Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

No One Can Stop The Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng (2005)

As with all stories everything was one big confusão.
(Karin Moorhouse in No One Can Stop The Rain, page 201)

Karin and Wei

Karin Moorhouse was born in Australia. At university in April 1981 (p.262) she met and fell in love with Wei Cheng, who had fled Mao’s China (where he had been a very young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution) and was training as a pediatric surgeon.

The couple married in 1988 and moved to Hong Kong, where she was a successful marketing executive and he was a successful pediatric surgeon. They led a hectic, happily married life for some years and then, in 2000, put into affect a long-cherished ambition, which was to volunteer for a charity in the developing world. They went to work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Angola, which was still caught up in its ruinous 27-year-long civil war (1975 to 2002). Wei was to work as a surgeon and Karin as a financial administrator.

This book is the co-authored account of their experiences. It is a long, thorough narrative, overflowing with charity and compassion. It contains plenty of grim descriptions of horrific injuries and grinding poverty and yet somehow, amid it all, a fair amount of humour, and some moments of beauty and redemption. A portion of the profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières.

They were sent to Kuito, capital of Angola’s Bié province, which had a pre-war population of about 200,000, almost dead centre of Angola and the most heavily landmined city in the country (p.247).

Kuito is/was on the Benguela to Zambia railway line, built by a British company in 1902, which once brought trade and development to all the stops along the line. But for a generation before they arrived it had been fought over by the opposing sides, with UNITA in particular doing their damnedest to destroy it and had succeeded very nicely. Kuito railway station was mined and off limits during their stay. Nobody could remember the last time a train had run on the ruined line.

Map of Angola showing Kuito, capital of Bie province in the centre of the country

Wei went out first (August 2000) and sent Karin detailed emails of life in the new role and country which form the basis of the opening chapters. Eight weeks later (end of September 2000) Karin joined him. He worked as a surgeon with responsibility for the emergency ward (the Banco de Urgência) and orthopedic ward, she worked as an administrator both at the hospital and at the related nutrition and care centres.

They were both in the roles for about 8 months (Wei from August 2000 to April 2001). They wrote emails and letters to friends and family, as well as diaries and other fragments, which they glue together with present-day narrative and reflections to produce a kind of mosaic of impressions, thoughts, history and experiences.

Writing

The couple co-wrote the book so that alternating chapters or sections are clearly marked ‘Karin writes’ or ‘Wei writes’. This immediately prompts the question whether you can tell them apart as writers, whether they have different writing styles or approaches, and the quick answer is Yes, they do.

One of the main reasons writers are ‘writers’ is because they’ve put a lot of thought into the art of writing. This art or craft no doubt consists of many things but maybe two key ones are: working hard to develop a voice or style which stands out, and working hard to avoid clichés, banality, bromides, sentimentality, Hallmark Card triteness.

Obviously the point of this book is the terrible things they saw and how they coped, and their conscious intention is to show that, amid the horror, they also witnessed the positive side of human nature which real adversity and misery sometimes brings out. But before the narrative arrives in Angola we are assessing the pair as authors.

Karin’s style

Wei is a better writer than Karin and it was interesting, over the course of the book’s 300 pages, to analyse why. Karin is allotted early sections giving an overview of the war which display a shaky grasp of the facts (she says Angola’s war was thirty years old in 2000, whereas there’s general agreement that it officially started in the year of independence, 1975, and so was 25 years old) and she has an equally shaky way with the English language:

  • If we were not abstracted from the surroundings, the panorama could have been one of incomparable splendour. (p.82)
  • A particularly average bottle of Portuguese rosé tasted sweet between our lips. (p.82)

Right at the start of the narrative, when describing the flight from Brussels to Luanda, and the evening the reunited couple spent at a restaurant and sauntering along the beach there, Karin sounds like a bad tourist brochure. Maybe it’s that she’s writing Australian English, a version of the language continually going off at a mild but noticeable tangent from my English English, but I was continually pulled up short by her unexpected phrasing:

  • Her colleagues gaggled with laughter about something I couldn’t understand. (p.46 and p.208)
  • I quickly gleaned what to expect from the arrestingly basic conditions. (p.82)
  • By far the most confronting ward was orthopedics. (p.87, p.267)
  • I felt a heightened sense of anguish by the political statement Wei was making in those times of insecurity. (p.127)
  • It was exasperating to be so linguistically challenged because I yearned to understand how people were managing inside themselves. (p.128)
  • From the door I watched as the ambulance pulled away and sunk into the night. (p.140)
  • It was a cheap escape from certain volatility. (p.146)
  • The shower dispensed a burst of icy-cold water and even my wimpish aversion to this embracing start to the day paled in significance. (p.146)
  • When it rained, the morning’s swelter was extinguished. (p.156)
  • I set to with overt confidence. (p.157)
  • With Christmas only three days away we were taken with the near lack of suggestion that the festival was approaching. (p.161)
  • The vehicle chortled over yawning potholes. (p.167 and p.256)
  • His vociferous cries echoed through the corridors. (p.180)
  • We were all green with envy from her linguistic prowess. (p.206)
  • It was a clear night and the milky moon glowed to the size of a dinner plate. (p.212)
  • In the middle of obscurity the government of Angola decided to reopen the Department of Social Security. (p.242)
  • Rain pelted on the window in staccato fashion. (p.243)
  • I became conscious of where I was placing my next footprint. (p.246)

Karin seems to have been assigned writing up the broader political and geopolitical situation and towards the end of the text mentions the amount of factual research she did to write chapters about not only the war but Angolan society, about its poverty index, life expectancy and so on, that kind of factual content. But even here she comes up with imaginative new locutions:

  • The Angolan government had been trying hard to foster a process of normalisation within the international arena. (p.34)
  • Neglected and unable to influence events [Angolans] bore the full brunt of both sides’ pursuit for absolute power. (p.35)
  • The government, in pursuit of the last vestiges of Savimbi’s army, had forged into the interior. (p.35)

I began to look forward to the Karin sections because of their linguistic kookiness. I get bored of trying to write plain, grammatically clear and comprehensible sentences. Karin’s inventive way with the language was sometimes funny, but sometimes genuinely interesting.

