Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.


The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.


I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid


  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a caste of people who were professional slave hunters. Hold that thought… People whose job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of a southern slave owner.

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon recapture, be returned to their masters, and that the officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which used various strategies to try and to block the Fugitive Slave Act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities from collaborating with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case brought under the new act caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury ‘nullifications’, where a jury refused to convict because they believed the entire basis of a federal law was unjust.

Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, often with guns, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (a circular definition in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property confers the independence from poverty which underlies the notion of personal freedom).

The clash between the pro-slavery Federal law and the anti-slavery strategies taken by various northern states made almost every case of a runaway slave being recaptured into a show trial.

Imagine being a freed black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, and suddenly being set upon by a gang of men and hustled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property!

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at the risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

It was a flavour of slavery and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And it forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaway blacks, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery story told with moral passion. The book was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, Stowe wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. I wish I had that much energy.

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes of safe houses and sympathetic helpers who could ferry blacks north through the free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – much like the networks which shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke in, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, some 332 slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both the north (disgusted) and the south (outraged that the north tried to steal their ‘property’), compared to the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in this country, could recover from the trauma. Easy to imagine the aftershock lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…

Related links

Other posts about American history

The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’. They are short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and (especially) the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.


The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States, causing outrage.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos on each other and the Americans, to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were policed more effectively because of the strength of the Royal Navy – the 1811 bans on the export of American salted fish hit the Yanks particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost America

There were other reasons too.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them to repel American incomers. A key moment was when American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811. War felt inevitable to both sides.

Manifest Destiny Many Americans thought that their nation had God-given destiny to control the entire North American continent. This vision and policy were named Manifest Destiny. Hawkish American expansionists hoped that another war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought that only God himself could set natural bounds to America, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently been president (1801-1809), declared that, if there was war, the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax (on the Canadian coast) in year two, and soon afterwards clear the Brits out of the continent altogether. Hooray.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation of West Florida in 1810. But the war party thought that they could use any conflict with Britain to consolidate their control in the region. In the event, the Florida theatre of the war was to be most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British did manage to take some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819, well after the war had ended, America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election President Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain in the preceding years, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He had served one term as president and was up for re-election in 1812. Declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event, Madison received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November of 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

And nobody expected the Americans to quite so useless. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated by the Brits.

But the Americans didn’t give up and there followed a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. British territory lining the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, and that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this ended up being handed back at the 1815 peace treaty. Hardly driving the British from the continent.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that:

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further American losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) did win the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit.

American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. He was killed in the Battle of the Thames and with his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many Indians had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

The war followed the same pattern in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels. This causes both sides inconvenience, the seizures sometimes escalating to combat and associated deaths of merchant mariners.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire American seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted from $114 million in 1811 to just $20 million in 1814.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Advancing up the River Potomac, Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into the young nation’s capital city, Washington D.C., where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the nearby port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

The British then tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised for these attacks by the opposition in Parliament, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for:

a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground
b) the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813
c) the Americans started the war

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans but the city was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president, 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British had made concessions on the trade embargos before America even declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon which delayed things, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this respect the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border between America and Canada, a border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914, and then in 1939, Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of press-ganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a Great Victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it – ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry – on September 14, 1814.

The poem was quickly set to the pre-existing tune of a popular British song of the day, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.


The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t enough space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them include several 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – this one has a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto), John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (and it is a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts – in the case of the War of 1812 a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.

Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.


I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

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James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board


The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video

Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more

David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.


On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.


Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne


This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.


One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.

Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which deals with some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.


All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)

‘Bond. James Bond.’
‘That’s a pretty chump name. From England, huh?’ (p.124)

A colossal experiment, a James Bond adventure told from the point of view of its ‘Bond girl’, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel. Fleming had experimented with structure and time-frame in previous novels, but this is an extraordinary departure from the formula. It was panned by the critics and Fleming later tried to suppress it.

The Spy Who Loved Me is a short novel, divided – very slickly – into three sections: Me, Them, Him.

Me (74 pages)

The first 70 or so pages are a first-person narrative told by Vivienne Michel, 23-years-old, five foot six, still fresh, young and naive. It is the long, sensitive autobiography of a well-brought-up young woman in which JB isn’t mentioned – a really remarkable production for the author of the famous bang-bang espionage novels.

Viv comes from an established French-Canadian family, her parents died when she was young (like so many Bond girls, making her that bit more free, wayward and independent – characteristics which always appeal to him) and she was brought up by an aunt who sent her to a traditional, Catholic convent school.

As her education neared completion, the (Protestant) aunt decided she needed to be ‘finished’ in England, and so sent her to a very posh finishing school in the Sunninghill area of East Berkshire, not far from Windsor. There’s a brief account of the bullying she got there from the other girls for having a ‘funny’ accent, before she settles down to be turned into a model young lady.

But the lion’s share of the section is devoted to a long and embarrassingly detailed account of her seduction by ‘Derek’, from a local public school. By this stage Viv has left her school and set up in a shared flat in Chelsea. She and her flat-mate hold their first party, lubricated with plenty of pink champagne and amateur canapés, and she finds herself being charmed by the tall sixth-former, Derek Mallaby, who plays cricket for his school’s first XI.

Viv and Derek proceed to meet up every Saturday throughout that long lovely summer for walks or even little pleasure cruises along the Thames. One thing leads to another and she describes, in minute and excruciating detail, the evening he takes her virginity – first trying it on in the cramped box at the local fleapit cinema, until the management throws them out – then persuading her to go for a ‘walk’ down by the river Thames, till they find an isolated spot, littered with the detritus of previous ‘courting couples’. Here Derek does the deed, Viv cries in pain but, once satisfied, he turns cold and aloof, all but ignoring her on the cold, sad trudge back to Windsor railway station.

We are plunged into her point of view, experiencing all this from the perspective of a confused teenager, puzzled by the  now-passionate, now-frigid behaviour of the man she thinks ‘loves’ her.

It comes as no surprise to the reader when young Derek writes her a ‘Dear Jane’ letter, explaining that now he is going up to Oxford, things are going to be different, his parents don’t want him consorting with someone who isn’t ‘the right type’, in fact – he now reveals – he’s been sort of engaged to a young lady from a good family for a while now. Sorry. Bye.

Viv cries her eyes out for six months. But there’s more, lots more of her narrative. We hear about her career in journalism, first of all in a local paper distributed in the Chelsea area. We learn what its editorial policy is, how Viv turns out to be a natural at researching and sub-editing, as well as chivvying adverts out of local traders. She is promoted, then gets a new job at a large-scale German media company in town. This is run by the excessively Teutonic Kurt Rainer and, once again, we get an extensive description of Viv’s role in the processes whereby news copy is generated, fact checked and distributed to the German news agencies.

