The Toys of Peace by Saki (1919)

Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves.
(For the Duration of the War)

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’
(The Guests)

Biographical sketch

Saki, or to give him his proper name, Hector Hugh Munro, volunteered for the army as soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914. Born in December 1870, he was 43 at the time and so, officially, over-age to enlist. It took a lot of effort and pulling strings before he managed to secure a place in the Second King Edward’s Horse. Finding a cavalry regiment too demanding for his age, Hector later transferred to an infantry regiment, the the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and finally made his way to the Western Front in 1916.

The most striking fact about Saki’s war service was that although, because of his class and education, he was repeatedly offered the chance of a commission or a cushy job at the rear, he turned all these offers down and preferred serving as a common private, and then lance sergeant, among the men he grew to love. He was shot through the head at Beaumont-Hamel on the morning of 14 November 1916.

All this and more is detailed in a biographical note by Rothay Reynolds which stands at the head of this collection of 31 of Saki’s short stories which was published posthumously in 1919. And it adds considerable bite to the first story in the set, which gives its name to the entire volume and is about the pointlessness of denying men and boys’ natural instinct for war.


The stories

For each of the stories I give the briefest possible summary and sometimes add a quote which exemplifies Saki’s dry and macabre humour, often, especially when casually dealing with exotic animals, bordering on the surreal.

The Toys of Peace

The title is quite literal. Eleanor Bope complains to her brother, Harvey, that her sons (‘Eric, not eleven yet, and Bertie, only nine-and-a-half’) only ever play at war, with soldier toys. Next time he visits can he please bring some toys which emphasise the virtues of peace? So, in a comic scene, on his next visit, Harvey unveils to the two boys such delights as models of the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of a school of art and a public library, and little figures of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, a district councillor and an official of the Local Government Board. He leaves the boys with their perplexing toys of peace, to take a break in the library. Half an hour later Harvey returns to find the boys have converted the models into forts and castles, repainted the figures as soldiers with lashings of red paint for blood, and are acting out gruesome battle scenes.

Louise (Clovis)

Jane Thropplestance is the most forgetful woman in the world. When she returns from a shopping expedition her sister, the elderly Dowager Lady Beanford, asks her what she has done with her niece, Louise. ‘Good gracious,’ Miss Thropplestance replies, ‘I must have mislaid her!’ and then proceeds to review all the shops and social calls she made during the afternoon, where she might, possibly, have mislaid, poor inoffensive Louise.

It’s an inadvertently hilarious list, bringing out Jane’s flaky superficiality, with plenty of humorous phrases where mislaying a niece is placed on the same level as losing your keys.

The comic punchline comes when the butler informs the two ladies that Louise, in fact, never went out with Miss Thropplestance in the first place and has spent the afternoon reading an improving book to a sick servant upstairs. Silly billies.

Tea

James Cushat-Prinkly is a dim 34-year-old and his extended family of females think it really is time he settled down and proposed to someone. His female family and friends settle on Joan Sebastable as being the perfect match. So one afternoon he sets off to walk across Hyde Park to the Mayfair residence of Miss Sebastaple to propose.

But when he glances at his watch he notices it is 4.30 which means the dreaded hour of afternoon tea is approaching. James hates afternoon tea with its rituals of tinkling tea glasses and endless stupid questions about whether you’d prefer milk or cream and how many lumps and so on. In order to avoid confronting his beloved crouching behind the wretched tea things, he drops in on an acquaintance who happens to live en route, ‘Rhoda Ellam, a sort of remote cousin, who made a living by creating hats out of costly materials.’ Rhoda is serving up tea (this is England, after all) but is much more relaxed about the whole thing, asking James to grab a mug if he can see one and quickly knocking up some bread and butter.

Result: James strolls home and informs his astonished womenfolk that the proposal went well and now he is engaged to be married to…Rhoda Ellam! In fact that isn’t the end of the story. The very end comes when, after getting married and going on honeymoon etc, the couple return to London and at their first tiffin, James discovers to his dismay, that Rhoda has arranged best quality tea things in exactly the way all other women do, has become completely conventional. You can’t beat tiffin!

The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

Two English chaps, a Journalist and a Wine Merchant, are in a train heading from Hohenzollern into Hapsburg territory i.e. from Germany into Hungary. News of a picture being stolen from the Louvre leads the Wine Merchant to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of his fearsome aunt, Mrs Crispina Umberleigh, ‘born to legislate, codify, administrate, censor, license, ban, execute, and sit in judgement generally.’

‘As a nephew on a footing of only occasional visits she affected me merely as an epidemic, disagreeable while it lasted, but without any permanent effect.’

Her unexplained disappearance leaves a large hole in family life. After a while a ransom demand appears stating that the aunt has been kidnapped and is being held in Norway and will be returned unless a ransom payment of £2,000 is made, this, of course, being a comic inversion of the usual definition of a ransom which is where you pay to have someone returned. The uncle coughs up and this goes on for eight years.

Then one day the aunt reappears. Turns out she had never been kidnapped at all but suffered a complete loss of memory, wandered for a while and ended up working in domestic service in Birmingham. Then one day, eight years later, her memory returned and she came storming back into the lives of her astonished husband and family.

And the ransom demands? Had been made by an enterprising servant of the family :).

The Wolves of Cernogratz

All the starved, cold misery of a frozen world, all the relentless hunger-fury of the wild, blended with other forlorn and haunting melodies to which one could give no name, seemed concentrated in that wailing cry.

A quietly moving and/or vitriolic story. Nouveau riche Baroness Gruebel and her husband have bought and live in the ancient castle somewhere in central Europe. She is telling her brother Conrad, a banker from Hamburg, about some of the romantic old stories attached to the castle, for example how the local wolves are supposed to start howling when anyone dies in the castle, when she is unexpectedly interrupted by the governess, Fraulein Schmidt, who reveals the real legend is that the wolves howl only when a member of the Cernogratz family is dying.

She then astonishes everyone by revealing that she is herself a member of the Cernogratz family. The family fell on hard times, was forced to sell the castle, she went into domestic service and ended up with the Gruebel family. It is a cruel irony which has brought her back here to the home of her ancestors.

That night, while the Baroness’s over-dressed, flashy rich guests are enjoying dinner, they are disturbed by the howling of wolves. They go to the governess’s bedroom and find the window flung open even though it is the depths of winter. The governess knows she is dying but wants to hear ‘the death-music of my family’.

Despite its society satire surface this is a strangely powerful story, like a fairytale. It is clearly linked to The Interlopers (see below) by being a) set in Eastern Europe b) featuring wolves c) being about authenticity and identity, contrasting the shallowness of human concerns with something deeper and more primeval.

Louis

Lena Strudwarden refuses to go abroad on holiday with her husband this year, insisting they go (yet again) to Brighton or Worthing. Her real reason is that their circle of acquaintances in Brighton and Worthing, though boring, show an admirable instinct to fawn on Mrs Strudwarden. In these sorts of arguments Lena always relies on excuses concerning her little dog, Louis, ‘the diminutive brown Pomeranian that lay, snug and irresponsive, beneath a shawl on her lap’, Louis couldn’t possibly go abroad, he couldn’t possibly be quarantined, he couldn’t survive without me, etc etc.

When Strudwarden complains to his sister, she, with unladylike brutality, suggests they just kill Louis. (The text acknowledges this fact: ‘“Novels have been written about women like you,” said Strudwarden; “you have a perfectly criminal mind.”)

So the next time Lena is out of the house, Strudwarden and her brother place the dog in a box and fix the only hole in it over the gas bracket. In other words, they set out to gas the dog to death. But in doing so they make an ironic discovery: Louis isn’t a real dog at all, he is a mechanical toy. All this time Lena has been using the little toy as an emotional lever to get her way with her husband.

The Guests

Annabel thinks the view from the room she’s sharing with her sister, Matilda, is English and pastoral but rather boring. Matilda has recently returned from India and tells her sister she loves boring, it’s a great relief from extravagant adventures abroad. Take the time when she was living in remote India and the Bishop of Bequar paid a surprise visit just as the river Gwadlipichee overflowed its banks, forcing the servants and all the livestock into the main house. It was chaos and socially embarrassing.

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’

The Penance

Octavian Ruttle thinks his neighbours’ cat is stealing his chickens, so he nerves himself to do away with it. Unfortunately, the neighbours’ three young children, lined up along the wall, witness the act, and in unison call him ‘Beast!’ They send, via servants, a sheet with BEAST childishly scrawled on it. This pricks Octavian’s already guilty conscience and he sets out to appease them by buying luxury chocolates, sends them next door, but later in the day finds them scornfully thrown back over the wall.

One day when Octavian is meant to be minding his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, the three children kidnap her. He sees them trundling her pushcart at top speed across a meadow and gives chase. He catches up just as they deposit the toddler into the muck of a massive pigsty and she starts sinking. Octavian can’t make it over to her in time and so begs the children to save her, he’ll do anything.

So they order him to do penance: to stand by the grave of their dead cat dressed only in a white sheet  holding a candle and repeating: ‘I’m a miserable Beast’. Only when he actually does this, do the three children pin another piece of paper up with the message ‘Un-Beast.’

The Phantom Luncheon

Member of Parliament Sir James Drakmanton informs his wife that she must take for lunch the rather beastly Smithly-Dubbs whose family come in handy at election times. Exasperated at this tedious chore, Lady Drakmanton decides to pull a practical joke. She contacts the three Smithly-Dubbs ladies to invite them for lunch,  then does her hair in an unusual style and dresses in not her usual manner before going to meet them in their hotel foyer and whisking them off to the Carlton where she encourages them to choose all the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Then she drops a bombshell by claiming not to be Lady Drakmanton at all, but another woman altogether who keeps having fits of memory loss, then it comes to her: she is in fact Ellen Niggle, of the Ladies’ Brasspolishing Guild.

At that precise moment (as she had arranged) another woman enters the Carlton dining room who looks and is dressed exactly like Lady Drakmanton, who she points out to the three appalled young women as the real Lady Drakmanton, thus confirming her story.

And before they can recover their composure, Lady D thanks them for a lovely meal and sweeps out, leaving the discombobulated Smithly-Dubbs to pay the (very large) bill.

A Bread and Butter Miss

A story about horse-racing. The guests at a country-house party are eagerly discussing the upcoming Derby when it is discovered that one of them, young Lola, has dreams which come true and last night dreamed of a horse race and dreamed that the crowd cheered when ‘Bread and Butter’ wins.

There is no horse named Bread and Butter in this year’s Derby so a furious debate ensues about which actual horse she could be referring to. They desperately want her to fall asleep and dream a bit of clarification but, it turns out, with comic frustration, when she’s not dreaming dreams which come true, Lola has bad insomnia and, sure enough, despite the comical welter of suggestions to help her get off to sleep, she passes a sleepless night and morning.

Next day, as the race is underway, she lets slip one more vital detail in her dream which helps the guests guess correctly the name of the winning horse which does, indeed, win, but by then it is too late for any of them to place a bet.

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in the household of Luke Steffink, Esq. complete with posh guests. When a couple frivolously recall the Eastern tradition that on Christmas Eve, animals in their stalls can talk, the guests all troop down to the cow house to see if it’s true.

However, Luke’s disgruntled nephew (‘Bertie Steffink had early in life adopted the profession of ne’er-do-well’) is angry at everyone because the family has decided it is going to pack him off to Africa in an effort to find him gainful employment. So, out of spite, Bertie locks them all in the cow house, and invites some passing revellers into Luke’s house to drink all his champagne and raucously sing out of tune Christmas carols. It’s a kind of sketch or scene rather than an actual story.

For someone interested in social history, the most interesting part comes at the beginning where Bertie’s loser status is established by describing the family’s attempts to set him up with jobs in various colonies, a passage which vividly conveys the way the Commonwealth and Empire were conceived as a sort of dumping ground for the useless upper-middle-classes.

At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew’s part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie’s return. Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter…

Forewarned

Alethia Debchance has spent her entire 28 years at the remote rural house of her aunt near Webblehinton. She is as naive and unworldly as it is possible to be. Thus when she goes to visit a distant relation, Robert Bludward, who is standing for election, she is astonished at the extreme criticism directed at him by two gentlemen she overhears in a train and by an article she reads in the paper. She makes up her mind to tell his opponent, Sir John Chobham. But as she sets out to do so, she hears the same kinds of comments made, and reads an equally damning article, about him, too.

Bewildered and appalled at the terrible men abroad in the world, she retreats back to her aunt’s rural hideaway and immerses herself in the breathless women’s novels that she consumes like smarties.

It is both a satire on a certain kind of unworldly English spinster, but also on the casually vituperative discourse surrounding English politics, a subject Saki was an expert on after years of being a parliamentary correspondent for the newspapers.

The Interlopers

Somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Karpathians, a patch of forest land has been disputed between three successive generations of two families of neighbouring landowners. The current rivals are Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym.

One day they both happen to be out with parties of their own men, wander away from them, and encounter each other in the depths of the forest. As they go to raise their rifles to shoot each other there is a loud crack and half a beech tree plummets down, pinning them both helplessly to the ground.

Over the next hour or so, as they come to acknowledge their plight, both injured and cold and pinned by the fallen tree to the ground with various broken bones, they slowly come to reassess the stupid rivalry which has dominated their lives. Eventually Ulrich offers his wine flask to Znaeym which the other grudgingly accepts and they decide to put the feud behind them and become friends. They agree to shout for help from their respective men, but the calling only attracts… a pack of wolves!

A gruesome parable about…what? The stupid pettiness of human concerns, petty rivalries and feuds which don’t, placed in the larger perspective of the human condition, matter a damn. Or the vanity of human presumption, showing that both men’s claims to ‘own’ the woods are ridiculous. The true owners of the forest are the wolves; both humans are merely the ‘interlopers’ of the title.

Quail Seed

Mr Scarrick rents out the rooms over his suburban grocery store to an artist and his sister. He complains that business has fallen off woefully because shoppers are attracted by the sales gimmicks of big stores in town, which include music played on gramophones and tickertape news about sports.

So the artist comes up with the idea of staging what would nowadays be called performance art, namely he, his sister and a local boy they hire will play the parts of strange and exotic figures, mysterious strangers who seem to be leaving codes messages for each other, about grand plans and feverish rivalries. Intrigue and gossip. Maybe spies!