  • Once the Cubans were out of the way, the US was free to switch sides and support the government, leaving their old ally Savimbi to re-establish arms suppliers among numerous nation-pieces of the former Soviet Union. (p.129)

Added to which, her enthusiasm often spills over into amusingly schoolgirl gush:

  • A kaleidoscope of emotions overwhelmed me (p.88)
  • The children made my heart melt…
  • And when I walked, I loved to observe life around me. (p.93)

She is regularly ‘charmed’ and ‘beguiled’ and ‘captivated’ by the loveliness of native women’s dresses, by the singing of the church choir, by the beauty of the children. She finds so many things ‘delightful’. Karin has a couple of favourite words which I grew to like, too. She ‘surmises’ lots of things. I’m not sure I’ve ever surmised anything in my life. I’m impressed by someone who does so much surmising.

And everything is over-described. No noun goes without a melodramatic adjective, no verb goes without a gaudy adverb. Wei doesn’t just ‘crash’ onto his pillow after a hard day, ‘he crashed heavily onto his pillow’. Karin never sits up when she could sit ‘bolt upright’. The shadows in the street have to be ‘gloomy shadows’. Nobody’s ever just nervous, they’re always ‘a bundle of nerves’. The driver doesn’t struggle to turn the ambulance round in a narrow street, he ‘struggles deftly’. Duarte doesn’t just sigh, he ‘let out a worrisome sigh’. On a short break in South Africa, they don’t just hire a car and take to the road, but ‘took to the roads with glee’. When they’re pulled over by police, they aren’t just anxious, their ‘anxieties reached a crescendo’ and then ‘my fears had reached their zenith’. Arlete doesn’t just have a frail body, she has ‘a cadaverously frail body’. The conifer trees in the garden don’t just provide shade but ‘needle-sweet shade’. Mud isn’t just mud but ‘slurping mud’. Everything has to be amped up, all the time.

We often say that someone has a physical age but also has a mental age, which can be different. Arguably, people also have a literary age i.e. the age revealed when they try to write something. Karin regularly displays the literary age of an excitable 13-year-old. The trip to South Africa ‘was a magical ride’, a dizzy contrast to Angola, ‘that cauldron of carnage’ (p.144).

Everything is overlit as in a soap opera full of exaggerated compassion, alarm, horror and tragedy. In the TV series Friends the character Joey gets an acting job on a popular soap set in a hospital, called Days of Our Lives. Often, reading Karin’s account is like watching a version of Days of Our Lives set in the Third World, with the heroine sitting ‘bolt upright’ in bed as her hero husband manfully declares ‘By God, I’m going to save that little girl if it’s the last thing I do!’

When my kids are at junior school, the English teachers told them to write essays which included as many ‘wow words’ as possible, a strategy designed to increase their vocabulary. Karin’s text overflows with wow words. When the power fails at the airport, the crowd ‘claw’ for their baggage on the stalled carousel; they ‘scuttle’ outside into the fresh air; taxi touts ‘buzz’ around them as they make their way through ‘a sea of prying hands’ (p.145). Reading Karin is a bit like being on drugs.

She likes the word ruminate and why not, it’s an interesting word. When a young mother dies shortly after giving birth: ‘A hollow feeling ruminated from within’ (p.126). After the senior nurse Manuel Vitangui is murdered: ‘We all ruminated for weeks’ (p.142). Ruminating and surmising. And snaking, too. Roads don’t lead or wind, they always snake; as, inevitably, do queues and UN motorcades (pp.46, 171, 227, 253, 254).

Karin has one particular theme or bugbear which she returns to three or four times, which is the way everyone in the West is in so much of a rush and a hurry that we never seem to have time for each other any more! Compared to the Africans she meets who don’t have two sticks to rub together, but often seem to have more time and compassion for each other. It’s almost as though we in the busy West could learn a thing or two about taking life more slowly and enjoying it more!

There in Kuito, in the middle of a civil war, the stress of modern city life peeled away like onion rings. (p.94)

She repeats the idea a lot, harping on about the intolerable 24/7 workload of their lifestyle in Hong Kong, about ‘the Hong Kong scramble’ and the blur of ‘time-devouring commitments’, the ‘pressures and stresses of the commercial world’ (p.208). From the opening chapter onwards, Karin is at pains to describe how their time in Kuito was time out of what she repeatedly describes as the stressful overwork of their lives as super-busy professionals in Hong Kong.

The overwritten dressing-up of pretty banal and obvious statements like these for some reason reminded me of James Herriott’s vet books. You don’t read them for the cutting edge philosophy or incisive social commentary; you read them for their down-home sentimentality and comfort and reassurance. Even when cows or sheep die in horrible circumstances, everything is ultimately contained by the warmly reassuring tone of the narrative. Same here. The comparison is reinforced by the way this book, like the vet books, is divided into chapters which often focus on specific individual cases, in this book’s case, into 66 very short chapters. 273 pages / 66 chapters = about 4 pages per chapter.

That said, there are frequent chapters on non-medical subjects, such as the one where they go for a picnic by the river, or attend a church service. There’s an entirely comic chapter about how she and Wei agonise about what to do with a rooster one of their staff has brought and tethered to a tree for them. The idea is it’ll be the centrepiece of the dinner party they’re planning for the evening, but neither of them has any experience of slaughtering, gutting and cooking a live bird or, as Karin refers to the chicken throughout, ‘our feathered friend’.

My wife likes the BBC TV series Call The Midwife and has read all of the original memoirs by Jennifer Worth. I imagine they have the same combination of sometimes intense tragedy with spirited comedy over ‘life’s little mishaps’, with ‘light-hearted moments’ of ‘comic relief’.

And this isn’t accidental. Karin is deliberately trying to inject humour into the text. Hence the chapter entirely about their comic inability to kill the chicken; an extended passage about how she gives Wei a disastrous haircut, clipping several bald patches into his black hair; the chapter about their comic struggles to contain an infestation of Angolan mice; or a chapter about the nuns associated with the hospital, which is punningly titled ‘Nuninhibited’. Sometimes the humour is surprisingly blunt, as when Karin titles a chapter devoted to their upsetting work in the malnutrition clinic, dealing with starving children, ‘Weight Watchers’.

To be clear, none of her or Wei’s shortcomings as writers detract for a second from the basic fact that they made the brave decision to park their high-flying careers and go and do real good in the world, bringing health and hope to thousands who would have lacked it without their efforts.

I am well aware that nitpicking about her prose style is trivial weighed in the balance against what she and her husband achieved. But books provide a complex matrix of intermingled pleasures, even the most horrific subject matter comes dressed in words, and words come draped in connotations and overtones which create complex psychological affects. And it’s these effects which interest me, often more than the ostensible subject matter.