Rainer has a fiancée and shares completely inappropriate confidences with Viv about his plans for the marriage, for the honeymoon (sex once a night), then settling down into married life (sex every Wednesday and Saturday). All these confidences draw him into her ambit until the (inevitable) night when he arrives in floods of tears, announcing his fiancée has dumped him and married a man in Germany. One thing leads to another and she ends up sleeping with him and then, basically, becoming her boss’s mistress.

All goes sort of OK until she realises she’s pregnant. When she tells him, Rainer reacts with callous Teutonic coldness and efficiency. He ceases all friendly relations with her, becoming coldly professional in the office and finally calling her in for a ‘meeting’ where he explains that he has organised every detail for her to fly to Switzerland, stay in such and such a hotel, go and see such and such a doctor, and have an abortion. He hands over an envelope with the necessary money (£150) and then announces that she is fired.

The text follows Viv’s experiences flying to Switzerland by herself and enduring the abortion process with no-one to help or support her. It all makes excruciatingly embarrassing reading for any man who’s ever seduced a young woman, or who is father of a teenage girl, or just any man.

[I found Viv’s story a fascinating slice of social history – the experiences of a (in fact, fairly privileged and well-off) young, single woman in England, circa 1956 or 57. Reminds me of the grim kitchen sink dramas of the later 1950s or the black and white movies – Saturday Night and Sunday MorningA Taste of Honey – or another novel about a naive young woman in London (written by a man) Take A Girl By You by Kingsley Amis.]

Back in London, Viv realises she just needs to escape – the horrible weather, the narrow horizons, the snobbery and disapproval. She needs to get back to the wide, open spaces of her youth, back to Canada. She buys a Vespa scooter and flies with it back to Canada, then packs off on an open-ended adventure motoring south into the States, into upstate New York State, to be precise.

Viv scooters round the area, exploring nooks and crannies while her money begins to run low and till, by good luck, she checks into an obscure little motel, ‘The Dreamy Pines Motor Court’ run by lecherous Jed Phancey and his long-suffering wife, Mildred.

This couple explain that the motel is owned by a rich Italian guy – Mr. Sanguinetti – and they’re looking for a young woman to become receptionist and look after the place in the last few weeks of the season till it’s closed up for the winter. Sounds like an easy way to pick up some dollars, so Viv agrees, dodging Jed Phancy’s lecherous comments and gropes as the couple show her where everything is, pack up their stuff, and motor off.

–All the above – Viv’s life story – has been told as a long flashback. It began as Viv watched the Phancies depart – then a violent rainstorm hit the motel, forcing Viv to retreat inside, pour herself a long drink of bourbon, and snuggle up in a comfy chair, as she reflected on her life and on the tangled web of events which had brought her to this isolated motel in the middle of nowhere. It is a persuasive and mesmeric performance.

Them (23 pages)

Viv is roused from her reveries by a harsh knocking at the door. Two men in raincoats are standing in the thundering downpour; they say they’re from Mr Sanguinetti. No-one had told her to expect them and as soon as she’s let them in she realises she’s in trouble, really bad trouble.

Tall, thin Sol Horovitz (aka ‘Horror’) with his bony skull and callous stare is accompanied by bald, fat Sluggsy Morant (‘Sluggsy’), who immediately sizes Viv up and starts making the crudest comments about her figure, promising that, when night falls, he’s going to give it to her good and hard and lots of times. Yuk. Viv has been pitched, with no warning, into a nightmare. — The 20 or so pages of this section amount to a systematic mental and physical degradation of this ‘innocent’ young woman, the kind of punishment which Fleming normally reserves for Bond.

The two men take complete control of the kitchen-diner area, Sluggsy groping and verbally threatening Viv at every opportunity. Eventually she makes a desperate dash for the door and runs in the pouring rain between the cabins and into the nearby pine woods. But Horror switches on the car headlights which penetrate deep among the pines, and Sluggsy easily catches her at gun-point.

Back in the cage of the kitchen-dining area she has another go at her attackers, using a corkscrew to try and skewer Horror, but only managing to scratch his forehead. Now this forbidding scarecrow loses his temper, his tiny black eyes seeing red and, while Sluggsy holds her, Horror sets about systematically punching Viv’s face, then her body, at its most vulnerable and painful points, until she is whimpering, then screaming, then begging, then blacks out.

Viv recovers consciousness stripped naked in the cold shower with Sluggsy leering over her, waiting while she throws up, having been reduced to the level of a beaten animal. ‘Get dressed and come back to the diner and no funny business,’ he tells her.

It takes her a while to recover, to stand up, to dry off, to dress in white overalls, and stagger the short distance to the diner. Once again, the impassive baddies tell her to fix them hot food – eggs and bacon and coffee – while her flayed mind vows that, God, if she makes it through this nightmare night she will never take peace and safety and security for granted again.

As the bad guys come to collect their food, she makes another feeble rebellion, throwing a drawer full of knives and forks in Sluggsy’s face, then trying to fend Horror off with plates, but they easily overpower her and this time Sluggsy begins ripping her clothes off with the declared aim of raping her when — there is a knock at the front door. And, like characters in a bedroom farce, they all freeze in a static tableau.

Him (79 pages)

‘OK, babe,’ they tell her, ‘answer it, but no funny business.’ Viv opens the door and it’s James Bond, six feet tall, lean, fit, scar on his face, cool grey-blue eyes (p.127). As usual, there is no detection involved in a Bond story. He is immediately thrown into confrontation with the bad guys – the only question is when the shootout will erupt.

Viv almost faints with relief as she invites Bond into the dining area, making secret signs with her fingers and winking at him. He says he was driving down to Albany when he got a slow puncture a mile or so back. Now it’s completely flat, he saw the ‘Vacancy’ sign on and wants to stay the night. Menacingly, the two hoods try to deter him, but Bond insists, so they shrug and say, ‘OK doll, get him a key’.

Very relaxed, the goons tell Bond that Viv is in a bit of a state because they’re investigators for the motel’s owner and were sent up to investigate claims she was fiddling the books. Bond instinctively disbelieves them. Amazingly, they let Viv go out to Bond’s car with him to collect his bags and stuff where she tells him in full and graphic detail what a nightmare she’s been in, and how evil the bad guys are. Bond reassures her, palms a gun and a small attaché case, and returns to the dining area, while the two hoods watch resentfully.

Bond confidently orders a meal and Viv scrambles yet more eggs and fries yet more bacon, while he explains why he’s here.