It works a treat. Word spreads and soon Mr Scarrick’s shop is full of local housewives waiting to witness the next bizarre episode in the fictional drama.

Canossa

A nonsensical satire on the trivial silliness of political life, indicated by the initial setup which is that Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, is on trial for blowing up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: ‘Do partridges spread infectious diseases?’

The point is that there is a by-election set for the constituency of Nemesis-on-Hand the day after the jury are scheduled to deliver their verdict and the view is that a guilty verdict will lead to the government losing the seat in a protest vote by working men supporters of Platterbaff. Therefore the story is about the contortions the government ties itself up in, in order to find him guilty but not let him go to gaol.

More precisely, he is allowed to go to gaol for precisely one night after the guilty verdict is brought in but then (the Prime Minister and Home Secretary feverishly decide) will be released early enough the next morning for his release to be telegraphed to the by-election constituency and broadcast to his supporters who will then, hopefully, support the government.

This already ridiculous story turns into farce when Platterbaff announces that he will not physically leave the prison unless there’s a brass band to play him out. He always has a brass band.

We are then witness to the comic panic of the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members as they try to arrange this at very short notice, hampered by the fact that there is a musicians’ strike on (strikes were a surprisingly ubiquitous element of Edwardian life which Saki is here satirising).

In the farcical climax of the story, the Prime Minister and colleagues are forced to borrow knackered old instruments from the prison recreation room and themselves batter out an out-of-tune rendering of the pop hit of the moment ‘I didn’t want to do it’ (which, incidentally, dates this story to the second half of 1913).

And the comic punchline of the entire story? The government loses the by-election anyway, because the trade unions ordered their members to vote against the cabinet for acting as strike-breakers (for playing musical instruments during a musicians’ strike).

So it is a satire on the extreme contortions to which modern politicians are forced to go in the name of democracy, of bending over backwards to accommodate even terrorists in order to win their supporters’ votes, but how even the most humiliating obeisance won’t be enough to satisfy the sky-high demands of the new militant working class electorate.

As to the title, Canossa is the site where the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077, standing three days bare-headed in the snow, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. It’s the kind of factual element which would benefit from a note of explanation.

The Threat

One of Saki’s anti-suffragette satires. Sir Lulworth Quayne (a recurring character in these stories), sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, describes to his nephew, recently returned from abroad, an evermore absurd list of (fictional) strategies adopted by the suffragettes (for example, enlivening the state opening of Parliament by releasing thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women’).

The joke in the story is that the leading suffragettes come up with a plan which outdoes all the others, converting their hitherto negative strategies into a positive one. They threaten to erect exact replicas of the Victoria Memorial at key locations all around the capital. ‘No, no, anything but that!’ The government gives in to their demands.

Excepting Mrs. Pentherby

Reggie Bruttle has inherited a big but not particularly practical mansion named ‘The Limes’. He has the brainwave of converting it into the venue for a kind of continuous, rolling country-house party. However, Major Dagworth points out that the womenfolk will give trouble, within days they’ll be bitching and arguing.

On the whole, the major is proven wrong, except for Mrs Pentherby. Within days all the other women have come to loathe her casual condescension and come to Reggie with their complaints.

Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan.

But then the comic reveal: It turns out Reggie has invited Mrs Pentherby precisely to be the official quarreler, to act as a lightning rod, attracting to herself all the bitching energy of the other women, in order to unify the others in their dislike and make them pleasant to everyone else. Cue feminist outrage.

Mark

Augustus Mellowkent is an up-and-coming novelist. His agent suggests he changes his name to ‘Mark’ which sounds more manly.

But the story itself concerns the visit, one morning in December, of a tiresome encyclopedia salesman, one Caiaphas Dwelf. At first Mark puts up with Dwelf’s tiresome sales pitch, but then has a brainwave. He takes down one of his own novels and starts reading an excerpt to the salesman, telling him what an excellent resource a Mark Mellowkent novel is if one is trapped at a boring country-house party. The salesman replies with a dithyramb on the useful geographical knowledge contained in his encyclopedia. Mark replies with the opening of his classic work, The Cageless Linnet and so it goes on, a duel of bores.

Eventually the salesman is forced to abandon his spiel, closes his sample volume and leaves Mark’s house, and ‘a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.’

The Hedgehog

Every year a mixed doubles tennis match is held at the rectory garden party hosted by Mrs Norbury and every year a quartet of old ladies sit in judgement on the players, not least the bitchy Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Hatch-Mallard. They argue and contradict each other about everything.

When it is announced that a young lady, Ada Bleek, who happens to be a clairvoyante, is coming down to the house party, they even argue about whose ghost she will see, Mrs Dole insisting she will see the ghost of Lady Cullompton, murdered by one of her ancestors, Mrs Hatch-Mallard insisting she will see the ghost of her uncle, who committed suicide in the house in the most tragical of circumstances.

In the event Miss Bleek does see a ghost but not one belonging to either of the rivals, instead a giant white hedgehog which slithers across her bedroom floor! Social satire gives way to the genuinely weird.

The Mappined Life

The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo were opened in 1914, so they were very recent when Saki made them the subject of a story. Mrs. James Gurtleberry and her niece start off by discussing whether the animals penned in this slightly larger caged area have any illusory sense of freedom. But the story evolves into an impassioned and deeply depressing diatribe from the niece about how we are, all of us, trapped in the Mappin Terraces of our own narrow, blinkered and utterly unfree little lives.

Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty…

Surprisingly serious and surprisingly pessimistic.

Fate (Clovis Sangrail)

Rex Dillot is nearly twenty-four and almost continually penniless. He scrapes a living by betting shrewdly on the little sporting competitions at the country-house parties he frequents, but he is ambitious to make one really big killing wager.

His opportunity comes when cadaverous old Major Latton is scheduled to spend an evening playing billiards against cocky young Mr. Strinnit. Dillot bets more than he actually has on the major to win but the game goes against expectations and Strinnit is advancing his score in leaps and bounds.

Too distraught to watch the climax of the game and his own ruination, Dillon wanders off upstairs to the guest bedrooms. Here he overhears the snores of Mrs Thundleford who had retired to her room in a huff when all the other houseguests declared themselves more interested in watching two men knock about ivory balls than listen to her simply fascinating slideshow and lecture about the architecture of Venice.

Dillot opens her bedroom door. Sure enough Mrs. Thundleford has nodded off sitting very close to the reading lamp. If only a kind fate had had her nudge or knock it over, thus starting a fire, thus causing an outcry, thus interrupting the game, thus saving Dillon from ruinous losses. Well… sometimes one has to make one’s own fate…

And thus it is that a few moments later Dillot comes thundering into the games room carrying a startled Mrs. Thundleford whose dress is (slightly) on fire, dumps her on the billiard table and announces the house is on fire, leading to screams and shouts and the dousing of the flames with soda water and rugs and cushions. And the game? Oh called off, of course. Oh dear, what a shame!

But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

The Bull

Tom Yorkfield is a small farmer with a small herd of cows serviced by his pride and joy, a bull named Clover Fairy. The bull is probably worth £80 though Tom tells himself he’d hold out for at least £100.

Tom has never gotten on with his half-brother, Laurence. When the latter pays a visit he is tactless enough to be a) underwhelmed when Tom takes him to see his pride and joy, b) and then to boast about a painting of a bull which he recently sold for £400. And, he assures his angry brother, will continue to climb in value while Clover Fairy slowly loses all value till she’s sold for the price of his pelt and hooves.

Tom snaps, loses his temper, makes to hit Laurence who backs then runs away, and all this commotion excites the bull who promptly tosses Laurence then goes to trample him. Luckily Tom pulls him off and spends the next few weeks tending him back to health among many apologies.

A recovered Laurence duly returns to work as an artist and grows in popularity of a painter of animals ‘but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins—never bulls’.

Morlvera

Two impoverished cockney kids, Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, stop in front of a posh toy emporium and are attracted by an overdressed doll (an ’embodiment of overdressed depravity’) which they immediately start attributing all kinds of bloodthirsty crimes to. The children’s malevolent imaginations and cockney accents are very enjoyable.

Then along comes a chauffeur-driven car out of which emerge spoiled little Victor in his sailor suit and his commanding mother. Our two backstreet kids overhear their conversation. The mother is nagging Victor that they need to buy something for his friend, Bertha, as she bought him a beautiful box of soldiers on his birthday.

Once inside the shop, with infinite reluctance Victor allows himself to be persuaded by the sales assistant into selecting the malevolent-looking doll Emmeline and Bert had been surveying. The cockney kids watch as Victor emerges clutching the thing, gets into his car with his mother, and very carefully throws the doll out the back window just as the vehicle is reversing. The car’s back wheel gently crushes the doll to smithereens. Emmeline and Bert are thrilled and delighted.

A delicious story about children’s utter lack of innocence, their wild violent imaginations, but which also captures the class divisions of Saki’s day.

Shock Tactics (Clovis Sangrail)

‘People yield more consideration to a mutilated mealtime or a broken night’s rest, than ever they would to a broken heart.’

A Clovis story. The mother of Clovis’s friend Bertie, 19 years old, insists on opening all his letters and reading them, much to his chagrin. Clovis conceives a hilarious prank. He gets delivered to Bertie’s house a series of letters in which he poses as an utterly fictitious young lady named Clotilde and hints that she and Bertie are involved in unspeakable goings-on which involve the suicide of a serving girl and some jewels.

Astounded and enraged, Bertie’s mother rushes upstairs, banging on Bertie’s (locked) bedroom door and insisting he explain each of the successively more scandalous revelations until… a final letter arrives from Clovis explaining that, since Bertie told him that someone nosy in the household was opening his letters, Clovis has conceived the idea of sending deliberately fake letters in order to sniff the shameful culprit out.

Bertie’s mother is mortified and humiliated and from that moment onwards never opens another of Bertie’s letter.

The Seven Cream Jugs

Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to someone else.

Mr and Mrs Peter Pigeoncote are paid a visit by their relative Wilfred. Wilfred is a common name in their extended family and so they imagine this Wilfred is the one known widely in the family as ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ because he is a kleptomaniac.

This stresses the couple because it just so happens to be the date of their silver wedding anniversary and friends and family far and near have bombarded them with silver gifts. Reluctantly, they show ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ their gifts, including no fewer than seven silver cream jugs.

Wilfred is polite and complimentary, then it is time for bed. After he’s gone upstairs, Mrs and Mrs count up all the silver presents and become convinced that one of the cream jugs is missing and convinced that Wilfred must have stolen it. Next morning when he’s in the bathroom, they sneak into his bedroom and rifle through his suitcase and find… the missing silver cream jug! They take it back but decide to say nothing about it.

Half an hour later, when he comes down for breakfast, Wilfred immediately announces that one of the servants must be a thief because someone has stolen the silver cream jug from his suitcase. He goes on to explain that he and his mother had carefully selected the silver jug as a silver wedding anniversary for the pair but he forgot to give it earlier in the evening and when the couple showed him the presents they’d received to date and laughed at the fact that they’d already received seven cream jugs, he felt too embarrassed to proceed.

During this explanation several facts tumbled out which made the horrified couple realise that this Wilfred Pigeoncote is not the famous Wilfred the Snatcher but a much more remote relative, a Wilfred who is very high up in the Foreign Office! My God! They’ve made a disastrous mistake! Mrs Pigeoncote feels faint and dispatches husband Peter to fetch her smelling salts.

The situation is retrieved when, while her husband is out of the room, Mrs P confides in a low tone that the culprit is none other than her husband! ‘My God,’ says Wilfred the Foreign Office; ‘What, you mean like Wilfred the Snatcher!? My God, it must run in the family.’ ‘Yes,’ says the wife, ‘It is most tragic,’ handing him back the stolen cream jug, ‘and we’d be most grateful if you could keep it to yourself!’

The Occasional Garden

Elinor Rapsley is moaning that her back garden is too big to be ignored but not big enough to make a statement and she’s stressed because Gwenda Pottingdon has invited herself to lunch, and is ‘only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.’

The Baroness (a recurring character we’ve met in previous stories) advises her to subscribe to the OOSA, the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association. If you’re having a social event and have a scrappy back space, the OOSA will supply the garden of your dreams for the day, and tailor it to your guests, as well. Or you can pay extra and get the EON or Envy of the Neighbourhood service.

So Elinor pays for a de luxe garden to be installed ahead of Gwenda Pottingdon’s lunch visit and the latter is suitably overawed and silenced. Unfortunately, a few days later, when the OOSA has been back to remove the temporarily hired garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pays a surprise visit, barges her way into the living room and is immediately startled to see the previously luxurious garden completely absent. What happened?

‘Suffragettes,’ is Elinor’s brilliant, one-word reply, the one-word explanation for any kind of vandalism and hooliganism.

The Sheep

The Sheep is in fact the nickname of a very bad bridge player: ‘Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life.’ His bridge partner and prospective brother-in-law, Richard, thinks of him as one of the world’s many sheep, bumbling foolishly through life while all the time imagining himself a big, brave fellah. What makes it so galling is that, having lost his son, Robbie, fighting in India, Richard has no heir so, when the Sheep marries his sister, Kathleen, it’ll be only a matter of time before the inept bumbler inherits the family home and raises more ‘sheep’.

When the Sheep and Richard are on the way back from a day’s shooting during which he has pitifully failed to bag anything, the Sheep is suddenly confronted by a large bird lifting off the ground and flying slowly towards them and hits it with both barrels. Unfortunately, it is a very rare honey-buzzard which Richard’s family have been going to great lengths to protect for the last four years.

The local MP has died and Richard throws himself into a round of canvassing for votes which leads up to a packed meeting to be addressed by their candidate the night before the vote. Richard is due to give thanks to the Chairman but has a sore throat and (foolishly) asks the Sheep to do it. He makes the required customary sentence or two but then decides to give the meeting the benefit of his own opinions which turn out to be wildly destructive and unpopular. His remarks travel all round the constituency and lose the election.

Then Richard and Kathleen and the Sheep go for a winter holiday in the Alps. The Sheep insists on going too near to the thin ice on the lake which all the skaters have been amply warned against. No surprise when there’s a cry and he disappears into an ice hole. Richard immediately skates to the land where he’d seen a ladder which can be used to reach across the dodgy ice to save him. But as he reaches for it a huge guard dog leaps on him and keeps him pinned down during the vital moments when the Sheep might have been rescued, but in fact drowns.

