. In the cab he is suddenly having a kiss and a grope with her but then, when the cab arrives, manages to find the resolve not to get out and accompany her into the house party and to further fleshly entanglements. Instead, he decides to go take up an alternative invitation and go to a dowdy, mouldy house lived in by various agéd Russian émigrés and exiles. Here he meets Anna Danilova, a young Russian woman poet on a fleeting visit to London – and this becomes the nub of the plot.

Anna Danilova

It is 1991, Russia is in turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna’s brother has been arrested and held illegally for a year. She wants Richard to help get her poetry published, so that she can get well known enough for her to be able to rally top British literary figures into her campaign to get her brother released from prison. Unfortunately, Richard finds her poetry unspeakably appalling. Problem.

Eventually Anna wears him down, they have sex, and Richard realises he is having an affair. It is blindingly obvious to his wife and all those around him, as he spends every day arranging things to forward Anna’s campaign, taking calls from her and so on. Cordelia is unnervingly urbane about it all: ‘Just tell me when you want the divorce, darling.’

Richard plucks up the courage to ask Crispin to help and the plot, I think, crosses over into implausibility when this urbane and very worldly man improbably agrees, and starts using his impressive contacts book to arrange for Anna to do readings, have her book published, and so on.

He takes them on a memorable set-piece visit to an eminent old architect, Sir Stephen something or other, a leader of London’s artistic circles, who he hopes to recruit for The Petition. Alas, they find the eccentric old buffer kept under tight guard by his sister and an unnamed other woman in an odd household in Hampstead; browbeaten by his women, Sir S refuses to sign up, causing Crispin to politely leave and then walk up and down the elegant streets outside, swearing profusely.

Kotolynov

There’s another set piece when Richard motors Anna out to the country (‘full of fields and such’) to meet a well-known and successful Russian émigré, one Kotolynov. He turns out to live in a picture book thatched cottage and to have acquired a perfect American accent while in the States. He refuses to sign Anna’s petition and gives several pages of reasons why not, which might be a sort of Author’s Message, namely that Literature all over the world is being murdered by politics; Russian literature was more or less liquidated by the Bolsheviks and is everywhere else forced into the service of repressive regimes or strangled. Therefore, he refuses to put his name to yet another project entwining literature and politics i.e. bolstering Anna’s poetic reputation for the sole, worldly aim of discomfiting the Russian authorities.

Ippolitov

Richard drinks a lot at Kotolynov’s house, then more at the pub lunch in the village, then drives squiffily back to London where he is doorstepped by a heavily-built Russian who’s been trying to reach him by phone him for days.

Realising that his doorstep is not a good place to chat about life, Richard drives this man, Ippolitov, to a nearby hotel bar. Here Ippolitov claims to be from Russian domestic police on a mission to the UK to collaborate with our police about war crimes, but also with the time to pick up small side issues. One of them is that he has been instructed to strongly request Richard to call off The Petition. He explains that Anna’s brother is a genuine criminal who defrauded small investors of money, and throws in obscure references to child abuse as well. Richard is left confused (as so often) – not helped by the fact that he is by now pretty drunk.

Richard gets back into his sports car and drives, by now very drunk, blacking out large sections of the journey, back to his house. Here he senses there is no-one in and, on impulse, drives over to Crispin’s very grand mansion. He’s let in by Sandy (from the taxi, in the opening scene) who, realising how drunk he is, takes him off to a side room and begins molesting him again. Unfortunately, at this moment Crispin’s wife, Freddie, herself drunk, barges in, followed by Crispin himself. He explains he’s in the middle of hosting a loud party in the main rooms of the house, having won a small fortune on a racehorse bet. However, Richard delays him long enough to describe the whole Ippolitov incident and they speculate whether he truly can be a Russian copper, or is some kind of stooge. But why approach Richard in that way, and why care that much about The Petition?

Still very drunk, Richard drives home, and enters an empty abandoned house, for Cordelia is gone. Next morning there is a very funny, if rather obvious, description of his appalling hangover, from the depths of which he can’t remember where he left his car keys and, after going out to the car and not finding them, realises he’s closed the front door and doesn’t have his house keys, so has locked himself out.