Complicated backstory

Apparently, a high-level Russian scientist from the nuclear sub base at Kronstadt, ‘Boris’, has defected. Our chaps offered him a new identity in the West. The Russians generally shrug when defectors leave, but this one was so high-level they want him liquidated to set an example. So they put out a contract of £100,000 on him.

Word got round to SPECTRE – the nefarious criminal organisation introduced in the preceding novel, Thunderball. (In fact Bond specifically references ‘Operation Thunderball‘ and Viv turns out to have read about it in the papers.)

An ex-Nazi (as so often, cf the ex-Nazi von Hammerstein in For Your Eyes Only or Hugo Drax in Moonraker), Horst Uhlmann, picks up the contract. All this is discovered and reported by the Canadian Mounties and Bond is sent to Canada on the case. They decide he will impersonate ‘Boris’, since he happens – fortuitously – to be a dead ringer for him (handsome physicist!). Thus Bond camps out in the defector’s flat waiting for the assassination attempt to come. So one day the bad guys come knocking and there is a furious shootout in the apartment building hallway. The wounded Horst forces open the apartment door, into where Bond is kneeling to fill him full of lead. End of assassination attempt.

But Horst had recruited a back-up team from bad guys attached to The Mechanics crime gang in Albany, upstate New York, and Bond wants to complete the job by tracking down and capturing them. (This is a very convoluted back story.) So Bond set off to drive from Canada down to Albany and was cruising along the highway when he realised he had a puncture, and limped past the bright ‘Vacancy’ sign on the motel just as the storm broke. That’s why he’s here.

I found this explanation tortuous, implausible and hard to follow. As often, the ‘international espionage element’ felt like it was tacked on to a plot which in essence is much more like a kind of Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane gangster story. Remove the defector, and it’s the cops / special agent, against organised criminals / the Mob.

All this has been conveyed by page 140 of this 190-page novel. What remains? The shootout and escape.

The long dénouement

The ending is very dragged-out. Eventually the hoods let Bond and the girl go to their cabins to sleep, though ensuring Bond’s is the one right at the end of the line. Bond shows Viv how to secure her bedroom bu shoving wedges under the door, pushing the TV cabinet against the window, creating a pretend body in the bed, and sleeping on the floor. Only then does he kiss her and go off to his cabin.

In the middle of the night Viv wakes to see a glimmer of light coming from the built-in wardrobe, then there’s a crash and Sluggsy bursts in through a rent the baddies had obviously made through the back of the wall and into her wardrobe, earlier in the evening. Sluggsy seizes Viv by the hair and cuffs her unconscious.

As she comes to, Viv realises she’s being pulled along the ground, in pain, while light and sound rage around her. Slowly she realises the motel complex has been set on fire and that Bond has rescued her from the burning building. He makes sure she’s safe, breathing and conscious, leaving her at the edge of the trees to run back to the burning cabin to retrieve the pistol he gave her. Along with his Beretta, that makes two weapons.

He explains that the bad guys had shot bullets through his cabin window into the fake body Bond created in his bed. Bond had waited till they were satisfied they had ‘killed’ him and left, slipping out the back of his cabin. He had seen them begin to torch the motel buildings, then scampered along to Viv’s cabin, to find her unconscious and rescue her, which is where the narrative picked up.

From their vantage point, Bond and Viv watch the two hoods walking from the motel carrying TV sets; so they’re doing a little freelance looting as well as arson. The plot is finally clear to Bond: it is an insurance scam. The two hoods are paid by Sanguinetti to torch the motel. The girl was to be the patsy. The Phancies were in on the scam. They would testify that they left the girl in charge and told her to turn off the electricity and use oil hurricane lamps. One of these would be found overturned among the burned ruins, along with the body of the girl. It would all be blamed on her and Sanguinetti would collect half a million cash. Tidy.

Now Bond walks into the light and tells the men to freeze. He sends the girl to pat their pockets and armpits to get their guns, but Horror moves like lightning, dropping his TV set, swirling and taking the girl hostage and counter-threatening Bond, as in a million TV and movie scenes. So the baddies edge to the corner of the building using the girl as a shield, then get away, not without a shot or two of Bond’s winging them.

There is then a great deal of crawling round buildings, hiding behind walls – as the fire continues to rage – dodging bullets, with the opposition popping up in unexpected places, everyone firing at everyone else. Might look good on TV or in a film, but a little boring to read. (Compare and contrast with the opening section about Viv’s teenage experiences, which were fascinating and original.)

Then the baddies are in their car, making their escape, and Bond leaps to his feet right in their path and, in classic duelling stance, side-on to his target (exactly as he did when he shot into the cab of the high-speed locomotive in Diamonds Are Forever) Bond shoots point blank into the car, which suddenly veers off the drive, across the lawn and over a small cliff into the lake – SPLASH – and sinks. End of bad guys.

Bond and the girl stagger through the still-burning ruins to one of the remaining motel cabins and have what is presumably meant to be a sensual shower together, tenderly soaping each other, the girl’s extensive injuries and wounds from Horror’s torture now conveniently forgotten. This reader found it impossible to relax into this soft porn after, not just the shootout we’ve just experienced, but the girl’s brutal degradation in the second section, let alone her traumatic sexual experiences in the opening. Far too much has happened and been too serious and traumatic to let the reader enjoy a sudden bit of Emmanuel or Bilitis.

And, disappointingly, we are now subject to paragraphs of gush about how strong, tall and handsome Bond is. As they shower or dry each other with soft towels, Viv thinks how Bond is ‘like the prince from the fairy tales’ who has saved her from the dragon and now is justified in taking his reward – her (p.176). He makes love to her, and she reflects:

All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful. That and the coinciding of nerves completely relaxed after the removal of tension and danger, the warmth of gratitude, and a woman’s natural feeling for her hero. (p.176)

After the tremendous insight and sympathy Fleming showed in the opening autobiographical sequence, this feels like an imaginative and moral collapse into pulp, cliché, stereotype.

The lovers fall asleep. In the middle of the night Viv hears something and looks up. There is a nightmare face at the window, slobbering, drooling, grimacing. There is a powerful Edgar Allen Poe-ish paragraph where she says she feels her hair literally stand on end, and tries to cry out but is literally frozen with terror. Then the window smashes and Bond reacts like a snake, whipping the gun out from under his pillow and shooting the figure at the window multiple times. He goes outside to check the body – Sluggsy – is definitely dead, comes back into the room, pulls the curtains over the smashed window, and then takes Viv again, ‘fiercely, almost cruelly’ (p.182). Pulp. Sensationalism. Crudity.

And in the morning he is gone, leaving a long practical letter and Viv to her gushing schoolgirl thoughts.