As a result, Richard buys the guard dog and it becomes his loyal and much-loved companion :).

The Oversight (Clovis Sangrail)

Lady Prowche goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the guests to her prospective country-house party cannot possibly disagree about anything (after a run of parties which each ended in appalling rows). With her friend Lena Luddleford she goes carefully through a list of the many issues which divided Edwardian society, eliminating anyone who would be liable to fall out about any of them, and eventually whittles her list down to the only two possible men she can invite.

But first she tasks Lena with the all-important job of ascertaining the two men’s views align on the hot topic of the day, vivisection. A day or two later back comes the signal that they do agree on this issue and so Lady Prowche goes ahead and invites them.

With lamentable consequences. Despite all her efforts the two men do, in fact, fall out, and the party ends in a big row. Why? Because they support opposite sides in the recent Balkan Wars: ‘One of them was Pro-Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.’ Damn! So close!

Hyacinth

Hyacinth is the name of an intelligently malicious boy. He is the son of Matilda who insists on taking him along for the election campaign of her husband who is up against the newly appointed Colonial Secretary (who has also brought his three little children along for the campaign) much against the advice of her good friend Mrs. Panstreppon who knows just what Hyacinth is like.

After the polls have closed, Hyacinth phones his mother to explain that he has kidnapped the three charming little children and locked them in a local pigsty with a very angry huge sow locked outside. If their father wins the poll, he will unlock the door and the big angry sow will devour the children. If his (Hyacinth’s) father wins, he’ll let the children go.

This results in the kids’ father, Jutterly the Colonial Secretary, rushing round to the town hall begging them to query and invalidate as many of his votes as possible in order to save his children’s lives. It works. He manages to lose, his defeat is communicated to Hyacinth, who lets down a ladder into the stye which allows the three terrified toddlers to climb to safety.

‘Told you so’, says Mrs. Panstreppon. Hyacinth wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Mexican election, she points out drolly; but maybe leave him at home for the next domestic one.

This story contains both animals and children, vectors of Saki’s satire on the absurd pretensions of the adult world, continual revealers of the spite and violence at the heart of nature.

The Purple of the Balkan Kings

The first of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Luitpold Wolkenstein, financier and diplomat on a small, obtrusive, self-important scale, sat in his favoured cafe in the world-wise Habsburg capital, confronted with the Neue Freie Presse and the cup of cream-topped coffee and attendant glass of water that a sleek-headed piccolo had just brought him.

Austrian cafe expert, podgy inexperienced and smug, Wolkenstein is horrified at news of the Balkan War which heralds the rise of new nations on his border, new nations who’ll want to teach the old Great Powers a thing or two! The Ottoman Empire has lost almost all its possessions in Europe, while a significantly enlarged Serbia has begun agitating for a union of all the Slavs in south-east Europe.

As you can see, this is more of a character profile heavy with political interpretation i.e. condemnation of Austria’s smug bourgeoisie, than a ‘story’.

The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

The second of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 is a dialogue between the abstract figures of the Wanderer and the Merchant.

The Merchant holds the conventional liberal view that the Balkan Wars are a tragedy, all that death and waste etc. Whereas the Wanderer holds a completely different view: he thinks the tragedy is that, with the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the establishment of modern nation-states with clearly defined borders, a lot of the old glamour and mystique of the murky Balkans will disappear.

‘The old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.’

He uses words like magic and charm:

  • ‘It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination…’
  • ‘There is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide…’

But now that many of these nations have gained nationhood, in fifteen years the whole region will be about as glamorous as Bexhill! As the Wanderer himself admits, his version of the Balkans exists primarily to ‘to thrill and enliven’ our humdrum existences, to fire our slothful imaginations.

So it’s not really a story at all, it’s more the exposition of a worldview, the late-Victorian worldview which found glamour and excitement in tales of derring-do in far-off, exotic places. In this respect, it’s not unlike the opening passage of Bertie’s Christmas which gave the impression that the entire British Empire and Commonwealth existed solely for the entertainment and gainful employment of the English upper middle-classes. Maybe it did.

For the Duration of the War

The Reverend Wilfrid Gaspilton finds himself removed from the fashionable parish of St. Luke’s Kensingate to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. His wife finds it dire and buries herself in translating an obscure French novel.

Wilfrid also finds it unbearably boring until he has an idea: to concoct a literary hoax. He makes up:

Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah

and attributes to him fragments of poetry allegedly discovered by the Reverend’s own son, currently serving in Mesopotamia.

The reverend then sends these fictional fragments of Persian poetry to the Bi-Monthly Review in London which publishes them and they quickly become popular, taken up and quoted, and a Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club is founded whose members refer to each other as Brother Ghurabians.

War brings many unintended consequences.


Themes

The role of animals in Saki’s short stories

The previous collection of short stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts, was aptly titled, since rogue animals play a key role in many of them, the more bizarre or encountered in bizarre circumstances, the more savage and violent, the better.

Like the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest or the hyena which eats a gypsy child in Esmé or the polecat which kills Conradin’s aunt in Sredni Vishtar. Violent, beast-related and gruesome, it’s no accident that those three stories are among Saki’s most celebrated.

In this collection, there are some exotic beasts, but not so many:

  • The Wolves of Cernogratz
  • Louis centres on a mechanical lapdog
  • The Guests describes an overflow of goats and a leopard! during a flood in India
  • The Penance involves a domestic cat and a big pig
  • The Mappined Life contrasts the lives of zoo animals with humans
  • Bertie’s Christmas Eve involves farmyard cows
  • The Interlopers features the forest wolves at the end
  • The Hedgehog in which a young woman has a vision of a giant white hedgehog
  • The Bull is about a prize bull which tosses and tramples the artist
  • Hyacinth which features a potentially murderous sow

It is no accident that the two most haunting stories in the set, The Interlopers and The Wolves of Cernogratz, both feature animals at their most intense and symbolic, symbolic counterpoints to the superficialities of human wealth and culture.

The other stories mostly feature domestic or pretty plain farm animals (cat, cows, pig) in relatively humdrum settings but nonetheless, The Animal plays a role in Saki’s fiction as a kind of wild card, thrown into otherwise banal social settings to create an element which punctures the polite pretensions of human society and its timid conventions (satirised in the story about afternoon tea).

The role of ‘abroad’

Another thing about the two wolf stories is that they are not set in England.

It is a critical platitude about Saki that his stories mock the Edwardian English upper classes and, indeed, many of them are set in London drawing rooms or at country-house parties. But it’s arguable that the best of them (obviously the two wolf stories, but also the two at the end ‘about’ the Balkan wars, or the three animal stories from earlier collections) do not.

There is a consistent strand of Saki stories which are not set in England at all, and he has a penchant for Eastern Europe or Russia where he himself spent some years as a correspondent. The appeal of these, at the time, fairly remote destinations is made explicit in The Cupboards of Yesterday: they are remote and untamed, full of casual violence and risk which thrills the bourgeois imagination in a way life in Bexhill emphatically can’t.

The notion that animals speak on Christmas Eve in Bertie’s Christmas Eve derives from Russia, precisely the kind of peasant superstition you’d expect from what the Edwardian readers thought of as a charmingly backward peasant society.

The tension between the two – tame England and exotic abroad – comes out a little in the story Louis, where Mr Strudwarden wants to holiday in (exotic) Vienna while his wife insists on going, yet again, to Brighton, precisely because that is where she will find the dull, unimaginative people who find her interesting.

In this respect ‘abroad’ provides another dichotomy or pole against which to set ‘the normal’ existence of the Edwardian middle classes, to bring it into more vivid focus and to critique it, just as ‘animals’ do, and…

Children

…just as children do. In Saki’s world children are emphatically not the innocent angels of conventional thinking. For me the funniest story is Morlvera with its brilliantly funny depiction of the two backstreet London kids, their heads full of lurid, bloodthirsty imagining, but there are also:

  • the two boys in Toys of Peace who can turn even the blandest present into a vehicle for violence and blood
  • the three children in Penance who are prepared to let Octavian Ruttle’s 2-year-old daughter drown in pig poo
  • the ghastly Hyacinth, prepared to let other children be eaten alive

So animals, abroad, and children, are all perspectives or devices which Saki uses to highlight and mock the shallow, silly world of his contemporary society.

Not limited to Edwardian upper classes but told in an upper class tone of voice

Saki’s stories are not really set among the upper classes. I’ve just read Bull, which is about a farmer and his struggling artist brother. Not set in London and very much not among aristocrats. Or take Quail Seed, which concerns a shopkeeper and an impecunious artist he’s rented rooms to in some suburb or small town.

Maybe I’m making the simple point that Saki’s stories are more varied, in setting, class, character and subject matter, than is ordinarily accepted.

At which point, I realised a fairly obvious truth. The characters, settings and subject matter of the stories may not be narrowly upper class – but the tone is. The tone of the narrator, and the character it implies in pretty much all of the stories, is that of the exaggeratedly playful, carelessly privileged, upper class idler, a tone of calculated indifference, sophisticated insouciance, a lofty, mocking detachment from anything serious.

This tone is embodied from time to time in the recurring figure of the useless son or nephew who is failing to get a job or a career or a focus in life, such as Bertie Steffink (Bertie’s Last Christmas) or the useless young Bertie Heasant in Shock Tactics.

And from time to time crystallises in the character of the youthful, playful, witty prankster and bon mot artist, Clovis Sangrail (although Clovis appears in only four of these 31 stories). Clovis has the same playfully amoral wittiness of Oscar Wilde’s protagonists, and many of the snappy one-liners to match:

  • Susan Lady Beanford was a vigorous old woman who had coquetted with imaginary ill-health for the greater part of a lifetime; Clovis Sangrail irreverently declared that she had caught a chill at the Coronation of Queen Victoria and had never let it go again.
  • ‘When you wear a look of tragic gloom in a swimming-bath,’ said Clovis, ‘it’s especially noticeable from the fact that you’re wearing very little else.’
  • But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

So it’s not Clovis himself who predominates, it’s his tone, the tone of amused, ironic malice which pervades the stories at every level, no matter where their setting or what their subject matter:

As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond.

‘Being gently rude to the doctor’s wife’. An understated tone which glosses over ironical comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions which are always amusing and sometimes very funny.

The Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference… With the inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life, not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles.

Political stories

The Edwardian period was one of surprising political stresses and crises and a number of the stories  directly invoke the world of politics. Except that, true to form, what interests Saki is not the issues themselves but the  way the issues, and the political process itself, can be mocked and ridiculed. To my daughter the feminist, the suffragettes are the subject of burning zeal. To Saki, they are the punchline of a joke.

It may be worth listing the stories which contain at least some politics:

  • The Disappearance: in the world of politics Edward Umberleigh is considered a strong man
  • The Phantom Lunch: MP Sir James Drakmanton insists that his wife lunches with the ghastly Smithly-Dubbs women because they and their uncle help him at election time
  • Forewarned is entirely about how the standard level of abuse and vitriol thrown about in a local election strikes an utterly innocent outsider
  • Canossa is a satire on Parliamentary politics
  • The Threat is an anti-suffragette satire pitched at the highest level where upper class suffragettes hobnob with the Prime Minister, leading up to the passage of an Act of Parliament
  • Hyacinth is another satire on the ridiculousness of local elections
  • The Sheep the final part of which is about the nuts and bolts of canvassing for a local election
  • Hyacinth is about a local Parliamentary election

The political stories confirm the impression derived from reading his polemical, alarmist novel, When William Came, that after 15 years as a political correspondent Saki was heartily sickened and disillusioned by British politics. Who isn’t? His disillusion comes from a solidly patrician, right-wing perspective. But his withering satire on the business of politics is just as destructive.

Suffragettes

Saki was clearly against the suffragettes who he associates with unreasonable demands and violent, vandalistic behaviour. Sometimes he mounts a direct attack, as in The Threat, which features a suffragette who comes up with a cunning new strategy. Other times it is a throwaway remark which, in its own way, is more revealing of the way the suffragettes were regarded by some in Edwardian England.

Thus when, in the comic story, The Occasional Garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pops in unexpectedly on her ‘friend’ Elinor Rapsley and is startled to discover that the sumptuous back garden she had displayed just four days earlier has vanished, Elinor has the presence of mind to explain with one word: Suffragettes, which says enough, and the way it says enough speaks volumes about its place in the respectable, middle-class discourse of the day.

In Louis the brother and sister conspiring to kill Lena’s insufferable dog for a moment consider making up a story that suffragettes had invaded the house and killed it by throwing a brick at it. No act of wanton violence was too outrageous not to be assigned to the violent suffragettes.

And in The Oversight one example of many guests who’ve got into frightful rows is Laura Henniseed, by implication one of the votes for women women. As remarks: ‘Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling.’ Maybe it was as divisive as Brexit has been in our own day.

Real alienation

The least humorous of the stories is the most bitter and may be, in some sense, the most psychologically ‘true’. In The Mappined Life, after they’ve visited London Zoo’s pathetic attempt to give its caged, constricted animals the illusion of wildness and freedom by building a pathetic little concrete area named the Mappin Gardens, her niece reduces Aunt Gurtleberry to tears by saying that they, too, are cabin’d, cribb’d and confined into narrow little lives of utter predictability and emptiness.

Its tone borders on suicidal despair and (this is pure speculation) makes you wonder whether, after fifteen years of chronicling the political scene and upper class life in Edwardian England, Saki, like so many others, welcomed the Great War as a chance to cleanse and redeem themselves from the sordid littleness and petty compromises of English life.

An annotated Saki

Probably the expense would never be justified, but it would be lovely to have an annotated edition of Saki’s stories because some of them contain a veritable blizzard of what are obviously references to contemporary events which it would be entertaining and informative to have properly explained.

For example, The Oversight is a story all about the subjects people find to argue about at country-house parties: religion (Church of England or non-conformist), politics (for or against Lloyd George), votes for women (for or against), vivisection, the Derby decision (‘the Stewards’ decision about Craganour’), the Falconer Report (into the Marconi scandal), and taking sides during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

I was able to look up Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, which were brand new when Saki wrote his story about them, but there are many more fleeting references to contemporary people or events which flash by with the mention of just a name or fleeting reference which you know is important but cannot identify. When, in The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh, he casually refers to ‘the feminine cycling craze’ it would be nice to learn more.