He is forced, half-dressed and with hardly any money, to take a bus to the Institute, something he hasn’t done for years. A humiliation which is compounded when he finds himself sitting next to one of the trendy, left-wing lecturers who we had met in one of the opening scenes of the novel (which was set in a typically campus novel faculty meeting). Humiliatingly, this man, Duncan, offers Richard a handkerchief for the razor cuts on his chin, then a fag, then some money.

Criss-crossing London

Around about this point the wanderings of Richard get quite confusing, as the ‘plot’ becomes more a tangle of his hungover peregrinations around London. He takes a taxi to Crispin’s but has barely got £20 out of Sandy, who opens the door, before he jumps back into the cab to go to Anna’s lodging house. Here he confronts her with what Ippolitov told him and she admits that, yes, her brother is a crook, but that doesn’t stop The Petition being valid. He asks to borrow the phone and arranges to meet a man from the garage at his house, to let him into the car. He and Anna take a taxi there and, sure enough, the man has spare keys for the car. Then, when Richard is reluctant to do it, Anna uses a stone to smash a window and break into his house, where he’s now sober enough to finally remember where he left his house and car keys.

The next scene opens with Richard having driven Anna out of London to stay the night in a country hotel. Next morning he answers a phone call to find it is Godfrey, Cordelia’s first husband, strongly asking that Richard return home, so he jumps in his car and motors back to the London house. Here he finds an odd atmosphere, one of Cordelia’s female friends downstairs, while Godfrey and a complete stranger are upstairs in Cordelia’s bedroom. Here Cordelia delivers a long rambling speech less about his infidelity than about her childhood speech defect and how much effort she took to overcome it and how she knows it still sounds odd but how she still knows what’s going on around her, oh yes.

Godfrey and Richard against Cordelia

Downstairs, shaken, Richard agrees to accompany Godfrey to Crispin’s. Here Godfrey, for the first time, candidly describes his own marriage to Cordelia, and the two men agree how awful and manipulative she is. They both express one of Amis’s recurring accusations against women – that they communicate in a different way, that they don’t say what they mean, that you have to work damn hard to excavate the real meaning of their conversation from the snowstorm of distractions and emotions.

Cordelia’s two husbands then go on, over sandwiches and a rather fine bottle of red wine etc, to discuss the progress of The Petition, which Crispin now has an assistant in his office working on full time. Crispin is urbanely interested to learn that a) Ippolitov has cautioned Richard against the Petition b) Kotolynov himself refused to sign it – but Crispin is not deterred. He now shows Richard The Petition itself, on formal paper and with an empty slot at the top for his signature!

Tristram Hallett and the Institute

Richard gets a taxi back to what used to be his home, and sneaks into his car without even going in the house. He drives to the flat of one of his colleagues from The Slavonic Institute, Tristram Hallett. The opening scene of the novel had been set in a faculty meeting at the Institute which had made the novel seem, for 10 or 15 pages, as if it might turn out to be a classic ‘campus novel‘ – for the Institute where Richard teaches is described, like all its fictional kindred, as being a hotbed of professional jealousy, scene of pointlessly bureaucratic meetings, stricken by perpetual financial crisis, and whose tutors have a cheerfully contemptuous attitude to the students.

Amis adds the comic, and ‘modern’, twist that the embattled older tutors feel they need to speak and dress rougher than they actually are in order to fit in with the younger, politically correct, faculty members. It’s sort of funny that, whenever one of these approaches in a corridor, Richard and Hallett instantly drop their aitches and lard their sentences with ‘sort of’ and ‘like’. Hallett is described as leaving all his new clothes on his wife’s washing line for three weeks before wearing them, so they look suitably rumpled and proletarian, ho ho.

But all this was before the book turned into an ‘adultery-among-London’s-professional-upper-middle-classes’ novel and, for the most part, left the campus behind.