He would go on alone and I would have to, too. No woman had ever held this man. None ever would. He was a solitary, a man who walked alone and kept his heart to himself. (p.146)

The final section also drags quite badly. Bond’s letter tells Viv he’s up, fixed his wheel and on the road south to track down the Mechanics baddies, as he first explained. He will call the local police to come interview her (and get them to bring hot food) and do everything he can to make sure she gets the reward from the insurance company for foiling the arson scam.

Sure enough, there’s the drone of a police car pulling up outside and then some motorbikes. The handsome young motorcycle policeman has brought hot coffee and doughnuts. While Viv tucks in, the friendly old police chief first takes down all the details of the night before (corroborating the account Bond’s already given) then takes her aside for a friendly word of advice.

In a frankly odd finale, the old cop tells her she has had an insight into the dark underbelly of society, the hidden world of crime and law enforcement. The men who inhabit it – whether good guys like Bond or bad guys like Sluggsy and Horror – live a life apart, different from nice girls like Viv, from most good citizens. So, the cop tells her, she mustn’t go hero worshipping such a man. He comes from a different world, one she doesn’t want to enter. She must stay in the normal world, the real world, of decent folks. Viv agrees. She looks at the handsome young motorbike cop who kindly brought the coffee and doughnuts. Yes, he’s the kind of man she should fall in. Decent, reliable, someone from her world.

With these thoughts she packs up her few worldly goods onto the back of the Vespa and, with a parting wave at the kindly cops, speeds off down the highway.

It feels like a bizarre attempt to reintegrate the narrative into the everyday world of its likely readers. Why? Reminds me of the odd disjunction in many Hitchcock movies, which start in the (to us) stiflingly conformist ‘Hi honey, I’m home’ world of 1950s American suburbia, before taking us off into situations of extreme violence or horror (North by North-West, Psycho) before returning the viewer to normality, closing the violence cupboard, resolving the trauma.

It’s such a reassuringly conformist ending that is seems to us, 50 years later, almost surreal. But her farewell wave, and the image of a tough young woman who has survived a nightmare ordeal, still independent and undaunted, setting off down the highway into an unknown future, that still has a curiously contemporary ring.


It is an extraordinary tour de force by Fleming to devote so much time and effort to a sympathetic portrait of a young woman in 1950s England. It reminds me straight away of the extended sequence towards the end of its predecessor novel, Thunderball, where that book’s ‘Bond girl’, Domino, shared with Bond a long reminiscence of her teenage fantasies about the sailor figure who appears – or used to appear – on packets of Players cigarettes, a sequence which, the longer it went on, the more moving and beguiling I found it.

For a man sometimes accused of hating or degrading women, Fleming spent a lot of time imagining himself into the lives and experiences of his female characters. (The Wikipedia article on the book – linked to below – includes a round-up of contemporary reviews of Spy: almost all the critics really disliked it, among other things for its graphic sex scenes; but it is notable that the only positive review is from a woman, Esther Howard, who commented on the romantic element in the book, praising its ‘Daphne du Maurier touch’. Odd that the male critics noted only the sex and sexual violence, which they (presumably) felt duty bound to disdain; but it took a woman to recognise and enjoy the various elements of romantic psychology which Fleming had consciously given Vivienne.)


Nearly all the novels mention the phrase ‘all the time in the world’ somewhere or other, here on page 131. It is a leitmotif scattered through the oeuvre, and each time I read it reminds me of the Louis Armstrong version of the song.

But they also nearly always reflect, somewhere well on into the action, on how the early scenes of Bond being briefed by M or arriving at the location fresh and innocent, now seem like months even years ago, so much has happened in the interim.

And so, although the immediate action of this novel takes place over the 8 hours or so of one nightmare night, from the Phancies leaving Viv in the motel at dusk to the police arriving the next morning, the intensity of the psychological experiences feel like a lifetime.

I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock. So it was only five hours since all this had begun! It could have been weeks. My former life seemed almost years away. Even last evening, when I had sat and thought about that life, was difficult to remember. Everything had suddenly been erased. Fear and pain and danger had taken over. (p.160)

A lot is experienced in a very short space of time. Arguably it is the mark of the thriller genre that it focuses on intensity over depth of experience. What sets Fleming apart is that he embeds his intensities into writing with a number of other virtues or merits. I especially like his realistic descriptions of places, people, meals and landscapes. But it is clear from sequences like the long opening section of this novel, that he was also interested in trying to create a realistic psychology for his characters. It is only intermittently successful and when it fails – as with Viv’s collapse into gushing schoolgirl adoration of her hero – it fails badly. But it is the sheer fact of the attempt which is interesting.

The life-affirming effect of danger

And the simplest element in a character’s psychology is their thoughts and reflections. Are they the bare minimum required by the plot, to create a kind of entry-level sympathy? Or are they a bit more ambitious, pointing the moral not only of the story itself, but maybe of the genre and the act of reading?

Thus Viv is given quite a few moments of reflection, in the early section mulling over her disastrous love life (effective), in the final section full of gushing hero worship of the Sir Galahad who has saved her (poor). In the middle sequence, though, while she is being threatened, terrorised, then beaten, she expresses the simple credo which is at the core of the entire thriller genre.

The simple act of living, how precious it was! If I got out of this, I would know it for ever. I would be grateful for every breath I breathed, every meal I ate, every night I felt the cool kiss of sheets, the peace of a bed behind a closed, locked door… Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it. (p.111)

‘Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it.’ And thrillers, spy novels, pulps, with their varying levels of violence and escape, vicariously take the reader into scenes of danger, then restore them to the everyday world, chastened, stunned, ready to value every moment of health and happiness we can seize in such an unstable world.

The true jungle of the world, with its real monsters, only rarely shows itself in the life of a man, a girl, in the street. But it is always there. You take a wrong step, play the wrong card in Fate’s game, and you are in it and lost – lost in a world you had never imagined, against which you have no knowledge and no weapons. No compass. (p.106)

Hardly profound philosophy, but the frequency of passages like this – or the many places where Bond reflects on his job as a killer and is troubled by the deaths he’s caused – suggest that Fleming is more interested in the thoughts and reflections his characters give rise to than in the rather paltry, often silly scenarios he has to put them through for the entertainment of his pulp audience.


The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming was published in 1962 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1962

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

High Stand by Hammond Innes (1985)

This is the fourth Innes novel I’ve read in a row and I think it’s fair to say that, although the locations are always original and refreshing, the background and subject matter are thoroughly researched, his evocations of place, and especially seascapes, are always enjoyable – nonetheless, his plots are often strangely and frustratingly static, depending on a large dollop of voodoo-Gothic melodrama to convey a menacing mood often unjustified by the actual action – but that by far his worst fault is the extremely limited range of behaviour his characters display.