And it is a minor but interesting note that the troubled situation in Mexico (then experiencing the start of its long drawn-out revolution) is referred to in no fewer than three stories (The Threat, The Mappined Life and Hyacinth) so was obviously having an impact on educated opinion, but what impact, exactly?

Ignoring this steady stream of contemporary issues has the net effect of making Saki’s stories seem more timeless and ahistorical than they actually are. It’s true that half or more of the stories are set in the timeless world of upper-middle-class twits which to some extent anticipates P.G. Wodehouse’s. But even these sometimes contain sharp references to very recent, headline-making political and social events, which indicate the depth of Saki’s engagement and commitment.

Comic similes

He brought her a large yellow dahlia, which she grasped tightly in one hand and regarded with a stare of benevolent boredom, such as one might bestow on amateur classical dancing performed in aid of a deserving charity.

[The Salvation Army] used to go about then unkempt and dishevelled, in a sort of smiling rage with the world, and now they’re spruce and jaunty and flamboyantly decorative, like a geranium bed with religious convictions.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth… (The Unbearable Bassington)

In 1908, Hector Hugh Munro gave up foreign reporting and returned to London. Throughout his career as a foreign correspondent he had also been publishing short fictional squibs under the pen-name Saki, sometimes rising to the level of ‘short stories’, often little more than humorous anecdotes or dialogues set among London’s upper classes. From time to time they were brought together in book form.

The Chronicles of Clovis was Saki’s third such collection of very short stories and scenes. As the title suggests, most (though not all) of the stories feature the character of Clovis Sangrail, a world-weary, spoiled, selfish and cynical upper-class young man with a malicious sense of humour.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

Clovis, and his friend Reginald, who we know from Saki’s previous stories, are young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in shocking their conventional, stuffy elders. In fact the pair are interchangeable and Clovis performs precisely the same role of sardonic chorus or witty interlocutor to an older, conventional lady, easily shocked by his cynical quips, that Reginald did in the earlier texts. Clovis’s favourite interlocutor is named ‘the Baroness’. Another recurring character is a minor foil or confidante named Bertie van Tahn.

Clovis and Reginald take the upper-class arrogance, privilege and entitlement which has drummed into them at expensive public schools and to turn it against the older generation which had put them through the ordeal, delighting in shocking them not so much with deeds – for our heroes rarely lower themselves to actually doing anything – but with outré and unconventional attitudes, with their extreme cynicism or modish insouciance.

The stories portray a society which put a premium on decorum and good manners, on ‘good breeding’, but which bridled at too much intelligence or cleverness – all of whose boundaries and borders Saki relished driving a coach and horses through.

Mind you, it is inaccurate to say that it’s only Clovis and Reginald who bait their straightlaced peers, because the narrator does too. In fact Clovis appears in fewer than half the stories and it is the narrator who most of the time makes the cruellest jibes and weaves the most extended insults:

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured collie at a time when everyone else kept nothing but Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

The joke is not so much at Lady Isobel’s expense but at that of her family and, more generally, at the kind of society she moves in. It is partly the implication that ‘understanding’ Yeats’s poems is as eccentric as sleeping in a hammock. It is partly the comic notion that it is so exceptional that a denial has to be issued by the family. There are multiple levels of mockery in just that one sentence.

(In the story The Quest Clovis himself is portrayed as lazing in a hammock and it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect what an utterly suitable piece of household furniture a hammock is for Clovis and his character of drawling, ironic inactivity.)

Some people think that satire changes things, in which case you might say that Saki’s stories were designed to ‘satirise’ and ‘scandalise’ Edwardian high society. But I think it’s nearer the mark to start from the opposite premise – that satire changes nothing but merely amuses those being satirised. Compare and contrast the immensely popular Alex cartoon strip which started in 1987 and mocks the greed and heartlessness of City bankers and is… immensely popular with City bankers. In the same way Saki’s stories have been immensely popular from his day to ours because people enjoy recognising themselves, or a part of themselves, or a part of themselves they wish they had. Everyone always thinks it’s someone else who is being mocked.

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

In the story Wratislaw, two very upper-class European ladies, the shrewd Gräfin and the rather dim Baroness Sophie, are in conversation, exchanging the expected bon mots and cynical witticisms:

‘Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?’

The Gräfin is trying to marry off her objectionable son, Wratlislav, to the Baroness’s dim daughter, Elsa, a proposal to which the Baroness says:

‘I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.’
‘A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.’

From this little exchange we can extract several of the premises which underlie Saki’s humour:

1. Nobody in this pampered upper class is ‘miserable’; or if they are, nobody else understands the concept because everyone is basically sorted for all their earthly needs. Extremes of want or emotion are unheard of and so are little more than conversational toys, empty words.

2. In any case, one of the key markers of being an aristocrat is not to take anything seriously: remember the general sitting astride a horse close to the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo? There was an approaching rumble, a loud bang and the general remarked: ‘By Jove, Sir, I believe they’ve shot my leg orf.’ The Duke of Wellington looks over and remarks: ‘By Jove, Sir, so they have.’ This was the attitude of sublime and lofty nonchalance which characterised the English upper classes from the 18th century through to the public schoolboys I met at university.

3. And the extremest way of demonstrating one’s aristocratic nonchalance (like insouciance, a French word) is to take what servants and earnest middle-class types think of as ‘serious’ emotions, conditions and attitudes and to pointedly equate them with the lightest, most frivolous subjects imaginable, generally ‘female’ subjects such as fashion, clothes and, in this instance, hairdo. The utter inability to take anything seriously is demonstrated by the deliberately casual, mocking equation of lifelong emotional misery with someone’s hair colour. Exactly the same attitude recurs in The Story of St. Vespaluus:

Vespaluus…was the best looking, and the best horseman and javelin- thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous ‘had I but known you were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph in audacity.

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

4. So the central aspect of the lofty insouciance which Saki both epitomises and satirises is to mock anyone who is ever serious about anything. This attitude had been brought to a pitch of perfection by Oscar Wilde a generation earlier:

  • ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.’ (Lord Darlington in The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • ‘We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ (Letter to Robert Ross)

Therefore, the notion that an unhappy Elsa might compensate for her unhappy marriage by ‘doing good among the poor’ is a) designed to show how absurd the very notion of someone from her class ‘doing good among the poor’ is; and therefore b) how charity can can only possibly be explained as a harmless diversion for unhappy, upper-class women.

Camp and homosexuality

This extravagantly, ostentatiously, teasingly and mockingly anti-serious attitude, the valorising of the trivial, the mocking dismissal of anything earnest or serious, would evolve, by the 1960s, into the quality known as ‘camp’, heavily associated with a certain type of homosexuality. (See Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp).

In this regard, it might be worth noting, here, the series of descriptions of improbably beautiful young men, all svelte and soignés, who trail through these stories. Here’s Vespaluus:

‘He was quite the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.’
‘It sounds like a description of what you imagine yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,’ said the Baroness.

And Pan:

Across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes.

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

Naked and wet, asprawl in the sun. Pretty sexy, eh? Critics from Saki’s day to ours have wondered whether not only the male sensuality but also the extra element of malice, and the occasional turn to the macabre in Saki’s stories, in some way derives from Munro’s (necessarily repressed) homosexuality.

All that said, this stylised mockery of anything serious was also, of course, celebrated by many entirely ‘straight’ authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Evelyn Waugh, in the name alone of Lord Peter Wimsy, in the tone of detached ironic humour which characterises the books of Jerome K Jerome. Is it, I wonder, a particularly English quality?

Childhood unhappiness

Personally, I don’t think Saki’s sexuality is that important. Personally, I think the key fact in Munro’s biography is that he was sent away from his parents at a young age, sent from a warm and loving home in British Burma all the way back to cold and miserable England where he was looked after by strict and stern guardians while he attended a series of miserable boarding schools.

Kipling underwent a similarly miserable childhood and the result was a lifetime of works marked by often very unpleasant sadism. (On one level, Kipling’s notorious ‘racism’ is merely a sub-set of his larger, more out-of-control anger against all kinds of people.)

Same here. I think the grimmer and more macabre Saki stories are Munro’s revenge on the cruel world which gave him such a miserable childhood. Hence the air of malice around ‘aunts’, all of them avatars of the strict, Bible-thumping governess who looked after young Hector. The same repressed anger, arguably comes out, in a displaced kind of way, in the misfortunes of the children in so many of the stories, who are routinely eaten or blown up.

The atmosphere of lonely, solitary childhood tyrannised by a punitive guardian portrayed in the story Sredni Vashtar seems to me the clue to all his works (that is, if you look for clues, if you are interested in biographical keys). Or you could just enjoy the stories’ sly elegance and outrageous storylines.


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

The Baroness tells Clovis about the time she was out hunting to hounds with Constance Broddle when they got lost but, hearing some hounds barking, discovered they’d got separated from the main pack and were now surrounding a creature at bay which, when the women held the hounds back, turned out to be a hyena! A hyena? Yes, it has escaped from the menagerie of Lord Pabham, whose grounds are nearby.

The Baroness liberates it from the hounds and they ride off to try and find the road home, with the hyena trotting faithfully behind. On an upper-class whim the Baroness names the hyena Esmé. They come across a gypsy waif playing in the path, pass by, the hyena drops back, then they hear a cry and see the hyena has the child in its jaws. They scold and shout and try to whip it and the Baroness throws her sandwich box, to no avail. The hyena drops behind the trotting women, there’s a crescendo and screaming and then an ominous silence and the hyena reappears with a satisfied smile on its face. The Baroness’s companion is horrified as they emerge into a road and make their way home.

It is dark and there is the sound of a motor car roaring up, a thud and a yell and when they catch up, a motorist has hit and killed the hyena. He is a jolly pukka young chap and he apologises most sincerely to the ladies and calls his chauffeur to fetch a spade and they bury the beast, under the impression it is a dog. With admirable sang-froid, the Baroness claims it is indeed a prize pedigree hound. She gives the driver her address. Some time later he sends her a brooch with the name of the ‘dog’ engraved on it.

What then clinches the utter heartlessness and amoral insouciance of the character, is that she sells the brooch for a tidy profit. Nothing means anything to these people except the game of ‘appearances’ and ‘manners’.

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

Not a story, more a meandering scene with Clovis arriving at the supper table, polishing off some oysters while waxing lyrical about their selflessness to his host, then segueing into a discussion of his mother’s two previous marriages and how he rustled up an old Empire Johnny to be her third husband.

3. Tobermory (C)

At Lady Blemley’s house-party at ‘the Towers’, rather boring Mr. Cornelius Appin turns out to have made the stupefying achievement of teaching the house cat, Tobermory, how to talk. Not only that but Tobermory drawls, with the exaggerated languid tones of the effete upper classes. That’s satire 1.

Satire 2 is that the cat immediately starts spilling the beans about the ‘goings on’ among the humans and, more viciously, repeating exactly what they say about each other behind each others’ backs which is, of course, often malicious and wounding. General panic.

Tobermory spots the neighbours’ cat out the window and scarpers after it. Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley agree the cat must immediately be put down. Dinner is a tense affair, as is breakfast, but spirits lift when Tobermory’s corpse is found in a flowerbed. As to Mr Cornelius Appin, some weeks later he is reported gored to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo which he had been teaching German irregular verbs.

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

Mrs Packletide’s life is dominated by rivalry with Loona Bimberton. Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, so Mrs Packletide decides she is going to bag herself a tiger!

I think she must already be in India because she pays the headman of a local village to tether a goat in order to lure a rather elderly and ailing tiger for her to shoot. Mrs P hides in a tree with her paid companion, Miss Mebbin, and soon enough the tiger shows up. A single gunshot rings out and the tiger rolls over dead but, on closer inspection, it appears it was the harmless the goat which was shot and the tiger simply died of a heart attack at the loud noise!

The natives take their 1,000 rupees and swear to silence and thus Mrs Packletide returns to London in triumph, makes the tigerskin the centre of her Curzon Street apartment, gives endless parties where it is the centre of conversation, sends a tiger claw brooch to her rival, Loona Bimberton, even has a wild animal fancy dress party, where Clovis makes a fleeting appearance.

Until, that is, her ‘companion’, penny-conscious Miss Mebbin, blackmails her, threatening to reveal the truth (the old tiger died of a heart attack) unless Mrs Packletide buys her a nice little cottage near Dorking.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting. ‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

Saki is full of sly details. The thing that made me smile most in this story was that Miss Mebbin names her country cottage ‘Les Fauves’, a jokey reference to the recent French art movement which was given that name in 1905, so quite a modish reference at that.

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

Clovis and his mother, Mrs Sangrail, are staying with Lady Bastaple. Mrs S asks Lady Bastaple if she can keep Clovis on for a further 6 days while she, Mrs S, travels north to stay with the MacGregors. She offers to let Mrs Bastaple off her bridge debt of 49 shillings.

6. The Background (C)

A delirious and bizarre story about a modest commercial traveller, Henri Deplis, who comes into a legacy and decides to spend 600 francs on having a massive picture of the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back by the premier tattooist in Italy, Andreas Pincini. Pincini dies and Deplis thinks he is let off payment but Pincini’s widow pursues him by which point Deplis no longer has 600 francs left to pay her. After some bad-tempered haggling, the widow donates the picture to the municipality of Bergamo, thus making Deplis’ back into state property. The result is that he is unable, as a state property, to leave Italy, an unusual legal situation which is worked through in delirious detail.

7. Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep

A satire on the Suffragettes. It is set in a hypothetical future, in the second decade of the twentieth century after a Great Plague has devastated England, and Hermann the Irascible, nicknamed the Wise, sits on the British throne. One of the recurrent problems he faces is the vociferous and violent Votes For Women movement. Hermann comes up with a comic solution. He suggests a bill to make voting for women compulsory with a £10 fine for failing to vote, and then adds a long list of elections and elected officials which women are now compelled to vote in:

Every woman between the ages of twenty-one and seventy will be obliged to vote, not only at elections for Parliament, county councils, district boards, parish councils, and municipalities, but for coroners, school inspectors, churchwardens, curators of museums, sanitary authorities, police-court interpreters, swimming-bath instructors, contractors, choir-masters, market superintendents, art-school teachers, cathedral vergers, and other local functionaries whose names I will add as they occur to me. All these offices will become elective, and failure to vote at any election falling within her area of residence will involve the female elector in a penalty of £10. Absence, unsupported by an adequate medical certificate, will not be accepted as an excuse.