Among all his other phone calls during this confusing period, Richard had had one from the faculty secretary saying his closest friend on the staff, Tristram Hallett, had been off work ill. Now Richard has come to visit Tristram in his rather shabby flat. He finds him looking pale and ill, having shaved off his beard, an act which suddenly reveals his age. Tristram has had a heart ‘incident’ and it looks like his working career is over. Richard commiserates for a while and then they go on to discuss Anna, since Tristram had helped organise her early readings and events and so has met her. They both sadly agree that Anna’s poetry is worthless ‘shit’ – the precise word they use. Richard leaves, wondering more than ever what he is doing with his life.

Richard’s dilemma

For Cordelia is not only his wife, she is very rich. By leaving her he will abandon his nice lifestyle, not least the sports car he loves cruising round in, drunk or otherwise. And how has he got mixed up in this Petition nonsense which, in Crispin’s capable hands, is escalating far beyond his original intentions? And just how much trouble might he get into if he ignores the warnings of Comrade Ippolitov? And all for a ‘poetess’ whose poetry, everyone agrees, is not just bad, but monstrously bad.

Richard phones Ippolitov’s number, hoping for some kind of second opinion, to discover he’s in London. So he phones the posh Piccadilly hotel number he’s been given, and pops round for a drink. Here Ippolitov is big, bearish and disconcertingly American in his manners and gets straight to the point: Richard’s professional self-esteem is all he has, right? Especially if he leaves his wife,in which eventuality he will be poor. So is he willing to destroy his professional self-esteem in his own eyes and that of all his colleagues’ by signing the petition on behalf of a worthless poet? No. He must keep his professional self-respect even if it means hurting the young woman he says he loves. There are plenty more fish in the sea. OK?

Dazed by this lecture, Richard drives home, only to find one of Cordelia’s friends, Pat, who’s been a peripheral presence throughout the book, in the kitchen, in tears. Tears of frustration at being bossed around and used, told to fetch this and go for that, and just took up a lovely breakfast in bed to Cordelia who did nothing but criticise.

However, her role in this scene is not to highlight what a bitch Cordelia is (though she is, she is) it is to sharpen Richard’s dilemma even more: for when Richard explains that he’s NOT going to sign the Petition in order to maintain his professional self-respect, Pat more or less laughs in his face, saying – ‘So you love this Anna enough to sleep with her, enough to abandon your wife for her, enough to drive your wife into a collapse for her, but… not enough to tell a little white lie for? You will, in fact, end up screwing up your whole life, losing rich wife and sexy lover… and for what?’

God. Who’s right? Ippolitov or Pat? What should he do?

The lie

In a repeat of earlier scenes Richard is alarmed by yet another phone call from Freddie, over at Crispin’s house, saying he’d better come over quickly, like NOW, because Anna is here in a complete state.

Richard drives over, kisses Anna and they go into Crispin’s garden. Here Anna explains that she’s got wind of Richard not liking her poetry: he’s never referred to it, never mentioned the edition of her latest work she gave him: she thinks he doesn’t like her poetry and, for her, being a poet is as important as being an academic, as his professional self-esteem, is for Richard. Therefore, last night she got drunk and burned all her poems, all her manuscripts and notebooks, and ceased to be a poet, carried on drinking vodka, rode round on the Tube, passed out and was brought home by the police.

With little or no description of his feelings or motivations, but aware of all the preceding conversations he has had, we see Richard rush to contradict her, to assert that her poems are the best he’s read in a long time, they stand out from the crowd, they are of the highest value, and he tells her they taped her readings so many of the new poems are preserved. Anna cries tears of joy and embraces him.

The ‘happy’ couple return to the house where Richard tells Crispin what he’s just told Anna. Crispin raises his eyebrows, but declares that champagne is called for, and hadn’t Richard better now sign The Petition?