The civil war in Kuito

Despite her wayward way with words, Karin conveys lots of important information, a lot of it sourced from official reports by the likes of the UN, UNICEF, the World Bank, Transparency International and so on. She gives references for these facts which are gathered in a lengthy References section at the end of the book. Obviously her specific references are dated now, but the organisations are still going strong, so it was interesting looking up the contemporary 2021 versions of many of the annual reports she cites. It is striking to see how, 21 years after their trip, Angola remains towards the very bottom of global league tables for infant mortality, life expectancy, poverty and corruption.

Chapter 51 is devoted to a brief but comprehensive overview of Angola’s history, from the establishment of small coastal settlements by the Portuguese in the 1480s, through the rise and rise of the slave trade during which an estimated 3 million blacks were abducted and carried over the ocean through to the end of slavery in the mid 1800s. She describes:

  • the very slow progress of Portugal in settling the interior, the precise borders of Angola only being settled in the early 20th century
  • the brutality of the forced labour under the Salazar regime
  • the complete failure to build schools or hospitals for the locals
  • the sporadic revolts which broke out in 1961 and snowballed into the brutal 14 year war for independence
  • the collapse of the regime back in Portugal and its replacement by a new liberal government which simply walked away from its African colonies, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Portugal
  • how this left various freedom fighter/guerrilla movements to erupt into ruinous, decades-long civil wars in which repeated attempts by the international community to negotiate peace treaties repeatedly failed and the war resumed with ever-greater savagery

Not a happy history, it it?

Anyway, the key fact of the whole narrative is that the couple arrived in Angola just as the civil war was entering its final phase. There were two sides in the Angolan Civil War:

  • the de facto government run by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (in Portuguese the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA) which held all the main cities, the coast, and benefited from international loans and ever-increasing oil revenue
  • and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (in Portuguese the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola or UNITA) based in ‘the bush’

The MPLA drew support from the Mbundu people of the coast while UNITA drew support from the Ovimbundu people of the central highlands.

After a series of failed peace treaties and the withdrawal of UNITA’s South African backers and the MPLA’s Cuban backers in the early 90s, the MPLA government, enriched by increasing oil revenues and benefiting from a generation raising, training and funding its army, began in 1999 to make a final push for victory. They set out to clear the entire country of UNITA guerrillas, province by province. This was described as limpeza, the strategy of systematically ‘cleansing’ an area of guerrillas.

This is what the official MPLA army was attempting to do to the area around Kuito throughout our heroes’ stay. Karin has a chapter clarifying that it amounted to a brutal scorched earth policy in which government soldiers destroyed all villages, torched all the buildings, burned all the crops and expelled the entire populations of regions to ‘safe areas’, accompanied by indiscriminate beatings, murder, rape,  torture, mutilation and pillaging. Hence the never-ending stream of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) into Kuito. Hence the entire country was systematically reduced to poverty and starvation by both sides (p.232).

Crucially for our heroes’ experience of their sojourn, MPLA forces had only recently driven UNITA forces out of Kuito. Both Wei and Karin comment on the appalling damage wreaked on the town. Not a building had remained undamaged and many were utterly ruined. Bullet and shrapnel holes pock every facade.

Typical building in war-damaged Kuito © DW Digital Archive

When they arrive the town was surrounded by a 7 kilometer ‘security zone’ but this was none too solid. At night Wei can hear gunshots and artillery fire, some from distant fighting, some from more nearby shooting, not least by the consistently drunken MPLA soldiery garrisoned in the city.

And during the day, in the hospital where he has been brought to work, Wei sees patients with gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds and an endless flow of horrible landmine wounds. A much reduced UNITA had resorted to a strategy of making occasional raids on villages, shooting 7 or 8 peasants one night, burning down a few huts the next. Just making their presence felt as an ongoing ‘nuisance’ to the government.

Wei’s account

Wei is the doctor and his sections concentrate on a) his efforts to overhaul the surgical department of Kuito hospital which he has been deployed to and b) detailed descriptions of individual patients, their symptoms, diagnosis and treatment with c) some descriptions of his civilian life – of the MSF house he shared and the fairly regular parties given for new aid workers arriving or experienced aid workers leaving.

At the hospital he tries to instil punctuality into the staff, insists they don’t wear their everyday shoes into the operating theatre, sets about training the nurses who assist in surgery, makes a big request back to MSF headquarters for more equipment and resources. Halfway through the book his wife gives a proud list of his achievements (p.137). Wei:

  • devised a new way to plan operating lists
  • revised gown regulations
  • implemented new handwashing and swab-counting procedures
  • introduced a clean zone
  • improved interdepartmental meetings
  • improved morbidity and mortality records
  • improved ward round procedures and patient records
  • reorganised rosters to improve care and training for the anaesthetic nurses
  • increased ward round frequency
  • increased outpatient consultations 300%

If these sound like slides from a PowerPoint presentation or entries on a LinkedIn profile that’s because that’s is the kind of people Karin and Wei are – highly trained, highly capable, highly successful and highly ambitious Westerners. Vague wishes to do good aren’t enough. Practical skills, not only at doctoring, but in organising and administering, are what the couple brought to Kuito hospital, its malnutrition clinics, and to the numerous displaced border camps around the city.

Doctors from other agencies or passing through volunteer or are co-opted to help, such as the English doctor who assisted a seven-hour operation to remove hundreds of pieces of shrapnel from a little girl’s body, face and eyes.

Wei operating on a victim of a UNITA attack on the town of Andulo (p.157)

This all explains why Wei’s sections are ‘better’ than Karin’s. He is closer to the reality of Médecins Sans Frontières’ central work i.e. doctoring the poor. He is at the coalface, he is dealing with specifics of conditions, diagnoses and treatments. Also, being a doctor, he is used to writing up factual notes and/or scholarly papers (as a doctor he has had to sit no end of exams in very factual subjects). This has had the affect of disciplining his mind and his prose to be that bit more accurate and precise, both in his observations and in his phrasing. In fact at one point, when he’s discussing training up the local staff, Wei makes the point that writing forces you to think more clearly.

I kept reminding my staff that writing was training itself, as it helped crystallise thinking. (p.68)

Mind you, even Wei has an occasional brain freeze of a sentence, enough to make you pause and reread and then marvel a little at the English language’s endless capacity for malapropisms and lapses.