She seemed on the point of saying something more, but then she turned her head away, locking whatever it was up inside herself, the silence dragging. (p.15)

Sometimes it seems like all the characters do in an Innes novel is shrug, mumble, break off in mid-sentence, stare away into the distance or get stuck in long meaningful silences. The frustrating thing is that most of them aren’t that meaningful at all – in general the characters actually have very little to say to each other but take ages, sometimes scores, in a few cases, hundreds of pages, not to say it.

The plot

The story is told in the first person by a typically ordinary Innes’ protagonist – staid Sussex solicitor, Philip Redfern. He has set up a nice little practice near Ditchling on the South Downs and has just bought a sailing dinghy, his new pride and joy, which he fits up and sails across the Channel to France. Into his boring world come the Halliday family.

Grandfather Josh Halliday struck it rich in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s, buying up the land around his claim high in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, setting up various companies and then dying. It was all inherited by his son, Tom, who has never had to work in his life but has enjoyed a jetset lifestyle and a fondness for sports cars. Philip Redfern ended up acting as his solicitor because Halliday’s English country house was a nice big place tucked away in a fold of the Downs near his office. One day Tom Halliday appears out of the blue and asks Philip to write and witness a codicil to his will, leaving the area of timber planted by grandfather Halliday in the area below the gold mine to his second son, Brian.

A few days later Tom’s wife, Miriam, arrives and asks Philip if he knows where Tom is: he’s disappeared, hasn’t been home, hasn’t left a message as he usually does: mystery. And this is where the novel begins.

Now, Innes tells us, Redfern has always had a bit of a thing about Mrs Halliday (Miriam), bumping into her at various official parties in the neighbourhood and – on one memorable evening – giving her a lift home from Brighton when she invited him in for coffee and one thing led to another… Even as she tells her story, Redfern is distracted by the sight of her cleavage showing through her blouse; he really is an everybloke figure.

Over the following weeks it emerges that old Josh’s goldmine has been running empty for some time and that playboy Tom had been living on an extended bank overdraft which has now been terminated. Suddenly the bills for the house are no longer being paid, ditto the bills at his son’s company. Philip (characteristically for Innes) hasn’t a clue where Tom has disappeared to and isn’t surprised when, a few days later, he learns Miriam has sold some of the family silver and set off for the mine in Western Canada to find out what’s going on. He gets a few postcards from her detailing her progress, saying he’s the only one she can write to, and so reviving the torch he carries for her but then – typically – silence…

Redfern next gets a disconcerting visit from Tom’s son by his first wife – by all accounts a fiery Latin American – the improbably named Brian, whose dark colouring and impulsive (ie angry) temperament reveal his Latino origins. Brian has also come to find out what Philip knows about his father’s disappearance, but ends up discussing the stand of timber old man Halliday planted over a hundred years ago and the ‘curse’ old man Halliday put on it.

As his ancestor is to the Indian, so will I be to my trees. They are my Totem. Let any man fell even one of them, even in the interests of sound forestry, then with the first cut of the saw or swing of the axe my curse will be upon him. Do that and I will never leave you, day or night, till your nerves are screaming and you are dead by your own hand, dead and damned for ever to rot in Hell. (p.41)

Quite a curse.

Despite it, though, it is now emerging that the redwoods old Josh planted (‘the finest plantation of western red cedar he had ever seen’) are probably worth something like $600,000 – a lot of money to the newly-impoverished family. This must be why Halliday turned up a few days earlier to change his will to leave the trees to Brian; Brian alone has a mystical feeling for the trees. He explains their life-giving attributes, their aura, the mystical importance of trees, with a vehemence the dull solicitor finds unnerving.

Thus, after 60 pages or so, we have all the ingredients of a classic Innes yarn: farflung location (Western Canada); Gothic family legacy (the old mine and the curse on the trees); mystery (where’s Tom?); violence (‘I’ll kill any man who touches those trees.’).

In Canada

Redfern sails across to France again, but lies lonely and bored in the bunk of his dinghy – and it’s then he conceives the plan of taking some time off to go and find Miriam. Just as Trevor Rodin drops everything to go off to the Persian Gulf (in Innes’ novel The Black Tide), Roy Slingsby drops everything to go off to the Solomon Islands (Solomons Seal), and Colin Tait drops everything to go into the Kenyan bush (The Big Footprints), so Philip Redfern decides to drop everything to go in quest of Miriam Halliday, to check on the mine and the famous stand of pine, and generally find out what’s happening.

Next thing we know he’s on a flight over the Arctic to western Canada, to Vancouver. Here he has interviews with Halliday’s lawyers, with the timber firm and shipping firm. Turns out some of the timber has been chopped down and is being brought by tug to Vancouver. Already Brian Halliday is being true to his threats, and has steered a dinghy in front of one huge log-bearing tug, wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt and nearly getting himself killed. All this by page 70 of this 330-page book.

From Vancouver Redfern flies to Edmonton and on the flight is lucky enough to run into a guy who can offer him a lift up into the mountains, to the Front Ranges and to Lake Dezadeash. He stays in the lodge here, asking after the Halliday mine – the Ice Cold mine, it is called – and meeting the usual Innes round of surly locals, Kevin and Eddie and Tony, who are obviously hiding something…but what?

And so the narrative continues, mixing improbable motivation with characters who adopt, who only seem capable of, the very limited gamut of Innes’ postures – shrugging, breaking off in mid-sentence, mumbling and just being plain silent – but all set against vivid descriptions of the breath-taking West Canadian landscape.

The rock-scoured mountain that overhung the town gleamed wet and wicked where the great slide had gashed it, tumbling millions of tons of debris down into the waters of the loch to form the hard standing that reached back from the quay. (p.221 cf p.243)

Geography and a map

There is a lot of travelling, travelling vast distances across western Canada. In fact the middle two hundred pages of the book barely make sense without a map and the book really should have included one. I also didn’t understand why Tom and Redfern went by boat into the Yukon, crossed the border into America, then crossed out again and sailed down past Vancouver Island – an entire section that was quite hard to follow unless you were studying the correct maps pretty closely.

I also found it hard to follow when Tom made Redfern travel by coastguard cutter upriver from the sea across numerous lakes to be dropped at a derelict lakeside town, Ocean Falls, before getting a canoe and carrying it up scrabbly rocky hillsides to higher lakes in order to eventually reach the lake above the famous high stand of timber, to look down on the activities of the (illegal) loggers.