Richard drives back to his house to see Cordelia. She is upstairs sitting before her dressing table. Richard begins a speech about how sorry he is, but… but Cordelia interrupts him. If he thinks she is going to sit through a sentimental scene in which he declares his heart is torn in two but, alas, he has fallen in love with the most beautiful etc etc, then he’s sorely mistaken. ‘You have been unfaithful. You want to leave me? There is nothing more to say. No. Nothing. Now please leave. I have things to do.’ (pp.264-65)

Cordelia’s revenge

The novel has many funny moments. Little things like descriptions of the roaring London traffic or the malign menace of one of Richard’s many taxi drivers, moments of exasperation or exaggeration, comic similes, the comic over-acting of many of the characters, Richard’s perpetual expectation of hearing a remote control rocket land on him – a lot of this is very funny.

But I found the final thirty pages or so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, because in them Cordelia, who has been so comprehensively trashed by the male characters, gets a sweeping and exhilirating revenge, confirming that she is either a) the monster the men make out or b) a strong independent woman taking justified revenge, according to your taste.

Cordelia’s revenge is thorough and systematic: Richard drives to a hotel to phone Anna and tell her he’s officially left Cordelia but when he goes outside he finds policemen standing around his sports car, who proceed to ask to see proof of his identity. They were rung and told the car was stolen 39 minutes ago. Aha. About the time Cordelia sent him packing…

The police insist on accompanying Richard to his house to confirm his identity but where, to his acute embarrassment, he finds the locks have been changed and his front door key no longer works (p.268). When he explains that he’s having a little difficulty with his wife, the police sympathise and simply ask him to attend the local police station with his driving license in the next three days.

A few hours later, fortified by lunch and with Anna he returns to the house (p.269). The key still doesn’t work and Anna is about to break in (as she did several scenes earlier) when merely touching the window she smashed last time prompts an enormous uproar (p.270). Richard thinks must be the sound of an airliner crashing into the garden, but turns out to be that every window and entrance is now booby-trapped to trigger loudspeakers playing the amplified howling of wild dogs. Probably also triggering an alarm at the local police station. Cordelia has been hard at work. Richard realises this is War.

Richard decides next to try the émigré house, owned by one Professor Léon. As they drive up to it they see it thronged by police and police cars. Richard parks a few streets away and walks back to find someone has given the police an anonymous tip-off that the house is used by drug dealers and contains stashes of illegal drugs. Also, it’s the same police sergeant as asked Richard about his sports car outside the hotel and watched him unable to get into his own house. Fortunately, the police have come to the conclusion it’s a false alarm and Richard is able to reassure the terrified old Russians there will be no further consequences. But wherever he turns, Cordelia is one step ahead.

Thoroughly rattled, Richard and Anna check into an obscure hotel in Bayswater and the next morning Richard makes a few phone calls to organise a subterfuge, namely to ask Pat, Cordelia’s hard-done-by ‘friend’, to open the door when another of his allies phones Cordelia to distract her attention. All goes exactly to plan, the phone rings, Pat opens the door and Richard slips inside his house and mounts the stairs to his study (p.274).

What he finds there amazes and horrifies him. His study has been stripped bare. All furniture, bookcases, desk, chair, all notes, folders and files, tax and VAT returns, driver’s license, his NHS records – all gone! At that moment Cordelia’s voice wakes him from his trance. She is standing in the doorway and confirms that all his clothes are on the way to charity shops which are thrilled with his generosity. All his notes and working papers have been shredded and burnt. Begone. (p.275)

Richard staggers back to the car and back to the hotel where he’d left Anna. Here he goes to pay the waitress for the coffees he and Anna have been drinking, but she returns a few moments later: his credit card is not accepted, does he have other means of payment? (p.276) Richard stalls and goes to visit a local branch of his bank. He isn’t surprised to find all money has been emptied from his account; he is officially penniless.

At that moment Harry, Pat’s husband calls, and in an upset phone conversation tells him that Pat has been arrested for shoplifting. Obviously she’s innocent, and he is angry and upset that Richard’s bloody wife is obviously behind it (p.277).