  • I felt bereft…imbibed in sorrow. (p.65)
  • Costly dental work was beyond the realms of our facilities. (p.89)

Landmine injuries

Alberto, a boy who picked up a grenade which blew both his arms off (p.164). The little girl covered in shrapnel from the grenade her brother picked up and which killed him outright. The endless stream of impoverished peasants missing a foot or a leg. The ward devoted to amputees. The factory run by the International Committee of the Red Cross which makes prosthetic feet and legs (p.51). Karin tells us the ICRC fitted about 300 prosthetic limbs a year (p.231).

It was in Kuito that, in January 1997, Princess Diana made her famous trip to publicise the work of the HALO Trust, the charity dedicated to removing landmines of which she was patron. (She was to die in the Paris underpass just seven months later.)

Late in the book, in chapter 61, Karin describes a visit she and Wei made to a minefield close to the city, under the careful supervision of HALO Trust experts. It’s an opportunity for showcase her research and inform us that Angola is meant to be the most landmined country in the world, with as many as 10 million mines buried across it, coming in about 75 different shapes and sizes, originating from 21 countries of manufacture. Imagine if you work in a landmine factory. Plenty of people must. How would you feel about your work? That’s the kind of character you never come across in fiction or movies. When I worked in TV I remember trying to develop the idea for a documentary which would being together amputee victims of landmines from a country like Angola with the no doubt working class people who make them.

Delay

So many of the victims arrived late, after days on the road or being carried from remote villages or because they are ashamed to seek out a doctor. Or, even more simply, they have to travel immense distances to get to the clinic in a land with no fuel so no cars or buses or taxis or horses or donkeys.

The only way is to trek scores of kilometers over hard stony desert on bare feet. So many of the patients he sees are filthy dirty, exhausted and malnourished before he even gets round to the condition which has brought them., that in most of the cases infection had set in. Again and again Wei has to clean wounds suppurating with pus, and all too often gangrene has set in and what might have been minor amputations turn into removal of the entire limb (p.65). And maggots. Wounds which are so gangrenous that maggots have hatched in the mass or purulent dead skin (p.240).

Gunshot wounds

Gruesomely, he comes to recognise a subset of gunshot wounds which aren’t directly related to the war, but which have, amazingly, been administered by the police. As patients shamefacedly admit to him, or as his staff of nurses explain, some of the patients they see were shot by the ‘police’ who tried to extort money or goods from them and when the patient was reluctant, shot them, as a direct punishment and a warning to others.

The little boy selling charcoal at a roadside stall. Two police stopped to extort money from him. He said he didn’t have any, holding out a few wretched cents in his fist, so the police took shot him through the hand, smashing it so that when he is brought to the hospital, Wei has no choice but to amputate it (p.232).

In the worst case, a young woman is admitted with a gunshot wound to her upper thigh and the story reluctantly emerges that a policeman tried to rape her and when she resisted tried to shoot her in the vagina, narrowly missing. Drunken police or soldiers attempting to rape civilians is a recurrent theme, as when drunk tropas burst into the Katala Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, separate off the women then systematically rape them all (p.169).

One night some drunk soldiers (or tropas in the local slang) accost a pregnant woman in the street. When she flees to a nearby house, the soldiers burst in and shoot the house owner, his son and wife. The father carries his son to the hospital. When the ambulance goes to collect the badly wounded wife, the soldiers open fire on it, wounding the driver and killing Manuel Vitangui, the senior nurse sitting alongside him. These are government soldiers who are meant to be protecting the population (Chapter 34). The 5 year old boy shot through the face by government soldiers, his brother shot dead (p.228).

Soldiers who, for no discernible reason, shot Adelina, a pregnant woman walking to market with some corn husks, through the back. The wounded woman walked for miles to Kuito where Wei performed emergency surgery (p.258).

Wei, like many doctors, refrains from moralising and commentary:

I wrote in my diary that I was not there to judge. (p.238)

It is left to the reader to ponder what future there can possibly be for a society whose police extort money and sexual favours from a wretchedly impoverished population at gunpoint, and whose drunken soldiers shoot them at random. None. No kind of future except eternal misery.

You sympathise with Wei’s heartfelt excursus on the evil of guns, his careful description of what a high velocity bullet really does to a human body, the difficulty of cleaning a gunshot wound of its fragments of smashed bone and fragmented tissue, and the wickedness of Hollywood movies for glamorising guns (p.73).

Domestic violence

Mix the strain of wartime conditions, the availability of guns, and alcohol, and you have a toxic mixture. Karin devotes a chapter to the issue of drunk, psychotic men: the policeman who attacked his family in an angry rage, killing his wife and youngest child, shooting his eldest who was rushed to hospital which is where Wei performed the operation on her gunshot wounds and learned the story.

The fit young soldier who is rushed into intensive care with a gunshot wound to the heart but dies on the stretcher as they’re carrying him into theatre. At which point it emerges it was a suicide; he had first shot dead his wife, then his two young children, then himself.

During their stay the biggest threat came not from UNITA or outback guerrillas but from Kuito-based soldiers or policemen off their faces on the local own brew and behaving with drunken violence, stopping cars to extort bribes or just letting off their guns for no rational reason (p.211).

General conditions

Wei gives medical conditions their proper medical names and there’s an appendix which includes all the medical conditions mentioned in the text with definitions, including:

  • abscess
  • anastomosis
  • bowel resection
  • dermatitis
  • ectopic pregnancy
  • elephantiasis
  • haematocolpos
  • hernia
  • intussusception
  • laparotomy
  • menengitis
  • pellagra
  • peritonitis
  • post-partum hemorrhage
  • utero-vesical fistula

He makes a lot of deliveries by caesarian section, often to pregnant women in terrible conditions, almost all suffering from malnutrition, some who’ve been shot, either by UNITA bandits but sometimes by drunken MPLA soldiers.

Diseases of poverty

Wei had been fully briefed and expected the war wounds, but he’s surprised that the majority of cases he sees result not from war but from crushing poverty. Take the prevalence of pellagra, a disease that occurs when a person does not get enough niacin (one of the B complex vitamins) or tryptophan (an amino acid).

Or the fact that by far the highest numbers of patients were those suffering from abscesses caused by malnutrition and infection (p.41). About 50% of all the patients he saw had worms and there are some revolting descriptions of cutting open a malnourished human being to discover a writhing tangle of worms inside their guts (p.42).