A lot of the story is made up of journeys, full of detailed geographical references which are, presumably, accurate, but are just so many words without having a large scale map of the region open in front of you. Much of the text reads like a travelogue – here Redfern is describing the river journey he and Brian take in the coastguard cutter Kelsey, commanded by the friendly captain Cornish:

Ocean Falls was little more than thirty miles away… By the time we had finished lunch we were back in the Fisher Channel, just passing the entrance to Lama Passage. We continued northwards past Evans Inlet and into the narrows by Bold Point… Now the mountains above us were bleak as we followed the King Island shore until we came to the Dean Channel junction and headed up Cousins Inlet… Soon she would turn north-east up the Dean Channel to pass Echo Harbour and Mackenzie Rock and on towards Kimsquit until they opened Cascade Inlet and reached the Halliday Arm of it. (pp.221-222)

A map would have been a very good idea.

I reckoned by then we should be past the entrance to Cousins Inlet and headed into the Fisher Channel. Presuming they followed the same course as before, midnight should see us approaching the point where we altered course to the westward to pass through Hakai Passage. (p.293)

Tom Halliday is alive

Redfern finally makes it up to the old mine and is poking around when he is astonished to bump into a small mining operation further down the hillside being run single-handed by — none other than the missing Tom Halliday! Tom Halliday alive and well, though looking the worse for spending the past month drilling and surveying to little effect. He needs the gold, and he’s irrationally, almost feverishly convinced there’s more gold in the lower valley, if he only had time! As they talk Redfern becomes aware of Halliday’s mania and realises the gossip about him and drugs may be true…

Miriam is kidnapped

But hardly have they clambered back up to the cabin for some outback coffee and Tom goes to an outbuilding to get something, than he comes hurtling back to reveal he’s found a message slipped under the door – ‘They’ve got Miriam! They’ve kidnapped Miriam!!’ So that’s why her postcards to Redfern back in Sussex came to abrupt halt. Although Redfern has no idea who ‘they’ are and Tom is characteristically hesitant, shruggy and pausey about explaining anything…

The loggers want more

It takes the next hundred and fifty pages to screw out of the narrative and the usual network of shrugs, turning away, mumbling and silences from all the characters, the basic fact, the premise of the novel, which is – Tom, in his desperation to pay for his lifestyle and to fund his frantic efforts to strike a new claim further down the mountain, agreed to sell the right to fell some timber from the stand of old redwood planted by his father to an American company. Brian the activist and Redfern, from his own investigations, have realised the timber company has gone beyond the agreement and continuing to fell, shave and send downriver by vast logging barge more trees than was agreed or paid for.

So Brian and Redfern continue their journey to the logging camp under the misapprehension that some Latin American hoodlums – who we met earlier on in the book, back in Lake Dezadeash – a couple of ‘hunters’ with guns and a bad attitude, are probably involved in kidnapping Miriam in order to pressure Tom into signing over the rights to chop down the entire stand – worth a genuine fortune.

Tom is a cocaine addict

During these pages we see it confirmed that Tom Halliwell is indeed a cocaine addict, something the lawyer Redfern deprecates but accepts. His addiction explains why Tom’s speech and behaviour are often so unpredictable. It is only in the final desperate pages that Tom reveals to Redfern and Brian, hunkered down in the woods above the timber operation, hiding out from the timber company and their shady Latino henchmen, that the the whole thing isn’t about illegal timber felling – the timber operation is an elaborate front for the massive drug smuggling operation. The Latin Americans bring in large amounts of cocaine, which is hidden in the logging barge, which then sails freely across the relatively open border between Canada and so into America.

Miriam is being held hostage in the cabin on the lake

Redfern had met Brian at one of the myriad of places mentioned in the text, and Brian drags Redfern across the western outback to the series of lakes above the stand of trees. It is dark and they are hiding or aware they might be followed. They sneak past a cabin which has noisy guard dogs tethered outside on their way to paddle across the final lake, to beach the canoe and then look down at the timber operation. It is only hidden in the trees here that Redfern suddenly realises the significance of the dogs: that must be where they’re keeping Miriam hostage!

Shootout at the cabin

As he realises this, they see the boss man of the timber crew, Wolchak, despatch the two Latino goons, Camargo and Lopez, up the hill towards them. Brian vows to stay on the scene, so Redfern – the boring solicitor from Sussex – finds himself scrambling fast uphill through the trees to the lakeside. He pinches the bad guys’ powered boat and sets off cross the lake, beaches on the other side and creeps up towards the cabin in the dark.

At that moment the front door opens and the man inside, one of the shady characters who have threaded in and out of the narrative, at the Ice Cold mine and on various boats since, emerges saying goodbye to a companion. They walk down to the lake and this gives Redfern the opportunity to dart into the open doorway and immediately see two doors inside barred by makeshift timber bars.

He opens one and is appalled to see Tom Halliday in a wild and crazy state and another man lying badly beaten on the bed. In a rush Tom explains the body is the corpse of Thor Olsen, Tom’s forest manager for the stand of timber, who they were beating in front of Miriam to get her to say how much she and Tom knew about the drug smuggling operation. In the middle of the beating Olsen had a heart attack and died. (p.266)

And Miriam is in the other, barred, room. As Redfern turns to it he hears footsteps towards the main door, springs to it and locks it on the inside. An angry face appears at the window shouting to be let in as a) Redfern opens the other door to release a dirty, dazed-looking Miriam b) incensed beyond words, Tom grabs a hunting rifle lying against the wall and shoots the man knocking at the window, Aleksis.

Tom and Miriam and Redfern emerge, stunned, into the night air, Redfern having to restrain Tom from shooting their guard – now lying moaning on the ground nursing a shattered knee – in the face or heart to finish him off. Redfern warns that he pinched the goons’ powered dinghy but they’ll have found his canoe and be rowing after him across the lake. Let’s go, says Tom and leaps into the dinghy, kicking off the motor.

Half way across the lake they see the canoe with Camargo and Lopez in it, but to Redfern’s horror Tom turns the tiller and sets course for a collision. As the bad guys raise their guns, the powered boat crashes into the side of the canoe, tearing it in half, the goons miss their shots and are thrown into the lake. ‘Shouldn’t we go back and help them?’ Redfern asks. ‘You don’t understand’, Tom replies. He had overheard the radio conversation – the two guys were on their way to ‘play’ with Miriam till they could get her to spill what she knew about the drug operation – ‘drowning’s too good for them.’ (p.270)

Tom is killed by a chainsaw

It’s in this vengeful mood that Redfern, Miriam and Tom beach the dinghy on the shoreline above the stand and begin going down into the woods. Here Brian reappears, the first time he has seen his father since he went missing a month before. He surlily ignores him but is overjoyed to see his (step)mother released from captivity. Together they look down on the timber operation, two big burly lumberjacks chainsawing the trees, while Brian boils over with anger accusing his father of all kinds of derelictions of duty, of betraying Grandad Halliday’s wishes, of ‘raping’ the beautiful landscape out of greed, and so on.