Of course this transforms voting into an intolerable burden for most women: working women are spending half the week traipsing to and from voting booths, while rich women find their holiday plans wrecked as they are continually being called back to vote for their local cathedral verger or what not, and quickly run up fines of multiples of £10.

Eventually the burden of voting becomes so extreme that it gives rise to a No-Votes-For-Women League  to which Saki maliciously and hilariously attributes all the self-righteousness, inflammatory rhetoric and violence of the original Suffragette Movement. The No-Votes-For-Women League goes one better and invents ‘the Great Weep’ being the systematic crying by women at gatherings large and small.

Eventually, making a great show of making a great concession, Hermann the Wise signs into law a bill depriving women of the right to vote and everyone is happy. And greatly amused.

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

This is one of Saki’s most famous stories because it is so compact and fluent and beautifully designed. On the train down to be guest at a house party, Clovis overhears two friends chatting, one lamenting that he has got very set in his ways, the other recommending that he shake his life up a bit and have what he calls ‘an unrest-cure’. Clovis’s ears prick up, he makes a note of the conventional man’s name and address (J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”

He then sends this man a telegram saying ‘the bishop’ is coming to stay, preceded by his private secretary – this is of course Clovis, who proceeds to shock and amaze timid Mr Huffle by announcing that the bishop and a general who will be joining him are planning to round up all the Jews in the neighbourhood and massacre them! Mr Huddle is speechless, his sister responds with a migraine:

It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival.

The ‘plan’ which Clovis unfolds becomes steadily more outrageous. He explains they are going to invite all the Jews from the neighbourhood and murder them one by one. He explains the house is now surrounded by a hidden ring of boy scouts who will shoot anyone who leaves! Indeed an eminent Jew arrives soon after in his motor car and is hustled quickly upstairs by the terrified brother and sister. Things go on like this for a bit while Clovis lounges in Huddle’s library smoking one of his excellent cigars, before quietly slipping away. None of it was true. It was an entire fiction.

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

Stringham is a politician. He makes a joke in Parliament which enlivens a boring debate. His wife disapproves. He’s never made a joke before. She comments to her mother. Stringham makes another joke, which his wife doesn’t get. Over the next few weeks Stringham makes several more. Then a catty ‘friend’, Gertrude Upton, points out that these are all well-known quips by Lady Isobel, the implication being that Stringham is seeing quite a lot of Lady Isobel.

So far so gently mocking the boringness of politicians, the straightlacedness of their families and so on. So it comes as a shock when the last few lines tell us that Eleanor Stringham killed herself with an overdose of chloral. Does he… does Saki mean that she killed herself because the jokes implied her husband was having an affair?

10. Sredni Vashtar

Conradin is a sickly boy looked after by his disapproving cousin and guardian in a strict and tedious house which has driven him mad with resentment and frustration, which makes him sick ‘under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom’.

Mrs. de Ropp was the ground-plan on which he based and detested all respectability.

One day the local butcher boy brings him a large polecat-ferret in return for all the silver Conradin has saved up and he hides his cage in the garden shed and develops a private religion based round the fierce animal which he gives the made-up name of Sredni Vashtar.

More and more mystified by Conradin’s regular visits to the shed, Mrs de Ropp one day ransacks his bedroom for the key, orders Conradin to stay in his bedroom, from whose window he watches her go to the shed, unlock it, and enter in. He fervently prays to his god, prays for death and destruction. The minutes pass and the dread witch doesn’t return. Then, with wonder, he sees his god slink out of the shed with dark red strains round its jaws, undulate down to the stream, take a drink, and disappear into the undergrowth. Conradin’s dream has come true. His god has answered his prayers. No more repressive aunt.

11. Adrian (C)

Adrian is a working class lad from Bethnal Green where his mum is a laundress.

One can discourage too much history in one’s family, but one cannot always prevent geography.

He is taken up by the hugely posh Lucas who treats him to dinner at places like the Ritz or Carlton. His aunt Mrs Mebberley hears about this protege and decides to take him off on a tour of Europe.

‘I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.’

She takes him to an Alpine resort. Here he flourishes but not in the way expected. He turns out to be quite a wild youth. Where he grew up breaking any cutlery was a crime. Among posh people he discovers that, done at the right time and place, it wins kudos.

Lucas hears about Adrian’s increasingly outrageous exploits via the pen of Clovis who is ‘moving as a satellite in the Mebberley constellation.’ One is that Adrian abducts the ugly Grobmayer child and dressed it as a pig in an evening’s drama performance till it wailed, revealed its identity and the parents were furious. But his masterpiece was swapping all the room numbers on an entire landing and especially affixing the ‘Bathroom’ sign to the door of old Frau Hofrath Schilling who was thereupon terrified out of her wits by a succession of half-dressed visitors.

12. The Chaplet (C)

It was a gala evening at the Grand Sybaris Hotel, and a special dinner was being served in the Amethyst dining-hall. The great chef Monsieur Aristide Saucourt has slaved over his masterpiece dish, Canetons à la mode d’Amblève. But just as it is served to the foreign philistine guests, the very average orchestra strikes up the strains of the dull and obvious tune, The Chaplet and, in their relief at recognising a tune amid a lot of other rather more ‘modern’ music, many of the diners stop to listen, to applaud, tinkering with the famous dish or letting it grow cold! So M. Saucourt in a fury seizes the conductor and plunges him head first into a large tureen of boiling soup!

13. The Quest (C)

Clovis is staying at the Villa Elsinore when there is a disaster: Mrs Momeby misplaces little diddums baby Erik. The household is in an uproar. Only Clovis lazing in a hammock is more concerned about which sauce cook is preparing to accompany the asparagus while outraging everyone with his calm suggestion that maybe the little darling has been eaten by an escaped hyena.

A neighbour calls, Rose-Marie Gilpet who is a devout Christian Scientist and therefore believes there is no such thing as illness and also that we all think positively the lost child will appear. She goes to search the road again and lo and behold finds an abandoned baby there who she restores to the bosom of her family amid tears and celebrations. Which makes it embarrassing when the real Erik is discovered hiding in the garden roller. So who is the imposter? Then arrives the nursemaid from the Villa Charlottenburg across the way to reclaim darling little Percy who had gone missing. Mystery solved and Clovis is off to see the cook about the asparagus sauce.

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

What you might call a ‘grim’ story, like the apparent suicide of Eleanor Stringham. In this one Lady Barbara has a son who is a pusillanimous coward, Lester Slaggby. They go to say in a small Germanic resort, learn from the local Burgomeister that the Prince is paying a visit, a local couple suggest that a touching gesture would be for their little 4-year-old to be dressed up and give the Prince the gift of an Easter egg filled with his favourite food, plovers’ eggs. Lester helps to train the little mite and on the big day is gesturing the child towards the Prince sat on his dais when, looking round for the proud parents, he sees them stepping hastily into a cab and, in a flash, realises the egg is filled with a bomb. Lester does the one great brave deed of his life and runs to catch up with the child, grabs the egg planning to throw it far, yells to everyone the one word ‘Bomb!’ but is astonished when the little brat holds onto it with obsessive grip. Then it blows up. The story cuts to some time later and makes the simple point that Lady Barbara is now blind.

So it had been sort of funny up till that point and then becomes bitterly tragic. The note of languid insouciance I mentioned earlier, the Oscar Wilde tone of whimsical detachment, doesn’t apply here. Possibly a conductor being drowned in a tureen of soup is sort of funny. But a woman committing suicide from profound misery or being blinded… not so funny.

16. Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped (C)

Mark Spayley is a commercial artist, he creates advertising posters and is on a piddling £200 per annum. He nervously asks for the hand in marriage of Leonore, the daughter of the vastly successful businessman, Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’. What neither he nor anyone else knows is Dullamy’s business empire is about to crash, which is why he accepts Spayley’s offer and suggests a surprisingly quick wedding. Dullamy doesn’t reveal about the looming crash but does lament that his new product, Pipenta, has been a failure. Now he’s his son-in-law to be, Mark offers to help out. In short order he has changed the product’s name to Filboid Studge and created a vast poster showing lost souls in hell clamouring for an opportunity to eat the delicious food, with a big strapline: a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”

This campaign is surprisingly successful and Filboid Studge becomes a runaway success, which the narrator describes with a few waspish asides about the power of advertising (this was 1908). Dullamy’s fortune is restored and he, of course, breaks off his daughter’s engagement to Spayley and sells her to a much more appropriate beau.

17. The Music on the Hill

Clever Sylvia Seltoun has not only inveigled Mortimer Seltoun into marriage, but to abandon ‘Town’ with its delights and friends, a relocate to his country seat, Yessney.

She looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you encouraged it overmuch

Here she becomes aware of some kind of presence in the woods, a fleeting golden thing, and is oppressed by a feeling of being watched in among the desolate farm buildings. Boring Mortimer astonishes her by revealing that he believes in the great god Pan and for warning her when she takes some grapes which had been left to a beautiful statuette of the god in a remote clearing. In revenge, the laughing, malicious youth diverts a hunted stag so that it gores Sylvia to death. Maybe a life in Town wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

The title refers to the several occasions on which Sylvia heard remote and eerie music, ‘a low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute’, coming from somewhere on the hills around her husband’s manor house.

This story takes its place alongside other Edwardian invocations of Pan, to be found in Peter Pan, the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter in Wind In The Willows and The Story of a Panic by E.M. Foster to name only the most obvious. (Pan in popular culture.) Why? The end of the 19th century saw a kind of rarefied, aestheticised classicism, the paintings of the Olympians, and this seems to have overlapped with the florescence of the children’s story during the Edwardian decade. Pan represents a melding of the two.

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

Clovis tells ‘the Baroness’ a long cock and bull story set in the early Middle Ages when ‘when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess’.

Bad-tempered King Hkrikros has no children but a number of nephews among whom his favourite is elegant, sporty young Vespaluus. The king wants to nominate him as his heir but then discovers that Vespaluus is a Christian. Damn. The king is a fervent pagan who devotedly maintains ‘the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace.’

The king hires the Royal Librarian, who has time on his hands, to go cut branches and switches from the woods and give young Vespaluus a sound thrashing. Doesn’t change his mind. Then he has the boy locked up in a tower without food and water though the guards take pity on him and sneak in grub.

But when he’s released in time for the great summer games Vespaluus refuses to take part in the ritual worship of the sacred snakes and the king’s patience snaps. He arranges him to be stung to death by the royal bees. However, the bee-keeper loves Vespaluus (everyone does) and so spends a laboursome night before the scheduled punishment pulling out all the bee stings. So that when crowds of pagans assemble to watch the ritual stinging-to-death of Vespaluus everyone is astonished to see him covered in bees and writhing yet emerging unscathed. It is a miracle! He must be a saint!

The furious king berates his librarian but before he can do any more harm himself dies of an apoplectic fit. At which point Vespaluus is crowned king and, assuming his Christian faith, the entire Court sets about getting itself baptised, neighbouring Christian powers make approaches, the pagan rites begin to be deprecated.

But the punchline is that Vespaluus isn’t a Christian at all. He is a devout pagan and worships the same sacred snakes as the king. Then why on earth, the Chamberlain asks him, did he pose as a Christian and cause himself and everyone else so much bother?

‘I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.’

He is a classic Wildean fop, loving pranks and mocking the earnest.

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

The Baroness and Clovis again. As usual Clovis tells her a bitchy or spiteful or droll anecdote. This time it’s about an aunt who unexpectedly comes into some money, at which point she is drooled over by her nieces, the Brimley Bomefields, namely Christine, Veronique and another. The nieces are horrified when they learn that the aunt, getting on in years, proposes to leave her fortune to a nephew of hers, named Roger. So Veronique comes up with a cunning plan which is to catch Roger out, gambling or somehow frittering his money away. Every year he goes on holiday to northern France so the nieces persuade the aunt to go on holiday to Dieppe. But, in a comic reversal, while they’re waiting to catch Roger at the tables it is the aunt who has a casual flutter (on the old mechanical game named Les Petits Chevaux) gets bitten by the gambling bug, and turns into a gambling addict, while Roger bumps into them from time to time says, knowingly, that he realises the aunt is just a front for the nieces, who are running a gambling syndicate. Infuriatingly, they eventually give up and straggle home with a reputation for headaches and a permanently depressed look. Which is how Clovis and the Baroness saw them in ‘the Park’ and which prompted the anecdote in the first place.

20. The Peace Offering (C)

Clovis and the Baroness again. She asks him to help with a theatrical production to soothe her local county society who have been rather ruptured by a bitterly contested election. As satire, Clovis suggests they write a Greek tragedy on the theme of the Return of Agamemnon and then proceeds to explain who all the characters are to the Baroness who is cheerfully ignorant and philistine.

They then cast the play with local worthies, each stupider than the next. But the crux is the rivalry which breaks out between the Baroness, playing Clytemnestra and Clovis, who gives himself the minor but beautifully costumed role of the charioteer. When the Baroness pinches some of his best lines, Clovis plots his revenge. He coaches the dimwit playing Cassandra in a special speech and, on the grand night, with all of local county society assembled, when Clytemnestra goes off to make a costume change, Cassandra steps forward and delivers the speech Clovis has written for her… denouncing the great and the good in the audience as ‘corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians[who] continue to infest and poison our local council…’ By the time the Baroness returns onstage it is to find everyone calling for their coach and leaving.

In a way the Baroness did succeed in healing local divisions… by uniting everyone who was anyone in condemning her ‘outrageously bad taste and tactlessness’.

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

Crefton Lockyer has gone for a rest cure and break from hectic city life by renting a room in an isolated farm. Little does he expect to discover that is the epicentre of a bitter rival between two local witches who cast spells on each other. These aren’t the florid witches of Hollywood, but uncanny and ancient crones and the spells in question amount to little more than preventing the kettle in the farm from boiling and rendering the ducks which in the hated rival’s little pool from being able to swim.