A lot of this was caused by the huge number of internally displaced persons (IDPs or, in Portuguese, os deslocados). Karin gives some staggering stats: up to a third of Angola’s entire population was displaced by the war: a first wave of some 2 million when, after a temporary lull, the war resumed in 1993; and then when the war resumed with renewed vigour in late 1998, a further 2.6 million were displaced. Kuito’s population was around 190,000 but as many as 100,000 had been forced from their homes in the surrounding province and had come to live in shanty towns around Kuito’s perimeter. By and large, at least 80% of the deslocados are women and children (p.254).

Thus MSF runs two centres devoted purely to the problem of caring for some 3,000 malnourished children with 230 severely malnourished cared for via a therapeutic feeding centre, and hundreds of new children being registered each week (p.153).

Karin watches workers for the World Food Programme handing out rations to IDPs in Andulo camp: a litre of oil, a scoop of beans, a bag of maize and a small quantity of salt were the monthly ration for an entire family (p.172).

The thing to grasp is that it wasn’t so much a civil war, that makes it sound reasonably rational: it was a war against its own people. UNITA set out to systematically destroy the country and they succeeded. They destroyed the rail lines inherited from the Portuguese. They mined roads and blew up bridges. They murdered and raped defenceless villagers and burnt their villages to the ground. But worst of all they littered the landscape with millions of landmines and grenades thus making it almost impossible to work in the fields. They waged sustained war on the country’s ability to feed itself. In the 1970s Angola was self-sufficient in foodstuffs, with a thriving agricultural sector (p.259). By 2000 this had evaporated. Both sides worked very hard for decades to reduce the entire country to a state of malnourished starvation. And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They reduced Angola to being one of the poorest countries on earth, with 30% infant mortality and life expectancy of 44. Leaving the rest of the world to pick up the mess, treat the hundreds of thousands they shot or maimed, and feed millions and millions of starving displaced people. What cunts.

Natural remedies

Wei encounters a variety of natural remedies and tries to keep an open mind but most are clearly disastrous. Tying a string round your toe to cure diarrhea is the most innocent. When a woman doesn’t conceive after 6 months of marriage, the local healer recommended a mix of herbs wrapped in animal gut and stuffed up her rectum. A few weeks later she presents at the hospital with what appears to be a yard of dead intestine hanging out her anus until Wei solves is told about the ‘traditional remedy’. Less amusing is the woman who developed mastitis and the local healer prescribed a poultice of herbs which was so acidic that it burned through the entire thickness of the skin denuding half of the breast tissue. Removing the dead flesh took a long operation and then the woman was in screaming agony every time the dressing had to be changed.

Another woman presented with hands so badly burned they were carbonised. She had fallen into a fire. But why hadn’t she immediately scrambled out? Because, it emerges, she was having an epileptic fit. And why did none of her family come to her rescue? Because the traditional belief is that an evil spirit possesses an epileptic and anyone who touches him or her is at risk of also becoming possessed. So they let her lie with her hands in the fire till they burned to a crisp. Wei has no alternative but to amputate them both (pages 239 to 241).

The rich and the poor

There’s no evidence of any rich people in Kuito. The Portuguese abandoned the city a generation earlier in the great flight of 1975, and anyone with money had long departed for the relative security of Luanda. The town and its environs are a kind of quintessence of African poverty and abjectness. Throughout this period the government was making more than enough money from oil revenue to halt malnourishment at a stroke. Yet over half the budget went on armaments and paying soldiers to devastate the country’s agriculture and shoot and rape its citizens. Wei and Karin take several breaks from Kuito, including one big holiday trip to South Africa. At Luanda airport they meet a couple of oil men flying in on business who don’t even realise there’s a civil war going on – so completely are the glossy, luxury hotel, chauffeur-driven car, all-expenses lives of Luanda’s business elite and their foreign partners divorced from the extreme poverty and suffering of the mass of the rural population (p.79).

Photos

Each of the short chapters ends with a couple of black and white photos of the subject or people described in the chapter. Early on he tells us his camera was the best thing he took to Angola – helped distance, record, document and make sense of things.

Some of the photos are very run of the mill shots of local colour, the market, the high street, get-togethers with other aid workers, at the airport unloading shipments from the little MSF plane, and so on.

But about half the photos are of specific patients whose conditions and treatments he describes in the text, and these are often very harrowing indeed. Especially the ones of small children or even babies who have been shot. Jesus. (p.73)

Repeatedly we are told that UNITA was no longer capable of making any real military resistance against the government but was instead reduced to making cowardly raids on unarmed villages to maintain its nuisance level is disgusting and the results are catastrophic. Take the attack on unarmed peasants of Andulo, in which UNITA ‘soldiers’ held down villagers and hacked at their faces with machetes as a warning to the entire town against supporting the MPLA. Or the attack on the village of Belo Horizonte from which Wei treats an 8-year-old boy shot in the back as he ran away. His younger brother was shot dead. Another woman was shot in the head and dies in the hospital (p.176). The people in UNITA who ordered this strategy were evil scum.

Wei the Red Guard

Wei’s account of Kuito is interwoven with his autobiography which is almost as interesting. We learn that his father was a doctor in China who was forced, during Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) to go and work as a ‘barefoot doctor’ in the remote, peasant countryside (p.46). So: Like so many doctors I know, it runs in the family. Not only that, casual comments about Wei’s parents, in particular his father, reinforce the idea that Asian or Chinese parents are extremely competitive and ambitious for their children (p.223).

Title

The title is from a poem by MPLA leader and first president of independent Angola, Agostinho Neto (the same man Ryszard Kapuściński knows and drops in for a chat with in Another Day of Life). It’s quoted page 80:

Here in prison
Rage continued in my breast
I patiently wait
For the clouds to gather
Blown by the wind of History
No one can stop the rain.

I love poetry but poetry, like any other human communication, can lie and distort. Neto may have been a fine poet but he was founder and first leader of the MPLA, the party which was to run Angola into the ground and, after the long futile civil war, emerge as the corrupt petro-elite government described by Daniel Metcalfe in his 2014 travelogue, Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola.

After 35 years of rule by Neto’s MPLA, Angola is still one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. If by ‘rain’ he meant independence from colonial rule, then, yes, no one could stop the rain. But if he meant anything like equality and prosperity for all then, no, it turns out you can stop the rain. It turns out that, for some people, the rain will never come.