Richard phones Crispin to ask for a loan but when Crispin refers casually to the Institute, Richard’s eyes widen as he realises that this is another aspect of his life Cordelia might be sabotaging even as they speak. He drops the phone and runs for his car. Drives like a maniac to the central London location of the Institute of Slavonic Studies, parks, bounds up the stairs to his office to say hello to his secretary, Mrs Pearson. Yes, she confirms, he’s only just missed the nice gentleman who called to collect his stuff; they had a hand-written note from him and she rang his wife to check, just to be on the safe side, and she confirmed that Richard was leaving the Institute and could all his stuff be packed up and sent round, please?. Sure enough, when he walks into it, Richard finds his office has been gutted. A career’s worth of lecture notes, students’ work, as well as his ongoing notes for a study of Lermontov – all gone. Cordelia’s revenge is complete. (p.279)

He returns to collect Anna. As they drive off from the hotel and Richard updates her on all the bad news, she says, well, at least she can’t do any more damage. At that moment they both become aware of a horrible grinding noise, and as Richard brakes the car a little …. the front offside wheel goes trundling off ahead of them as the sports car, minus front wheel, comes grinding to a screeching halt. They both watch the wheel cross to the other side of the road and hit a motorbike, whose rider gets off lightly with only a broken collarbone, cuts and bruises. (p.280)

Aftermath

It may not sound it, but this is really a very funny sequence of disasters, beautifully paced with a mounting sense of hysteria. The final chapter cuts to days later, with Richard and Anna mercifully ensconced in a pleasant country cottage courtesy, of course, of Crispin’s contacts. Crispin, Freddie and Godfrey drop in to take them for lunch. Already Anna and Freddie are close friends. Godfrey and Richard swap notes about Cordelia and for the first time Richard learns that when Godfrey left her, she burnt down the theatre where his new stage production was opening. Wow. All this is presumably meant to bolster Richard’s side of the argument, that Cordelia is incontrovertibly mad. Kind of impressive, though.

A letter from Tristram has told Richard that the new head of the Institute is downgrading Russian studies; he’d better start looking for a new job. Luckily, Crispin has been asking around and a friend of a friend has a vacancy for a Russian translator at the EU in Brussels. Probably hard work, not the same kudos as being a literature prof, but the pay is significantly better, free flat, all the perks. Richard gratefully accepts. What it is to have wealthy and well-connected friends.

Anna writes Richard a love poem and it is rubbish. Richard tells her so and she accepts it but says it reflects her true feelings and hopes one day she will write something worthy of him, and they embrace. Once again, despite the strange plot and the unnerving style, I find myself moved at the end of an Amis novel.


Characters as puppets

Amis is (presumably) aiming to describe contemporary life and contemporary people, and I think he is admired by his fans for his precise recordings of the behaviour and thought processes of a certain type of professional middle-class, middle-aged Londoner – the emphasis generally being on the male protagonist although almost as much time is spent delineating female characters.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that a big part of his style, of the way he gets his effects, is to describe everyone as performing ‘routines’, schticks, delivering lines and generally acting, or over-acting. From his first novel onwards it has been his consistent fictional position that people are almost incomprehensible, women doubly so: both first person and third person narrators have, through successive novels, observed the characters like an anthropologist among a rare tribe, or even a zoologist recording the peculiar behaviour of primates in the jungle. Amis can never get over the bizarreness of how people look and behave.

A human shape had passed the window and a sound was heard at the front door, soon identifiable as that of a key being inserted into a lock. Cordelia sat upright and went into a fast pantomime of eyes first dilated then close-shut, shaken head, brandished forefinger, shoulders raised to ear level, though anything less than a bellow would have been quite secure and perhaps more informative. Pat watched, vainly striving for detachment, for close observation only, as always at one of these shows. There came a final wrap-up gesture from Cordelia and her husband entered the room with a kind of skirmisher’s gait, quite unlike his familiar rather resolute stride… (p.82)

Nothing ever just happens; people are always doing jobs and ‘bits’ and performing.