So, small stakes but this is one of the longer of the stories in the collection and the interest is in the spooky and threatening atmosphere which Saki conjures. It’s interesting because Rudyard Kipling, in his Sussex phase, wrote similar stories about village crones.

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

Clovis is with his aunt when the latter spots a tiresome young man approaching who she is at pains to avoid because he’s probably heard she’s arranging a luncheon with ‘the Princess’ and will cling leechlike till he’s invited. The aunt makes a run for it leaving Clovis to deal with the young man who introduces himself as Tarrington. Unfortunately Clovis has determined to reply to every question and conversation gambit with irrelevancies and supercilious twitting, until the poor young man, defeated, beats a hasty retreat.

23. The Hounds of Fate

A tragedy, something like a ghost story or a rural tragedy slightly in the manner of Thomas Hardy. Martin Stoner has failed in everything and is down to his last few coins, tramping through muddy country lanes towards the sea with the vague purpose of throwing himself in, as night draws in and it starts to rain and he sees the lights of a farmhouse, he finds himself walking up the path and knocking on the door.

To his amazement the door opens and he is welcomed in by the old retained as ‘Master Tom’, back from Australia. He is given food and then shelter for the night, and given his old room, and his horse is saddled for him, all the time Stoner carries on the masquerade of impersonating this ‘Master Tom’. Slowly it emerges that Tom fled to Australia after some local scandal but try as he might, he can’t get the old retainer (named George) to spell it out.

Then one day old George hurries to find him and tells Stoner that Michael Ley is back in the village and bound on taking his revenge. At a guess, I speculate that Tom ravished Ley’s sister, who killed herself and that’s why he fled and Ley is now determined to take revenge. Old George gives Stoner three sovereigns and tells him to go hide out in the nearest town till Ley has gone away, when he’ll be able to return.

Three sovereigns is a lot of money for a former beggar, and Stoner goes his way rejoicing to have brass in pocket, reconciling himself to moving on from the Tom persona as easily as he adopted it. Easy come, easy go. But at that point Michael Ley steps out from the shadow of an old oak tree, a shotgun in his hand and implacable hatred in his eyes.

24. The Recessional (C)

Clovis is in a Turkish bath with his buddy, Bertie van Tahn, but equipped with a fountain pen and notebook. What is he doing? Well, Mrs. Packletide’s great enemy and rival Loona Bimberton has just had a Coronation Ode accepted by the ‘New Infancy’ magazine and Mrs P is spitting blood. Since she has helped him out so many times, financially, Clovis offers to compose a rival poem, and here he is, composing away like mad. The result is dire:

‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.'”

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

Lady Susan is holding a house party and the guests are betting on the big race. Trouble is Lady Susan sternly disapproves of everything, especially horse racing. The guests have to retreat to the far end of the garden where they discovery that Motkin, Lady Susan’s butler, has a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. The butler goes off to see this relation and that evening, over dinner, secretively passes on the name of the top tip to each of the guests as he circulates with the sherry.

However, the hot favourite loses, as all the guests assembled in the hall the next morning discover when a telegram arrives, and Lady Susan is delighted because, for the first time in her life she has bet on a race, and her bet won!

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

Mrs Riversedge is hosting guests including Clovis and his aunt, Mrs Troyle. Mrs Troyle announces that another guest, meek and shy Septimus Brope, appears to be wooing her maid, Florinda. She has overheard him chanting her name (‘I love you Florrie’) and the other day picked up a piece of paper he had dropped with a note to meet him down by the old yew tree. Mrs Troyle wouldn’t mind but her maid is the only person on earth who understands her hair.

The other ladies are scandalised and also surprised, as mild-mannered Mr Brope scratches a living editing the ‘Cathedral Monthly and being enormously learned about memorial brasses and transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern liturgy.

Clovis is the one who solves the mystery when the two men are left alone in the smoking room after dinner. He discovers that Brope makes money on the side by writing the lyrics for trashy popular songs, and is struggling to write one for a hypothetical subject named Florrie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs Troyle’s maid (who is actually named Florinda).

Clovis promises to not only keep his secret but help him writing his ditties. In fact he proposes a characteristically Clovisian twist: why not try lyrics which slam the woman in question. And sure enough a month later a new song is taking the music halls by storm in which the singer threatens to throw his Florrie into a quarry!

All Clovis requires in return is to accompany Brope on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent.

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

The Duke of Scaw is religious but not quite in the traditional sense. He is discussing politics and social reform with his friend, Belturbet, speculating how easy it would be to replace the existing bunch of disappointing politicians with something more malleable. Why not with angels? Don’t be silly, says his friend. Piqued, the Duke replies:

‘I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms.’

And this he does. The rest of the story describes how he converts various leading politicians, the archbishop of Canterbury and top industrialists into various animals and creates their doppelgangers from angels. Suddenly politicians agree and businessmen adopt caring policies. Imagine the confusion of the country, but that is as nothing to the confusion of their wives!

The conceit is developed at some length with very thinly veiled, jokey references to contemporary politicians including David Lloyd-George, Lord Rosebery and so on. Eventually one of the animals the Duke of Scaw has consigned the soul of one of these politicians to, a bad-tempered black swan, grabs Scaw as he is walking through St James Park, drags him into the lake and drowns him. Whereupon the angel-politicians disappear, replaced by their human counterparts, and business resumes as usual.

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

This is an eerie story about a man whose personality changes to reflect that of his pets. It opens with him being beaky-nosed and repetitive as his parrot. His brother brings him a pet monkey and he swiftly becomes as malicious and disruptive as his pet. When that dies, his brother buys him a tortoise and now Groby Lington potters slowly around his garden in slow motion. It has many comic details but the overall impression is of the tale’s strangeness.


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

Remember that Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab (now Sittwe), British Burma, which was then part of British India, and that Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife, Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of a Rear Admiral  – and that he then himself went on to serve in the Indian Police Force. He was steeped, in other words, in the traditions and discourse of the British Empire. So what must his parents have made of his determined ridiculing of it and its stiff-upper-lipped maintainers?

He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimising earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.

The Recessional sounds as if it’s going to be a parody or skit on Kipling’s famous poem of the same name but is nothing of the sort. Saki cannot write verse. Still, the thought was there.

Studied heartlessness

Specially regarding children who are either revealed as heartless brutes (The Strategist) or discussed with utter heartlessness by their parents (The Baker’s Dozen) or are eaten (Ernest-Gabriel and Esmé) or blown to smithereens (The Easter Egg).

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often.

It is not the attitudes as such which are reprehensible, they are fictional, they can be taken in the reader’s stride. It is the shallowness and lack of feeling which Saki is mocking.

Christianity

It almost goes without saying that everyone in these stories has been brought up to treat Christianity as the accepted ‘thing’. Saki’s satire aims at the way none of these conventional Christians show any understanding or putting into practice of its moral teachings. Wherever possible members of the cloth are mocked (as they were in so many 18th century novels, through Trollope, Waugh, every chaplain in every public school in fiction).

More than that, Christianity offers a massive opportunity for satire whereby the manners of the gentleman can be contrasted with Christian morality, with the satirical intention that, in Victorian and Edwardian society, manners and appearance were more important than conventional Christian morality. It is a central part of the macabre comedy of The Unrest Cure that the person said to be panning the massacre of the Jews is the local bishop, whose character Saki then delights in twisting into his own style of gruesome amorality.

‘The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.’ (The Unrest Cure)

Culture

Rather like Christianity, most of these upper-class types profess an interest in culture without actually understanding it at all. Painting and music are the two areas Saki picks on, with Reginald making the standard joke that the purpose of the Royal Academy is not to look at the pictures but to look at, and mingle with, other high society types. It is a recurring joke that the English understand a work of art so long as there is a good descriptive title to aid their understanding.

In the same spirit the British upper classes are portrayed as nervously philistine when it comes to music.

Thither [to the Amethyst dining-hall] came in shoals the intensely musical and the almost intensely musical, who are very many, and in still greater numbers the merely musical, who know how Tchaikowsky’s name is pronounced and can recognise several of Chopin’s nocturnes if you give them due warning; these eat in the nervous, detached manner of roebuck feeding in the open, and keep anxious ears cocked towards the orchestra for the first hint of a recognisable melody.

‘Ah, yes, Pagliacci,’ they murmur, as the opening strains follow hot upon the soup, and if no contradiction is forthcoming from any better-informed quarter they break forth into subdued humming by way of supplementing the efforts of the musicians. Sometimes the melody starts on level terms with the soup, in which case the banqueters contrive somehow to hum between the spoonfuls; the facial expression of enthusiasts who are punctuating potage St. Germain with Pagliacci is not beautiful, but it should be seen by those who are bent on observing all sides of life. One cannot discount the unpleasant things of this world merely by looking the other way.

And:

‘Hark!’ said most of the diners, ‘he is playing “The Chaplet.”‘ They knew it was “The Chaplet” because they had heard it played at luncheon and afternoon tea, and at supper the night before, and had not had time to forget.

Money / greed

Saki is funny about the miserly such as Laploshka or the paid companion, Miss Mebbin, in Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, who resents even centimes unnecessarily spent, or Lady Bastaple (‘Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love.’)

Aunts

Tell me about the Brimley Bomefields.’
‘Well,’ said Clovis, ‘the beginning of their tragedy was that they found an aunt.’


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saki

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

Reginald

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

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

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

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

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

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

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

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

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

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

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

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

3. Reginald on the Academy

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

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

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

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

4. Reginald at the Theatre

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

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

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

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

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

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

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

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

7. Reginald on Worries

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

8. Reginald on House-Parties

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

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

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Reginald’s Drama

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

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

12. Reginald on Tariffs

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

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

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

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

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

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

15. The Innocence of Reginald

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

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

Bons mots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

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

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

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

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

Saki and Kipling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saki and Oscar Wilde

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

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

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


Related links

Saki’s works

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


Related links

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby (2006)

‘In politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces.’ (Stalin at Potsdam)

Alliance is a thorough, insightful and gripping account of the wartime meetings between ‘the Big Three’ Allied leaders – Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin – which determined the course of the Second World War and set the stage for the Cold War which followed it.

In actual fact the three leaders in question only met face to face on two occasions:

  1. Tehran 28 November-1 December 1943
  2. Yalta, 4-11 February 1945

The third great power conference, Potsdam July 1945, took place after Roosevelt’s death (12 April 1945) and with his successor, former vice-president Harry Truman

There were quite a few meetings between just Roosevelt and Churchill:

  1. Placentia Bay, Canada – 8 to 11 August 1941 – resulting in the Atlantic Charter
  2. First Washington Conference (codename: Arcadia), Washington DC, 22 December 1941 to 14 January 1942
  3. Second Washington Conference, 19 to 25 June 1942
  4. Casablanca, 14 to 24 January 1943 – Roosevelt’s first mention of the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’
  5. First Quebec Conference – 17 to 24 August 1943 (codename: Quadrant)
  6. Third Washington Conference (codename: Trident), 12 to 25 May 1943
  7. First Cairo Conference (codename: Sextant) November 22 to 26, 1943, outlined the Allied position against Japan during World War II and made decisions about postwar Asia
  8. Second Cairo Conference, December 4 to 6, 1943
  9. Second Quebec Conference (codename: Octagon) September 12 to 16, 1944 – Churchill strongly disapproved of the Morgenthau Plan, but had to support it in exchange for $6 billion of Lend-Lease aid to Britain

I hadn’t realised that Churchill flew to Moscow not once, but twice, for one-on-one meetings with Stalin – which had some very rocky moments.

  1. Second Moscow Conference (codename: Bracelet) 12 to 17 August 1942 – Churchill stayed in State Villa No. 7 and, when he told Stalin Britain would not be launching a second front any time soon, Stalin became insulting, asking why the British were so frightened of the Germans. Churchill responded with details of Operation Torch – Anglo-American landings in North Africa designed to open up the Mediterranean, and increased bombing of German cities.
  2. Fourth Moscow Conference (codename: Tolstoy) 9 to 19 October 1944 – this was the meeting where Churchill and Stalin discussed percentages of influence in post-war European nations: Russia 90% in Romania, UK 90% in Greece, Yugoslavia 50/50, and so on.

(The First and Third Moscow conferences were meetings of foreign ministers only i.e. not directly including Churchill or Stalin.)

These top-level meetings are colourful and interesting, and Fenby covers them in minute detail, giving a blow-by-blow account of what was discussed at each of the conference sessions, on each of the days, but nonetheless, the actual conferences are like the tips of the iceberg. Nine-tenths of the book is about the exchanges of messages between the Big Three leaders, by cable and telegram and phone calls, the texts of various speeches and declarations, and the complex matrix of diplomatic missions and exchanges which took place at a lower level, with special envoys shuttling between the three countries, meeting their opposite numbers or conveying messages from one to the other.

Since almost everyone concerned seems to have left diaries of these meetings, plus the vast official record and countless press announcements, Fenby is able to quote liberally from all these sources in order to recreate the complex web of communications which defined the ever-shifting diplomatic relations between the three powers.

The book sticks closely to a chronological account of all the meetings and messages and slowly I began to realise it might more accurately described as a diplomatic history of the alliance. Or a History of Allied Diplomacy During World War Two. And I came to realise the book can be enjoyed on a number of levels:

Character studies of the Big Three

The opening chapter is a kind of prelude, giving vivid pen portraits of the Big Three leaders:

Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The stories about Churchill are often funny and loveable. We learn that he liked to go to bed in silk pyjamas. If he had no meetings he stayed in bed till noon, reading all the papers. Time and again eye-witnesses describe him as an over-grown schoolboy, insisting on swimming naked off the coast on a trip to visit Roosevelt, on another occasion arriving at an American military display dressed in a romper suit with his topee brim turned up so that one reporter thought he looked like a small boy going down to the beach to dig a hole in the sand. En route to Yalta, Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, described him as looking like ‘a poor hot pink baby about to cry’ (p.351). After the Yalta conference ended, he ‘walked from room to room, genial and sprightly, like a boy let out of school’ (p.380). Unlike the two other leaders he appeared to have no sex drive whatsoever.

Winston Churchill and a baby in a pram

Spot the baby

Churchill drank like a fish – sherry for breakfast, wine with lunch, champagne, wine and brandy with dinner.