Thus taunted, the (already coked-up) Tom snaps and steps out of their hiding place and walks towards the lumberjacks, shouting at them to stop, he is the owner of the land etc. But they lazily, arrogantly tell him to **** off, they have their orders, doesn’t matter who he is etc. At which Tom really loses it, fires off one shot with the rifle he’s brought and then, discovering there’s no more ammo, charges the lumberjack with the gun above his head like a club. The lumberjack swings the chainsaw round in front of him as a warning or defence but Tom keeps on charging him and at the critical moment, probably, it all happens so fast, stumbles, and falls full onto the roaring chainsaw which rips right through his chest, blood and flesh spurting everywhere (p.279).

Miriam screams, Brian launches forward with his gun as the two lumberjacks turn tail and run down the track back towards the camp to warn everyone. Old man Halliday’s curse has been fulfilled. Tom allowed the high stand to be injured and paid for it with his life!

Hiding on the barge

Our heroes take a moment to get over their shock, Miriam kneeling by the gory remains of her husband long enough to get her blouse and skirt covered in blood. They can hear the dogs being alerted down in the lumber camp and have to make a decision. Brian convinces them not to run back up to the lake and try and escape that way, but – as the heavens open into a torrential downpour – to double back towards the camp – they won’t be expecting that.

In fact, from the trees at the edge of the camp they can see the enormous barge moored in the river, already piled high with lumber. ‘Follow me’, says Brian and goes skidding across the mud in the torrential rain, up the barge ramp and into the (deserted) wheelhouse (p.285).

It turns out to be hours and hours until the now fully-laden barge is hooked up to a tug and begins the long journey across a lake into a river and out to the sea passage next to Vancouver Island. Early on they manage to use the short wave radio to get a message out to the Captain Cornish who piloted the coastguard cutter which brought Brian and Redfern up the river. Now they send out an SOS, with a coded message implying the barge is stashed with drugs and giving their position. Then they climb down into the hold, squeeze among the massive redwood logs and find good hiding places.

All this takes over 24 hours, during which they become very hungry, very thirsty and shivering with cold from the heavy downpour of rain. They lie in their hideouts, hearing the clumping of men overhead, the change of the roll of the barge as it leaves the river and enters the open sea. Being a sailor (the importance of Redfern’s forays across the Channel at the book’s opening become more relevant here, as they were at various points, in Captain Cornish’s cutter, and paddling across various lakes) Redfern can see in his mind’s eye the route the barge is taking.

This goes on for a long time, until they have been without food or water for three days and are in a bad way. The text gives detailed descriptions of the route east of Vancouver Island the narrator and the coastguard cutter think the barge will take, and the actual route they take around the west of the island, rolling along in high seas and through a thick fog.

Climax and arrest

It’s when they eventually spot a lighthouse beam on the port bow that Miriam snaps. 18 days imprisonment followed by three days freezing and starving hidden among logs on a seabound barge have pushed her over the edge and she tells Brian and Philip that either they cut the hawser to the tug towing them or she’s jumping overboard and taking her chances swimming to the mainland. So they go carefully up the barge’s wheelhouse, rifles in hand, to find it deserted. As Brian releases the hawser for’ard, Redfern takes the radio and radios a mayday alert, picking up the coastguard cutter almost immediately, which a) heads towards them b) alerts coastal air-sea rescue helicopter c) alerts any nearby vessels. So that when the tug has swung round to come and investigate the problem, rearing up over them in the heavy seas with armed men in the bows, not only is the coastguard warning them off but suddenly a helicopter packed with customs and police officials appears overhead. Their ordeal is over.


Map required.

It was the Gabriello herself that towed the leaking barge clear of the rocks past Friendly Cove and the entrance to Cook’s Channel and into the quiet of the Zuciarte Channel. This took us south and west of Bligh Island to the grey rock of Muchalat Inlet and so up to the pulp mill some eight miles south of Gold River. (p.319)

Briefly, the barge is tugged to port and strip searched but, while the police concentrate on the matter of Tom’s murder and Miriam’s kidnapping, the customs can find no drugs. Until Philip has an epiphany: the drill he’d seen up at the camp and the logs on their side on a special hoist. He gets customs to try it out and they discover each log has been hollowed out and a 4.5 metre long container of pure cocaine inserted, before being sealed very carefully with the plug from the same tree, accurately positioned to completely hide the seal. Criminal proceedings begin. Wolchak turns out to be the head of American mafia family based in Chicago.

In the closing pages Miriam phones Philip in his hotel room overlooking the bay in Vancouver and takes him out for a meal. Guess what! Halliday’s men back at Ice Cold have discovered gold nuggets where Tom was prospecting. If only he’d found them a month ago, if only he’d found them a year ago, he would still be alive, sob. Philip comforts her and they are finally heading back to his hotel room, when a car tries to run them down and armed men leap out and start taking pot shots.

They run down to the marina just as a boat is docking and Philip yells, ‘Mayday mayday’, leaping aboard and shouting at the owner to pull away, they’re being chased by armed men. The owner, a phlegmatic Yank, steers them out into the safety of the bay and asks for their story. You want my opinion? he asks at the end of it. Drug cartels are tough, very tough. Go back to England and don’t come back unless you’ve got an armed guard.

And so Miriam and Philip make it back to their hotel room and perform the act of love which has been in the offing ever since Philip was entranced by her heaving breasts back in the opening pages. But afterwards he lays awake, worried how they are going to balance returning at some point to open up the new gold diggings up in Ice Cold, with what is now the permanent threat of revenge by a drug cartel.

And on this ambivalent note, the novel ends.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.

1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Emily Carr @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Emily Carr (1871-1945), according to the curators one of Canada’s most beloved and famous artists although, like most Brits, I’d never heard of her. Carr never married and had no significant relationships, instead dedicating her life to recording the vanishing monuments of the native peoples and the wild landscape of her native British Columbia. It is a fascinating show, the latest in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s long track record of small but wonderfully inspiring exhibitions.

Carr was the fifth daughter of a merchant who was able to fund her art studies. Her parents died when she was young, and she had to struggle against her elder sisters’ wishes that she find a good husband and settle down – instead she was determined to pursue her artistic ambitions, travelling to San Francisco to study art in the 1890s. Later in the decade and through into the early 1900s she was in London studying painting, with a spell at St Ives too. So she was starting her career right at the birth of Modern Art, as the Fauves were exploring more violent colour contrasts, as Picasso and Braque were about to invent cubism, as the pace of artistic experimentation accelerated in the years just before the Great War.

Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893, Image H-02813, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Young Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893 (courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives)

The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition wing has six rooms, so Carr’s career is divided into six sections. For some artists this six-fold division is used to highlight different subjects or media, but for Carr it really brings out how strikingly different her style and approach was at different points of her career.

The forest

The first room shows many of her early tree and forest paintings. She had a special affinity for trees, especially the tall, muscular cedar trees which characterise British Columbia. They are like twisting columns among the sombre dark-green foliage. A classic example here is Tree Trunk (1931). Among the studies of trees is a famous image, Indian Church (1929).

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas. ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto,

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto)

Reproductions don’t convey how intense, claustrophobic and brooding this painting is. The commentary explains there was just such a church in the woods but Carr brought the forest much closer than it was in real life, bunched the gravestones closer up against the building, and made the church striking white against the threatening greens of the encroaching forest. It symbolises her white, European ancestry and artistic heritage, set against the fathomless depth and power of wild, unEuropean nature.

The commentary made the telling point that though she did hundreds of tree paintings, there are no leaves. Being familiar with the botanical drawings of Marianne North among others, or the feathery leaf technique of Thomas Gainsborough, I realise this was a very deliberate choice. Her foliage comes in blocks. It is similar in feel to the cubist or vorticist feel for blocks, cubes, rectangles, cones. Nature, for Carr, is forces and directions of energy, rather than fragile detail.

Totem poles

In the 1860s a wave of epidemics, mostly smallpox, swept through the native people of British Columbia, decimating them. Entire villages were wiped out and their buildings, artefacts and striking totem poles left to rot. This was the strange abandoned landscape Carr grew up into in the 1890s. Once she had discovered her first native villages she became obsessed with recording them before they decayed forever, reclaimed by the forest. The result was hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings of totem poles and the other statuary of the natives.

All of these have, I imagine, considerable historical and anthropological importance, but almost all of them are striking and hauntingly beautiful.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913, Image PDP02145 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913 (Image courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada)

In this, one of the most famous images, note the use of Cezanne-like inch-long rectangles of paint, the blocky effect, visible all over, but particularly in the clouds and especially in the grass.

and many many more images of totems. Two things stick out for me. 1. These are ruins. No humans anywhere. The same accusation could be made as was made against the English Lake District poets and painters – Nature is a refuge from the messiness of human life, human relationships, above all from the world of work, earning the money to buy the food to stay alive. 2. Like all ruins, they come with a ready-made emotional appeal. (cf Tate’s exhibition on Ruin Lust). The gaunt accuracy of her works contrasts with the actual crumbling decay, poignantly.

Late 20s modernism

Then she packed it in. Sometime during the Great War Carr stopped painting in oil or watercolour and took to other things, dog breeding, according to the commentary, which includes photographs of her looking very happy surrounded by her animals. She had got no recognition, sold nothing, made no money. Decided to call it a day.

Some 15 years later, in 1927, a gallery out East decided to have an exhibition about paintings of the Canadian landscape and someone suggested Carr. She sent nearly 30 works and found herself famous! She was invited to attend the exhibition and met the Group of Seven young painters who’d come together to forge a native Canadian style. She found herself praised as a forebear of their attempts and, amid the adulation and praise, was encouraged to take up her brush again.

What she produced from 1927 through the mid-1930s is strikingly different from the earlier work. It is much more modernist, even Vorticist in feel, the subject matter (nature, trees, forest, totem poles – no people) more chunky, stripped down to create solid blocks of thick colour.

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)


Just as you’re getting your head around Carr’s progression from late-Victorian realist watercolour through Fauvism and cubism influences to the blocky 1930s style – you walk into the 5th room to discover a dozen or more paintings in a completely different style. The subject is still nature, forest, trees, but she has invented a new technique, based on using petrol to soften the paint once it is on the canvas and stir and spread it around in spools and wisps of colour. This experimental new technique creates a light, flowing style utterly unlike the heavy dark blocks of colour from earlier in the 1930s.

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Note the emphasis on the play of light and the effect of wind, light and wind on slender trees – completely different from the heavy, static, claustrophobic images of the forest which the exhibition opened with. Many of them have the expressionist swirling of paint around the main subject reminiscent of Edvard Munch.

Final room

The final room shows yet another change in style: her last paintings, done in the late 1930s/early 1940s, are of light over the sea, beaches, the coast. According to the catalofue, ‘euphoric sky paintings, rhythmic light-filled beach scenes and clear-cut landscapes’. It would be nice to end on a positive note, but for me these don’t work. The technique they all adopt of thick lines of paint – presumably an attempt to catch the infinitely subtle play of light on water, or sunlight between clouds – fail.

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Far more interesting are the couple of large paintings of decorated canoes drawn up by the sea or lake shore. The first is an accurate but rather insipid watercolour from 1908. Next to it hang two large oil paintings from 1912, just 4 years later, but a world away. Carr has been exposed to the Fauves and taken on board their experiments with colour: using colour not in relation to the ‘real world’ but in relation to the other colours in the palette and being used in the painting: so that shadows become purple or green, hillsides can be red or yellow (lessons about colour conveyed so brilliantly in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition about Making Colour). Gauguin in Canada.

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Native Indian artefacts

In two of the rooms, in addition to the paintings there are display cases containing 30 or so native Indian artefacts, carved objects and tools made by the peoples whose ruined villages and totems Carr recorded so dedicatedly. They included: helmet with bear, gull mask, raven ladle, octopus spoon, sheep horn feast dish, frog mask, soul catcher, shaman’s amulet, dance wand, oyster catcher rattle.

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The audio commentary had many of them explained by James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver; there was one particularly long piece where he described the myths surrounding the important figure of the raven in native mythology.

The aim, I think, is to give a sense of the Indian culture which she was painting and I certainly thought they had a tremendous depth and elegance. The historical and cultural authenticity of the native artefacts, as well as the resonance of mythical imagination behind the objects which depicted faces of animals, shamans and totems, are like gateways into a really strange and alien universe of belief and practice.

They give you a sense of Carr’s startling ambition to try and match and capture their weird insight. In her day she was a bold and imaginative pioneer, heroic in her determination to seek out the ruined villages, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest white settlement, to stay there day after day, often on her own, trying to catch the secrets of these haunting objects by the equally mysterious process of covering thin canvas surfaces with strokes of coloured oil.

Towards the end of her life she described her adventures among the native peoples and their art in a best-selling book, Klee Wyck.

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

Emily Carr in her studio, 1939, by Harold Mortimer-Lamb (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

This is a great show about a fascinating, strong and uncompromising artist. It’s been extended to mid-March. Go see.

Related links

Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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