Karin’s character

By the end of the book you realise Karin has written the majority of the chapters and her exuberant, optimistic, if often anxious and tearful personality, is the one which dominates. She is as open and charmed by the dancers at the mardi gras festival, the singers in church and the toddlers playing in the dirt streets as she is terrified by the drunks who sometimes lurch out of the darkness at her on the streets at night, and appalled at the sights and suffering she sees at the hospital.

In other words, although I have ripped a little into her erratic prose style, there’s no denying she is a kind of everywoman figure and that viewing the entire, intense experience through her eyes is all the more powerful for her downhome style and ordinary responses.

Married love

It’s worth mentioning one last aspect of the narrative which is the tenderness and kindness and love at the core of her marriage. In this as in everything else she is much more open and candid than Wei. Whereas he downplays risks and worries in the classic male style, Karin is open as a book about the numerous moments of anxiety, worry and fear she feels, above all at the thought of losing the love of her life. Wei is her rock, her strength (p.223), her guide, with his head for facts and figures (p.249), his calmness, his endless capacity for work, his tact. And she in turn takes it upon herself to cook and care for him, worrying about his health and his diet when medication makes him lose weight.

In other words, running through the core of this book is not one person’s experience, but a real sense of the joint experiences of a rock solid, loving, married couple who share the anxieties and tragedies and occasional triumphs together. Obviously the surface of the book details the many gruesome, tragic and disgusting things they saw, garnished with a host of facts and figures supplied by Karin and medical analyses supplied by Wei.

But putting the entire subject matter to one side, this book is an extraordinary tribute to the power of married love.

And love of humanity. Karin describes the final weeks as they prepare to leave, when their replacements have been finalised by MSF, as they pack up and have a little string of parties to say goodbye to friends and fellow aid workers and the hospital staff. As Wei shakes hands, as he and his team give each other hugs, I couldn’t help tearing up. The couple’s naive, open and honest accounts of all their experiences includes the tremendous emotional turmoil they feel at leaving forever people they had worked so closely with in such terrible circumstances, and I was genuinely moved, but also awed at their bravery and commitment. For all its clunky style, this is a wonderfully moving, informative and life-enhancing book.


Credit

No One Can Stop The Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng was published in 2005 by Insomniac Press. All references are to this paperback edition.

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Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995)

‘It should be an interesting few weeks, old boy.’
(The words of David, Fergal Keane’s tall, elegant, 60-year-old BBC producer, as they arrive at the border of Rwanda, page 42)

Fergal Keane, reporter and moral superstar

Keane is an award-winning BBC foreign correspondent and writer. This is a short 190-page book which recounts the journey undertaken by him, his 3-man BBC TV news crew, with a couple of South African security guys  (Glen and Tony) and two African drivers (Edward and Moses), as they crossed into north Rwanda from Uganda. It follows this team as they drove through the devastated countryside only weeks after it had been pacified by the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and saw for themselves the corpses produced by the Rwandan genocide (April to July 1994). They saw hundreds and then thousands of dead bodies, clogging rivers, littered across the countryside and packed into buildings, houses and churches in villages and towns.

However, although the book contains many descriptions of bodies hacked to pieces, of mothers trying to protect their children who had their skulls cleaved open by machetes, children’s bodies cut clean in two, and so on – a kind of Pompeii of corpses caught in all manner of strange, poignant and horrifying postures as the murderers did their work – the horror is mixed with another element which I couldn’t  help finding irritating at first and then broadly comic, which is Keane’s humourless self-importance.

Keane the sensitive reporter is front and centre of the entire account, which opens not with any African or Rwandan voices, stories, facts or history or events, but with pages and pages of Keane impressing on the reader how he is such a sensitive man that even now, a year after his journey, as he writes his book, he is still haunted by dreams and nightmares of what he saw; how he struggles to put it into words, how he struggles to make sense of the horror of mass killing and so on.

My dreams are the fruit of my journey down the dirt road to Nyarubuye. How do I write this, how do I do justice to what lies at the end of this road? As simply as possible. This is not a moment for fine words. (p.76)

But the fact that he even has to tell us that he is agonising about how to write it, how to describe the scene, and shares with us his heroic decision not to use ‘fine words’, this is all grandstanding, showboating, foregrounding his wonderful scrupulousness as a Man and as a Writer. He may claim not to use ‘fine words’ (although, in fact, he often does) but he certainly uses fine feelings.

He could have just described what he saw and been a simple, factual, objective observer. But Keane is incapable of keeping himself out of the picture and swamps everything with his first-hand impressions, all recounted in a lulling Irish brogue.

This self-promotion extends beyond himself to encompass his BBC news crew (producer, cameraman, soundman) and fixers (the two SA security men), describing them as the best in the world, top of their trade, ace professionals – sensitive (very sensitive), creative, reliable, hard working – a great bunch of guys!

These passages dwelling at length on what a caring, sensitive fellow Keane is, and what a fantastically hard-working but sensitive crew he was privileged to work with – made me smile and occasionally burst out laughing at their self-importance, their lack of self-awareness, their complete inappropriateness in what purports to be a record of one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.

So Season of Blood can be broken down into three elements:

  1. The syrup-thick self-congratulation and oh-so-sensitive descriptions of how Keane felt, at the time and for months after the journey was over, which start and end the text and feature liberally throughout.
  2. The series of incidents which made up his actual journey across Rwanda: names of the people they met (generally from the RPF, sometimes the UN) who showed them sites of numerous atrocities where the bodies were still piled up in streets and fields, houses and churches, and interviews with (often very badly injured) survivors, and the genocidal Hutu authorities who dismissed it all as exaggeration and the inevitable casualties of war.
  3. Historical background – Keane’s solid reworking of the standard history I’ve read in all the other accounts.

1. A song for the sensitive

On the 1974 album ‘Monty Python Live at Drury Lane’, Neil Innes introduces his song ‘How sweet to be an idiot’ by whispering, ‘And now…a song for the sensitive’, to much laughter from those with a sense of humour. This phrase kept echoing round my head as I read the confessional parts of Keane’s text.