On a striking number of occasions he was naked – swimming in pools naked, on one occasion padding round the bomber flying him back from Moscow naked from the waist down, appearing half-naked in front of the Moscow ambassador (who, memorably, drew a sketch of the naked British PM), and once – allegedly – when staying at the White House, being caught by Roosevelt emerging naked from the bath and, unabashed, declaring, ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.’

Driven to the newly liberated area around Remagen, Churchill, surrounded by photographers, was caught short and unzipped to have a pee, telling the gentleman of the press that this particular moment of their great victory was not to be recorded. In his diary Brooke records that he will never forget ‘the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread over his face’ (quoted page 388). He comes across as the ultimate naughty schoolboy.

Churchill was also given to flights of schoolboy sentimentality; he easily broke into tears, especially about loyal and trusty servants.

  • ‘I love that man’, he told his daughter Sarah, about Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes. (p.224)
  • Telling Moran that night of the [Polish diplomatic leader’s] request to be dropped into his homeland [to die fighting the Nazis rather than acquiesce in a diplomatic sell-out to the Russians], Churchill had tears in his eyes. (p.330)

And, of course, reams of magniloquent speech emerged effortlessly from his well-stocked mind. All us Brits have been brought up on the key moments from his wartime speeches. But as the book goes on, you come to realise this could also be a weakness. I watched his ‘historic’ address to both Houses of Congress on YouTube and realised that, if the spell drops for a moment, it is possible to see Churchill as a pompous old windbag. During the Tehran Conference, at the end of 1943, Roosevelt is reported as tiring of Churchill’s relentless verbosity (p.236).

And old and tired – one eye-witness memorably described him as a tired old man who kept going by sheer will power alone. But the windbag element opens the door to understanding the strong anti-British feeling which was present at all levels of the American administration and society, and steadily increased as the war progressed. In a telling phrase, Fenby says that by the time of Yalta, Britain was much the most junior partner of the alliance and Churchill knew it. ‘Britain had lost its aura of 1940’ (p.353).

Franklin Delaware Roosevelt, President of the United States

It is quite a surprise to read so many of the senior staff who worked with Roosevelt describing him as a heartless SOB – that’s not at all how he comes over in the Pathé newsreels where he’s always laughing and joshing, but the eye-witnesses are 100% consistent.

The laughing and joshing is connected to another of Roosevelt’s characteristics, which was his conviction that he could talk round anyone with banter and good humour. This partly explains his relationship with Stalin. a) Roosevelt, being an optimistic, can-do American, couldn’t really conceive the depths of evil which Stalin represented. b) Roosevelt believed he could manage Stalin as he had managed so many apparently tough opponents in his long political career.

‘I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin as he had done with so many interlocutors. (Walter Lippmann, political commentator)

During the course of 1943 Roosevelt and Hopkins and their entourage became steadily more pro-Stalin and inclined to cold shoulder Churchill. Fenby records that some, more realistic, American diplomats resigned in protest at their boss’s wishful thinking about Soviet intentions and readiness to brush the show trials, gulags and famines under the carpet.

Franklin D. Roosevelt smiling from a car with cigarette holder in handf

Roosevelt trusted Stalin more than Churchill

Josef Stalin

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a man as monstrous as Stalin ever lived and breathed and walked, let alone shook hands with the other two, made jokes and delivered gracious toasts. All the eye-witness accounts confirm that he was extremely practical and factual. He had three demands and he made them right from the start:

  • for Britain and America to send more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fighting the Germans
  • for Britain and America to open a second front as soon as possible i.e. invade France
  • after the war to have a guaranteed security zone or buffer comprising Poland and the Baltic states in Europe (the situation in China/Manchuria was more complicated but Stalin’s basic principle was easily applied here, too: he supported whichever solution gave Russia maximum security)

Uncle Joe often had a twinkle in his eye and charmed most of his guests. Only occasionally did the psychopath emerge. At one of the many drinks receptions and dinners accompanying the meetings, a Russian general was showing Kerr how to handle one of their tommy guns, when Stalin seized it and said, ‘Let me show you how a real politician behaves’, and made a mock gesture of machine gunning everyone else in the room. At Yalta, Roosevelt asked Stalin who the quiet man with the pince-nez was. Stalin saw the president was gesturing towards Beria and laughed, ‘Oh that’s our Himmler’ (p.369). When Churchill explained to Stalin that he might lose the upcoming British general election, as he was only the leader of a particular party, Stalin replied, ‘One party is much better’ (p.377).

Joseph Stalin sitting at a desk writing on documents, pipe in mouth

How many people was Stalin responsible for killing?

Character studies of their many subordinates

But the book is by no means only about the Big Three. There’s a also a huge amount of highly enjoyable gossip about the cohorts of advisers and diplomats and military men the Big Leaders were surrounded by. Here are quick sketches of some of them:

The Brits

  • Major Arthur Birse – Churchill’s Russian translator
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke – Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill. He was nicknamed ‘Shrapnel’. In the 1950s his diaries were published which contained scathing criticisms of senior figures of the war, including Churchill. Brooke admired Stalin for his quick grasp of strategy and military reality – but still thought him a cold-hearted, mass murderer. He was a keen birdwatcher.
  • Sir Alexander Montagu George Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1938 to 1946, kept extensive diaries which were later published.
  • Field Marshal Sir John Dill, May 1940 to December 1941 Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and in Washington, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though much admired by Americans as senior as George Marshall, Churchill did not like him, nicknamed him Dilly-Dally, and replaced him with Alan Brooke.
  • Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary from 1940 to 1945 – Churchill’s loyal lieutenant, principled, vain, self-centred
  • Edward Wood, Lord Halifax from 1941 to 1946 British Ambassador in Washington
  • Sir Archibald Clark Kerr – ambassador to China from 1938 to 1942, where he won the respect of Chiang Kai-shek; then ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1942 to 1946 where his tough approach and broken nose earned him the nickname, ‘the Partisan’.

The Americans

  • Averell Harriman – inherited $100 million from his father and was chosen to manage the massive Lend-Lease programme. US ambassador to the Soviet Union from October 1943 to January 1944. Had an affair with Winston Churchill’s son’s wife.
  • Harry Hopkins – gangling son of an Iowa saddle-maker who ended up becoming instrumental in Roosevelt’s New Deal scheme, and moved into the White House to become Roosevelt’s adviser throughout the war.
  • George Marshall – supremely capable Chief of Staff of the US Army, September 1939 to November 1945.
  • Cordell Hull – the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State, 1933 to 1944, at daggers drawn with his junior, Sumner Welles, who he eventually got fired in 1943. Hull was the underlying architect of the United Nations. Eden described him as ‘the old man’. Cadogan referred to him as ‘the old lunatic’.
  • Sumner Welles – Under secretary of state 1937 to 1943: ‘the age of imperialism is ended’. Hull hated Welles and got him sacked when stories of his gay lifestyle began to leak to the press.
  • Henry L. Stimson – Secretary of War (1940 to 1945), principled grand old man in his 70s, he vehemently opposed the Morgenthau Plan, and kept a diary full of insights.

Americans in China

  • General Joseph Stilwell – in charge of some Chinese Nationalist forces, adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, supervisor of American lend-Lease to the Nationalists. Known as ‘Vinegar Joe’ he despised the British in India and Burma from the start, but came to loathe Chiang as he came to understand how Chiang’s policies ignored ideas like efficiency and were entirely based on paying bribes to, and keeping in place, administrators and senior soldiers who supported him. This explained the Nationalists’ woeful record at fighting. Stilwell took to referring to him as the Peanut (because of the shape of Chiang’s shaven skull).
  • Claire Chennault – retired from the US Air Force in 1937, Chennault went to China to work as freelance adviser to the Chinese Air Force. After Japan invaded Manchuria Chennault found himself becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s chief air adviser, training Chinese Air Force pilots, and setting up the so-called Flying Tigers.

Roosevelt wanted to replace Stilwell who, by 1943, hated the Chinese with a passion. But his Chief of Staff refused to accept the obvious replacement, Chennault, because he was outside the formal command structure and was far too close to Chiang. So nothing was done, one of several reasons why American policy in China was allowed to drift…

The Russians

  • Vyacheslav Molotov– USSR Foreign Minister. Molotov is a pseudonym like Stalin, it means ‘hammer’. According to witnesses Molotov was completely inflexible, unbending, unyielding.
  • Ivan Maisky – USSR Ambassador to Britain 1932 to 1943.
  • Maxim Litvinov – Soviet ambassador to Washington 1941 to 1943.

The French

  • Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French. A relatively junior officer in the French Army, de Gaulle escaped the German invasion and on 18 June made a radio appeal from London to the French to resist the occupiers. He was a legend in his own mind, remplis with a particularly Gallic form of arrogance and hauteur, and eventually managed to convince the French nation of his historic uniqueness. But it is very funny to read how powerless he was in the context of the Great Powers, and how he was routinely ignored by all sides as irrelevant. Churchill was, in fact, generally respectful – we had fought side by side the French during the German invasion of 1940. I’d forgotten that Roosevelt hated de Gaulle with a passion. He was convinced de Gaulle was a dictator-in-waiting in exactly the same mould as Mussolini.

The Americans dislike the Free French

Even after the United States declared war on Germany (11 December 1941), it was only the beginning of what turned into a very long haul. Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle who, on hearing the news of Pearl Harbour, declared (with typically French brio/arrogance) that the war was won, it was only a matter of time. Obviously almost everyone who was going to die over that matter of time was going to be Russian, American and British. It is heart-warming to read how much Roosevelt and the Americans disliked the Free French under de Gaulle. At Yalta, Roosevelt said the Americans would only give the French a sector of Germany to run ‘out of kindness’. Stalin concurred. Both men obeyed the well-known dictum:

Bad-mouthing the French always has its appeal. (p.358)

De Gaulle was furious at not being invited to the Yalta Conference – despite the fact that the three participants gifted France control of a sector of post-war Germany which they had done nothing to ear. In a typically high-handed gesture, de Gaulle cancelled a post-conference meeting that had been arranged with Roosevelt. The president really lost his temper and drafted a flaming reply criticising not only de Gaulle but the entire French nation until his translator, career diplomat Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen agreed that de Gaulle was ‘one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot’. This amused Roosevelt who calmed down and set his diplomats to working on a much toned-down reply.

Like a novel

So this 400-page book is a bit like a 19th century novel. You are formally introduced to each new character, with pen portraits, other people’s descriptions, titbits about their private lives and professional achievements. Then settle in to watch the cast assemble, disperse, meet, take notes, observe each other and generally interact. By half-way through, when Fenby describes a meeting involving Eden, Hopkins, you have a good idea of what they all looked like, where they were coming from, and what to expect.

Big ideas

So much for the gossip, but there’s also plenty of through-provoking stuff about the geopolitics.

I find it fascinating, reading about any war, to learn how war aims change and evolve during a prolonged conflict. History – the passage of time – simplifies everything to black and white, whereas at the time, the leaders of the allied powers were working amid a blizzard of conflicting aims and goals, on at least four levels:

  • the leaders of the big three nations (USA, Britain, USSR) disagreed among themselves, and as the war progressed, frequently changed their minds
  • their advisers often strongly disagreed with their leaders, and also amongst themselves
  • in the democracies, the opposition political parties and voices in the press and other commentators often strongly disagreed with government policy
  • and underlying all this human froth was the deep, enduring reality of geography and the geopolitical priorities which that entails

It makes for a fascinating maze, a kind of four-dimensional chess, which Fenby confidently steers us through, often with a wry smile on his face.

Stalin wanted arms and Russian security

To take the last one first, Stalin knew what he wanted and he largely got it. It is bracing to read the eye-witness accounts of the western diplomats who met and admired him. They knew he was a dictator, some were repelled by his history of brutality, but all admired the clarity and conviction of his thinking. When the war was over, Stalin wanted to ensure he had SECURITY in the West and the East. From the get-go he wanted to ensure a geographical buffer to protect Russia from any further attack from East or West. His methods were brutal and disregarded all humanitarian values, but he had the advantage of being absolutely clear about his aims. And he achieved them. In 1942 he asked for control of the Baltic states and Poland to provide his buffer, and this request caused quite a serious rift between Britain (who wanted to agree in order to pen Russia in) and America (who rejected all plans, pacts and alliances, and was committed to giving every nation its ‘freedom’). In the event, Stalin extended his buffer zone half-way across Europe to take half of Germany.

And in the Far East, as I’ve just read in Fenby’s excellent history of China, this simple priority – security – explains why Stalin initially allied with the right-wing Kuomintang against Mao’s communists. Stalin would deal with whoever seemed able to provide security to the USSR, and the Kuomintang were, in 1945 anyway, the strongest power in China, once the Japanese had surrendered.

But Stalin had two more-immediate concerns which he hammered away at repeatedly:

  1. More arms – he wanted the allies to send him much, much more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fight the Germans who – be it remembered – advanced up to the outskirts of Moscow, up to the river Don and deep into the Caucasus.
  2. Second Front – he wanted Britain and America to invade France as soon as possible, a demand he kept up in every conversation and exchange throughout all of 1942 and 1943 and into 1944.

Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire

This threw up all kinds of problems around the current and future economic and political organisation of the British Empire which took up a lot of Churchill’s time and energy and that of the other conservative politicians around him – concerns about the preferential trading system within the Empire and Commonwealth, which now seems as remote as the Corn Laws – as well as the responsibility of trying to secure and police an extremely farflung set of territories, which beset the British chiefs of staff.

In the end, it was a failure. Fresh in my mind is J.G. Ballard’s eye-witness account in his three autobiographies of the seismic impact the loss of Singapore (15 February 1942) had on the British Empire in the East. It lost face forever. It was seen as defeatable. Everyone realised its days were numbered. In the event, Britain gave independence to India in 1947 just two years after the war ended, and over the next fifteen years the rest of the British Empire unravelled.

And all this – the collapse of the British Empire – comes to seem increasingly obvious when you read this book and see how utterly, helplessly dependent the British government and empire and, Churchill personally, were on the Americans – and then to read in detail, with extended quotes, Roosevelt’s cast-iron opposition to the British Empire.

Arguably, Churchill deluded himself about American intentions. Rather like Kipling, he deludedly saw the young United States coming under the tutelage of the wise and mature British Empire to organise a post-war world in which both would exercise the White Man’s Burden to tutor the native peoples of the world to democracy and statecraft.