This latest in a famous series – jewels of Cordelian taste and intellect – might not have been so noteworthy without the accompaniment of dilated Apache-type eyes and the gruff staccato bass-baritone delivery… (p.84)

In the theatre actors and directors talk about the need to be doing this or that piece of business, required to fill a gap or pad out a speech or bring out a character. Amis’s characters are always engaged in these kinds of bits of business:

‘If I can just break in there,’ said Godfrey, giving a brisk nod and doing something emphatic with his glasses like taking them off or putting them on. (p.97)

Not quite swinging her shoulders to and fro and not putting her head on one side exactly, just sort of round the corner… (p.103)

She listened closely with a slightly fixed smile, watched him closely too, with her eyes shooting out to the sides every now and again, as if he had been telling her how he was going to be collected presently by a flying saucer. (p.117)

As this was being handed to him, Sir Stephen started to put on a pair of spectacles. He did this in a furtive, shoulder-hunching way, like a man putting in or taking out false teeth. Then, like a stage actor now, he read through the list reacting visibly in one way or another to every name on it. (p.130)

After a moment 2nd woman interlaced her fingers pointing downwards, in the manner of somebody about to give another a leg-up on to a tree or high wall. (p.131)

Cordelia did her standard precision job on refilling the teapot… While this was going on… she went into a bit of muttering about time getting on, examining her watch etc.

Sometimes the purpose is plain and obvious comic exaggeration, like the comparisons of someone’s behaviour to a character in a B-movie or war movie or similar. But other times it is obviously not comic, the external point of view seems more bewildered, alienated, estranged.

And all the way through people are described, especially in their dialogue, as doing bits of this or bits of that, an aggressive bit, there was bit more of that before… he could see a bit more coming… there was no answer to that… after some more of the same he…. ‘after a bit more Good-Godding…'(p.279) and so on, throughout. The narrative is made out of umpteen bits of people bitting.

This approach, this worldview, of seeing people as puppets, automata, unknowable, unpredictable, opaque, their dialogue never really communicating, made up of performances, women especially never expressing themselves through words but through eccentric physical signs and signals – this observing people from the outside like clockwork dolls, is striking and peculiar.

At moments it is so alienated that it makes Amis, a notoriously grumpy anti-intellectual and anti-Modernist, end up seeming as Modernist as Samuel Beckett, and his novels – generally marketed as easy-going comedy classics – sometimes really difficult to read.


Moral questions

If this was a GCSE English Literature set text, then teachers and examiners would be asking: ‘Was Richard right to leave Cordelia?’ ‘Should poetry and politics mix?’ ‘Is infidelity ever justified?’ or some such puzzlers.

More than most Amis novels, The Russian Girl contains A Decision – Richard’s decision to leave his wife Cordelia and throw in his lot with Anna – and the chapters leading up to his declaration in Crispin’s garden are packed with characters giving him conflicting advice, so that the reader has loads of ammunition to interpret the characters’ behaviour (and the author’s attitude towards them) from multiple viewpoints, and prepare long essays about it.

For what it’s worth I think Richard was a fool, a man old enough to realise that a comfortable lifestyle (and well-provided-for old age) are worth hugely more than a short-term fling with a younger model, especially a talentless one who, deep down, he doesn’t believe in…

But I’m not very interested in the supposed ‘morality’ of fiction or the ‘moral’ questions it throws up or dramatises – in the ‘moralising’ approach which characterised literary criticism from the mid-twentieth century for several generations. Nor in judging the behaviour of characters as if they’re people I know through work or my children’s school.

For me, a fiction either ‘works’ or it doesn’t, it engages or it doesn’t, and this traction is created at the level of language. My interest is in the use of language to create the illusion of plot, characters and the ‘world’ in which they ‘move’. The basically white, middle-class, generally London-based world of Amis’s characters I find boring and predictable, if admittedly done with a mannered hyper-precision which does take you right into their lives.

For me the interest is in the acuteness of his perceptions and the slightly bonkers phraseology in which he articulates them, in the oddness of his worldview and the bizarre mannerism of the style he has created to express it. Long, and not necessarily very believable, The Russian Girl is still one of the funnier Amis novels, where his obviously humorous intentions outweigh the oddity of his style. I’d put it in the top three or four.


Credit

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1992. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Was it worth it?
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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