I thought New York journalist Philip Gourevitch had done a good job of showing off how sensitive and deep he was in his 1998 book about the Rwandan Genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, but he is blown clean out of the water by BBC journalist-superstar and softly-spoken Irishman, Fergal Keane. Here is the opening paragraph of Keane’s Rwandan Journey, for best effect to be intoned in a mellifluous Irish accent, very quietly and very sensitively:

I do not know what dreams ask of us, what they come to collect. But they have come again and again recently, and I have no answers. I thought that after the bad nights of last summer the dead had abandoned me, had mouldered into memory. But the brothers and sisters, the mothers and fathers and children, all the great wailing families of the night are back, holding fast with their withering hands, demanding my attention. Understand first that I do not want your sympathy. The dreams are part of the baggage on this journey. I understood that from the outset. After all, four years in the South African townships had shown me something of the dark side, and I made the choice to go to Rwanda. Nobody forced or pressurised me. So when I tell you about the nights of dread, understand that they are only part of the big picture, the first step backward into the story of a journey that happened a year ago. (page 1)

Personally, I think it was very considerate of the Rwandan people to stage an epic bloodbath in order to provide Mr Keane with a splendid backdrop against which to display his sensitive soul, his simple but poetic prose, his knowledge of ‘the dark side’ (guffaw) and his fine moral scruples. Just recently I notice the arrival in the language of the phrase ‘humble-bragging’, which means:

the action of making an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.

So when Fergal says he doesn’t want our sympathy, it was hell but he’ll be OK, no, no, he really doesn’t want our sympathy, not at all, really he doesn’t, the dreams, the dreams are sometimes hard to bear, but, shucks, he was just doing his job, no, no sympathy thank you — it’s hard not to burst out laughing at his self-important humble-bragging.

And not just him. He says there were many of ‘us’ who went there, many tip-top international journalists like Fergal. Some claim they don’t have bad dreams, but Fergal knows better. They, all of them, this band of brothers, this close-knit community of sensitive reporters, according to Fergal, they still ‘mourn the dead of Rwanda’. They still suffer at nights from that special feeling. What special feeling? Well:

How can I best describe it? It is a mixture of dread fascination, sorrow for what we learned and lost in the short few weeks of chaos, a mind weariness that feeds itself by replaying the old tapes over and over. We reach for the off switch but in the darkness cannot find it. (p.3)

Portentous and pretentious, humourless self-importance. Note the deliberately ‘poetic’ language. Given the choice between the ordinary functional word and the archaic, poetic equivalent, Fergal always plumps for the latter. He and his crew don’t get up at the start of the day; they ‘rise to start another day’ (p.44). The crooks they meet with in Nairobi are ‘rogues’ (p.48). The rains don’t prompt new growth, they ‘bring forth’ great tangles of vegetation, as if touched by the staff of Moses (p.49). David doesn’t start crying when he thinks about his daughter back home; he is ‘in the thrall of this fatherly emotion’ (p.35). Every page is blessed with a gem of pretentious and high-sounding diction.

And the journey itself is not just any hack’s trip to cover another grim African tragedy: it is a knight of the round table on a quest, it is a pilgrim’s progress, it is the odyssey of a Great Spirit, greater, finer, more sensitive than the humble likes of you and I.

My journey into Rwanda was about following the lines of blood and history; about sleeping with the smell of death, fear and hatred; about exhaustion and loss and tears and in some strange ways even love. For me to make sense of that journey, however, I cannot write in terms of facts alone. So bear with me when the road runs down into the valleys of the heart and mind and soul… (p.3)

What a wanker. And the Rwandans? The genocide? You want to know about them? Hang on, first there’s another fifty pages while we follow the road down into the valleys of Fergal’s heart and mind and soul…

Padding

So Keane comes over, fairly regularly, as a self-important so-and-so. But the emphasis on the personal nature of his text and the amount of time he spends describing his travelling companions may have a more banal cause. For he tells us early on that he only spent a few weeks in Rwanda (p.4) and, later on, that his brief trip started in early June 1994 (p.123).

So there may be an embarrassingly simple reason why so much of the text describes his fine feelings, his doughty companions and the details of their itinerary rather than the history or politics of Rwanda – this preening might simply be padding, padding out a book which, even with all this bumf, barely stretches to 190 pages.

In fact it’s only on page 48 of the 190 pages that Keane and his team actually cross into Rwanda and the journey proper begins. So the actual travelogue of Rwanda is barely 140 pages long. It’s an often intense but, ultimately, quite thin and superficial account.

Top chaps

Fergal went to Rwanda with a BBC team to make a film for Panorama and what a team he took with him! He is accompanied by one of the BBC’s most respected producers ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’; by a soundman who is also a novelist; by a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’. Goodness! What special people Fergal surrounds himself with! What heroes! What legends!

And it takes one top chap to know another top chap. Thirty seconds on Fergal’s Wikipedia page tells us that Keane attended the Presentation Brothers College in Cork, a private, fee-paying Catholic school which is ranked the number one boys’ secondary school in Ireland. Maybe this is where his overweening sense of superiority comes from, his indestructible confidence in what are, in the end, pretty banal observations written in humble-bragging prose.

Rather snipingly, Fergal points out that most other TV journalists and crews are, unfortunately, just mercenary hacks who fly wherever the bodies piling up, knock out superficial stories about a situation they barely understand and then, as soon as the fighting stops, move on.

Where television is concerned, African news is generally only big news when it involves lots of dead bodies. The higher the mound, the greater the possibility that the world will, however briefly, send its camera teams and correspondents. Once the story has gone ‘stale’ i.e. there are no new bodies and the refugees are down to a trickle, the circus moves on. (p.7)

TV news is sensationalist and superficial!? Who knew? This must be why the BBC pays its top correspondents the big bucks, for coming up with wonderful insights like this.

But Saint Fergal goes out of his way to emphasise that he is not like all those other TV correspondents and his crew are not like all those other horrible mercenary crews. No, his crew includes a sound man who is also a novelist; and a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’; and a producer ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’.

And they work for the BBC so they must be the best! And they are fronted by a sensitive soul who still has dreams, all these months later, of the terrible things he saw but no, thank you, no, he doesn’t need your sympathy. Very kind, but he’s man enough to take it.

Admittedly, this band of heroes only flew into Rwanda when the story began to involve lots of bodies – exactly like the other crews he criticises. Admittedly, they only stayed for a few weeks – exactly like those other crews he criticises. Admittedly, his team also moved on once the story had gone stale –exactly like those other crews he criticises. But his crew did it in a specially sensitive and rugged and heroic way, in a noble BBC way, which completely separates them from all the other media riff-raff. This isn’t just any old reporter and his camera crew; this is an M&S reporter and his camera crew.