Churchill thought the Anglo nations would need to be united in order to contain a Soviet Union which he early on realised would try to extend its influence deep into Europe. Whereas Churchill was rudely dismissive of China, which had displayed nothing but weakness under its despotic but inefficient Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. (Stalin, it is interesting to note, was just as dismissive of Chiang’s regime and insisted he not be invited to the Big Three meeting at Tehran.)

Roosevelt wanted a post-imperial world of free nations

If Stalin’s central and inflexible obsession was about gaining SECURITY for Russia, America’s was the idealistic notion that, when the war ended, all the old empires and old alliances and old European ideas about ‘balances of power’ – the kind of complex alliances which had triggered the First World War and failed to avoid the Second – would be abandoned for all time and be replaced by a comity of free nations engaged in free trade under the aegis of global governing bodies (the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). In this world order about four major states would be the top players – US, Britain, USSR, China – and Britain would be one, but only one, among many.

Churchill thought the Brits and the Americans were fighting to overthrow the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, and hoped that afterwards extended American power would mesh with a rejuvenated British Empire to promote Anglo-Saxon ideas of law and justice. But the Americans disagreed: they saw themselves as overthrowing all the European empires and establishing principles of democracy and free trade throughout the world. Roosevelt is repeatedly quoted telling trusted advisers (specially Harry Hopkins, and also Roosevelt’s son, Elliott) that Churchill was wilfully misunderstanding him.

‘I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism… Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

‘I’ve tried to make it clear to Winston – and the others – that, while we’re their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we’re in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas… Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.’ (Roosevelt to his son, Elliott)

The Morgenthau Plan

One of the key issues to emerge during 1944 was how to treat Germany after the war. Fenby goes into great detail about the Morgenthau Plan named after Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, which planned to hammer Germany, permanently dividing it into smaller states and stripping it of all industrial capacity, denuding the Ruhr industrial heartland, and returning it to a pastoral, agricultural society for the foreseeable future.

Fenby brings out how some of the vengefulness of the plan stemmed from the Jewish ethnicity of Morgenthau and his even more extreme deputy, Harry Dexter White, who was also Jewish. (This was widely recognised at the time:  Secretary of State Henry Stimson described the Morgenthau Plan as ‘Semitism gone wild for vengeance’ and ‘a crime against civilisation’.) As both men learned more about the Holocaust (initially a top secret known only to the administration) it didn’t soften their determination to destroy Germany. Morgenthau estimated his model of a deindustrialised Germany would support about 60% of the current population; the other 40% would starve to death. Roosevelt told his cabinet that Germany should only be allowed only a ‘subsistence level’ of food. If a lot of Germans starved to death – tough.

By contrast, Churchill, when he was presented with the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944, was extremely reluctant to agree with it and fought to water down its provisions. This was because Churchill could already see, with a clarity the Morgenthau backers (including Roosevelt) lacked, that the immediate post-war problem would not be Germany but Russia, which was gearing up to conquer half of Europe.

Completely contrary to the Morgenthau Plan, Churchill correctly predicted that a revitalised and economically strong Germany would be vital a) to resist Russian encroachment b) to revive the European economy as a whole.

There was another, more pressing aspect to the Morgenthau Plan. When details were leaked to the press in September 1944, it had a damaging impact on the war effort.

  1. Goebbels leapt on it, making much of the Jewish heritage of its author, and was able to depict it as evidence of the global Jewish conspiracy against Germany which he and Hitler had been warning about for a generation (p.319).
  2. More significantly, US military figures as senior as George Marshall claimed the plan significantly stiffened German opposition, and directly led to the deaths of American soldiers. Roosevelt’s son-in-law Lieutenant-Colonel John Boettiger worked in the War Department and claimed the Morgenthau Plan was ‘worth thirty divisions to the Germans’.

In the longer term, the Morgenthau ideas of reducing German industrial output and deliberately impoverishing the German population turned out to be impractical and counter-productive. During the years of the Occupation, from summer 1945 onwards, it became clear that Germany was the economic and industrial heartland of Europe and that impeding its recovery would condemn the entire continent to poverty. Plus, preventing the Germans from producing their own goods threw the burden of supplying even the basic necessities of life onto the American forces on the ground, who quickly realised how impractical this was.

Just a year after the war, the Morgenthau Policy was comprehensively overthrown in a famous speech titled Restatement of Policy on Germany delivered by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946, which became known as the ‘Speech of Hope’.

After the war it became known that Harry Dexter White, although never himself a communist, had been passing classified information to the Soviet Union, enough for him to be given a codename by his Soviet ‘handlers’. Called before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1948, White denied being a communist. Shortly after testifying he had a heart attack and a few days later died, aged just 55, apparently of an overdose.

And so White’s enthusiastic support of the Morgenthau Plan could be reinterpreted as aiding the Soviets by ensuring Germany was rendered utterly powerless after the war. A great deal of debate still surrounds White’s role. Stepping back, you can see how the story of the Morgenthau Plan crystallises the complex, overlapping nexuses of geopolitics, economics, ethnicity and conflicts between the supposed Allies, and the conflicts within the administration of the most powerful of the three powers, the United States.

Sick men

All three were sick men. Several eye-witnesses testify how sick Churchill was and how he only kept himself going by sheer willpower. But the facade crumbled after the Tehran Conference. Churchill was exhausted when he flew back from Persia to Cairo, and by the time he’d taken an onward flight to Tunis to meet General Eisenhower, he was almost too weak to walk, and, upon arrival, was confined to a villa where doctors discovered he had pneumonia. Churchill’s fever worsened and then he had a heart attack. His personal physician thought he was going to die.

It is amazing that, with rest and injections of the new-fangled drug penicillin, he not only made a full recovery, but after a week was full of energy, firing off messages to the Cabinet in London, to Stalin and Roosevelt and worrying about the next stage of the military campaign to take Italy. And little short of mind-boggling that he went on to live for another 21 years.

And of course Roosevelt also was a very ill man. In March 1944, shortly after his 62nd birthday, he underwent testing at Bethesda Hospital and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. Fenby explains Roosevelt had a cluster of symptoms nowadays referred to as post-polio syndrome (p.280). He went to the estate of a rich friend in South Carolina and ended up staying four weeks, sleeping a lot, cutting down on his chain-smoking and trying to drink less booze. But he never regained his former ‘pep’.

The most revealing symptom of this – and typical of Fenby’s semi-humorous, gossipy touch – was that the President stopped tinkering with his beloved stamp collection, up till then his favourite way of unwinding last thing at night. His personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, created a daily schedule that banned business guests for lunch and incorporated two hours of rest each day. But when he returned to Washington, witnesses testify that from that point onwards he was a good deal more flippant and ill-informed. At meetings he lacked focus, increasingly telling rambling anecdotes about his forebears. Churchill thought him no longer the man he had been.

Choosing the vice-president

It beggars belief that this crippled and deeply ill man determined to run for president a record-breaking fourth time and spent a lot of 1944 criss-crossing his huge nation making election speeches. The election was held on 7 November 1944 and Roosevelt won 53.4% of the popular vote and 432 out of the 531 electoral votes. He had campaigned in favour of a strong United Nations, so his victory symbolised support for the nation’s future participation in the international community (unlike the isolationism which swept America at the end of the First World War).

Roosevelt wanted to retain his vice-president, Henry Wallace. A contingent of the Democratic party wanted the Southern Democrat Harry Byrd. Roosevelt was persuaded to nominate a compromise candidate, Harry S Truman from Missouri. Did many people at the time realise what a momentous choice this would turn out to be?

And am I the only person who noticed that all three contenders for the vice-presidency were named Harry?

One way of thinking about the Yalta Conference in February 1945, is that Stalin dragged a very ill man half-way round the world and then, backed by his henchman Molotov, was able to run rings round him. Roosevelt no longer seemed to take in information, or push for solid agreements. His doctor thought his brain was going and gave him only months to live.

Roosevelt clings to Stalin till the last moment

I hadn’t realised the extent to which the Roosevelt administration became so utterly pro-Soviet, and increasingly anti-British. All discussions about helping Britain after the war with loans were tempered by concern that Britain would rise to become a major economic rival of the US. It came as a big surprise to Roosevelt and his economic advisers when Churchill bluntly told them that Britain was broke, and would go bankrupt without major economic assistance (p.305)

In the last hundred pages Roosevelt’s administration starts gearing up for the presidential campaign of 1944, and for the first time you really hear about his Republican opponents, and suddenly realise that there was a great deal of domestic opposition throughout Roosevelt’s presidency to everything he stood for – from Republicans who opposed the state socialism of the New Deal, to isolationists who fought tooth and nail to keep America out of the war, and then to an array of political figures and commentators who accused Roosevelt’s Democrats of being far too supportive to the Communist mass-murderer, Stalin, and not supportive enough of the right-wing Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kai-shek. Reading this book, it’s easy to sympathise with these last two points.

In this context Fenby goes into detail of the diplomatic toing and froing surrounding the Warsaw Rising – not the fighting itself, but the increasingly desperate attempts of the Polish government in exile to get the Allies to support the rising, the repeated requests made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin to get the Red Army – which had halted its advance only 50 kilometres from the Polish capital – to intervene, or to get permission to land and fly Western planes from Ukrainian airfields to drop supplies to the Polish resistance.

All of which Stalin refused and stonewalled. It suited him to have the entire Free Polish Resistance massacred by the Germans, clearing the way for the puppet communist government which he planned to put in place. Afterwards the Americans and Churchill fell in with Stalin’s obvious lies that it was military shortages which prevented the Red Army from intervening. Only the tough-minded George Kennan felt the West should have had a full-fledged showdown with Russia about it.

Same with the Katyn Massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. The Nazis discovered the burial site and publicised it in 1943, but Stalin resolutely denied all responsibility and claimed it was a Nazi atrocity – and Britain and America, once again, went along with his lies, for the sake of alliance unity.

The Cold War

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died just as the war ended. Every day made it plainer that the Soviets were going to ignore all promises and do whatever it took to impose communist governments across Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland whose governance was a running sore between the three ‘allies’ from the start of 1945. Right to the end Roosevelt hoped that, if he ignored this or that broken promise or atrocity by Stalin, the dictator would adhere to the main agreements.

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died and a new, simpler but arguably tougher man took over, Harry Truman, who was plunged into managing the future of the world as the greatest war in history came to a close. Truman had no idea relations with Moscow had become so rocky. And he hadn’t been told about the atom bomb. Can you imagine the awesome burden which suddenly landed on his shoulders!

In some ways the last 20 pages of the book are the most interesting: with the war in Europe over, Churchill – as Roosevelt predicted – became yesterday’s man. An exhausted Britain looked to the future and elected the Labour government with a landslide in July 1945. Roosevelt was dead and Truman replaced him as president with a completely new remit, sacking former advisers (for example, briskly dismissing Morgenthau while Roosevelt’s most loyal adviser, Harry Hopkins, retired), very much his own man from the start. The Labour Party leader Clement Attlee replaced Churchill. And on August 6 the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 14 August Japan surrendered, bringing the world war to an end.

A new era had dawned – but Fenby’s highly detailed, fascinating and gripping account helps the reader understand how the outlines of what became known as the Cold War had been established long before the shooting stopped.


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The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forebears as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two princes allied with him were allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable. Mild dissent or liberal debate was – literally – incapable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a beer and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

On the evidence of this book China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence the litany of dehumanising insults used by all political players throughout this book which were designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who couldn’t be talked to, God no – who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists went on, after 1949, to develop their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own sides. People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speech, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact it made me wonder whether there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping Rebellion, it’s such an extraordinary event.

So it’s only really in the 1870s and 80s that Fenby’s book hits its stride, the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. In particular you get a good sense of how the later 19th century in China rotated around the figure of the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circled round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644 to 1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist Han rebellions against Qing rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850 to 1864 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, and one of the bloodiest wars in all human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million, although more often set are a more reasonable 20 million. ‘Only’ 20 million.
  • 1894 to 1895 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal state, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others. Illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899 to 1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates – Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation, the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks.
  • 1937 to 1945 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter).

Themes and thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale of the the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses.

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51).
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90).

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword. The Chinese way.

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked in his history, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the whole of the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884:

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs, they brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation – i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world – they were resisted hammer and tongs by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement the basics of economic and technological reform.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most strongly is the way Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, to give foreigners legal immunity from any kind of wrongdoing, handed European countries entire treaty ports like Hong Kong and Macau) gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example, building railways or setting up banks.

I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action. I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany in the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that, more than all the others, the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia because of its steady expansion into Manchuria and the North of China:

The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China. p.31

And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of early 20th-century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

The ratcheting effect

A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums of cash demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839 to 1842 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856 to 1860 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884 to 1885 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds. After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company. Plus ca change…

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war and there are regular scenes of such stomach-churning violence as to make you want to throw up your last meal.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation. Madness on an epic scale.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed, followed by a period of harsh control. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which by the 1970s even the Mad Helmsman realised was getting out of hand and c) so he repressed.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing it. a, b, c.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent 20th century history history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a really strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Other reviews about China

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

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

Two of his previous books, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991), had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer (not least from interviews with Ballard himself) that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

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

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

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

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

But then when he came to write Miracles, Ballard knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories as he would have done had he lived a bit longer…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

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

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

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

New learnings

Fantasyland

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

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

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

Cynical

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

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

Chilly sex

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

America

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

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

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

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

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented to most young Brits, money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then went astray during the 1970s, maybe as a result of Watergate and the oil crisis…

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

Lunghua

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

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

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

Something confirmed by the astonishing fact that Ballard says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest years of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

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

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

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

Empire’s End

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

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

Again, it’s one thing to read about this sort of thing in history books, but much more impactful to read about its affect on someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb

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

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

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

The railway station

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

Back to Blighty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contempt for Cambridge

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

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

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

Francis Bacon

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

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

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

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

Friends

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

About writing

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

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

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

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

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

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps to explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction, and why the Kennedy assassination just keeps recurring, obsessively, throughout his mid-period books – because it is super-charged with his own personal tragedy.

Science fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

And:

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

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

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

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights. (Although it should be noted that many of Ballard’s short stories, including some of the best of them, continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools

Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning.

In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

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

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

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

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

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracles of Life

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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