David the producer is tall, silver haired and works harder than anyone Fergal has ever met! He is steady as a rock, ‘not given to exaggeration or panic’! Whatever situation they find themselves in David can always fix it, with a few discreet words and a shrewd wink. What a top chap!

David never reveals his feelings because he’s that kind of steady, dignified, old-fashioned type of fellow. Right up until, one day, barrelling along in their Land Rover, Fergal shares the Yeats poem, ‘Prayer For My Daughter,’ with him, at which point a quiet tear comes to David’s eye, as he thinks of his own dear beloved daughter back home in Blighty (p.35). Poetry! Yeats! A quiet tear! Yes, what a fine and sensitive chaps he is, they all are!

Perhaps more than anything I admired his old-fashioned journalistic honesty. David believed in going to places and finding out what was happening, talking to as many sides as possible, and only then making up his mind. In this he was different from many producers who arrived with their own predetermined ideas of what the story should be and then sought out the voices to support their theories. He wasn’t a glamorous media figure, nor was he political in the sense of fighting internal battles within the BBC. Although it is hard to guess at the true motives of a colleague, I liked to think that David Harrison was moved ultimately by the oldest and most noble journalistic aspiration of all: to seek the truth and report it whatever the consequences. (p.67)

Shucks. Saint Fergal and noble David are travelling with old Africa hands Tony and Glenn. Tony is a short story writer and novelist who went to ‘one of Johannesburg’s top public schools’. Need Fergal say any more. I’m sure we are all prepared to bow down before this great achievement and, what’s more, Tony was his college rowing champion!

Glenn, by contrast, worked his way up from a tough, deprived and petty criminal background, via a spell in the South Africa Defence Force, on to become ‘one of the best news cameramen in the country’ and ‘the most sensitive cameraman I have ever worked with’ (p.40). The sensitivity and camaraderie ooze out of this book like ectoplasm. I washed my hands after reading it but I couldn’t wash my brain.

Carlsberg doesn’t make world-beating TV news crews, but if they did…

Basically, Saint Fergal is trying to write a novel, except it is a novel full of hilariously portentous and symbolic moments (before they leave Kenya for Rwanda, Keane gets drunk with a fellow journalist in a hotel bar in Nairobi who ominously warns Keane that he is heading towards a realm of ‘spiritual damage’, p.43).

This novel manqué features a cast of noble, high-minded chaps (top public school, best cameraman in the country, champion rower, noble producer etc) and is written in a pretentious mash-up of late Victorian diction (‘we rose to begin our journey’ – that’s actually what he writes on page 44) and the Bible (‘The rains had brought forth a great tangle of vegetation’). The prose reads like the stained glass windows in the chapel of his elite Catholic boarding school – simple, over-coloured, larger than life, sentimental and repellently high-minded.

Buried in this short book is some excellent reportage, some vivid encounters and some stomach-churning scenes – but all swamped by a kind of rehashing of a Victorian, boys own adventure novel.

2. Rwandan history

Fergal tells the same outline history I’ve read in David van Reybrouck, Philip Gourevitch and Jason Stearns. Nobody really knows their origins, but eventually Rwandan society came to be split between three ethnic groups, the Hutu from the west (85%), the Tutsi from the north (15%) and smattering of the Twa, descendants of the pygmies who probably lived in the Rwanda-Burundi region first but are now marginalised.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Europeans first arrived, they discovered a society where the Tutsi formed a cattle-rearing elite, ruled by a Tutsi king, who lorded it over the four-fifths of the population who were Hutu peasant farmers. The stereotype has it that the Tutsi are tall and thin, with thin lips, long noses and lighter skins, while the Hutu are shorter, stockier with more classical ‘Negro’ features – although, like all the other writers on the subject, Fergal emphasises that, after centuries of intermarriage, plenty of the population was impossible to assign to one group or the other.

The German colonisers in the 1890s, and then the Belgians who were allotted Rwanda after Germany lost World War One, both these European colonisers sided with the aristocratic Tutsi. In the 1930s the previously fluid demarcation between the ethnic groups was destroyed when the Belgians issued identity cards which required you to specify which racial group you belonged to.

At this point Fergal does what Gourevitch does: he speeds over the history of ethnic tension between the two groups because he is concerned to make the genocide seem unique, unprecedented, a freak, impossible to understand. In its scale it certainly was, and in the way it was very deliberately planned, managed and organised by Hutu extremists it certainly was, and in its aim at total extermination of the enemy, it was. And yet the insistence of both Gourevitch and Keane on making it sound exceptional is a  serious distortion of the facts. Because, as both writers concede, there had been a long history of inter-communal violence before 1994, which continued well after 1994.

Thus when the Tutsi monarch Mwaami Rudahigwa died in 1959, the Hutus rose in rebellion against Tutsi rule and between ten and one hundred thousand Tutsis were massacred. The rivers were full of bodies. That’s a lot of people. It begins to undermine the claim of the genocide to complete uniqueness.

In neighbouring Burundi the Tutsi held on to power through the 1960s and, to forestall a Hutu revolt, in 1973 the Burundi army murdered nearly a quarter of a million Hutus. A quarter of a million. That’s a lot of people, isn’t it? Once you start reading Rwandan history you realise the genocide may have been unique in conception and ambition, but it is, at the same time, part of a continuum of Hutu-Tutsi massacres and pogroms, both in Rwanda and Burundi, which go back at least as far as independence if not before.

Gourevitch and Keane both come on as if the 1994 genocide was a one-off, uniquely wicked and evil event, and it is its perceived uniqueness which prompts in both writers a great deal of hand-wringing and virtue signalling. Why oh why did they…? What oh what made them…? How could anybody behave like this…? and so on.

But hang on – isn’t massacring 100,000 Tutsis in 1959 also a bit, you know, evil? And what about the murder of nearly a quarter of a million Hutus? Also, pretty violent and pretty evil, too.

Why aren’t there books about those massacres? Does a hundred thousand not register? Is quarter of a million not enough? Is it as simple as the fact that back then, in the 60s and 70s, there was less TV coverage, less satellite technology to flash footage round the worlds, that it was harder to travel to these remote countries, so the massacres didn’t get covered and so…all those dead Africans don’t count?

Keane goes on to explain that by 1990 the kleptocratic crony regime of Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyarimana was so corrupt that it found it very convenient to use the century-old bogeyman of the Tutsi oppressor to stir up the Hutu masses in order to stay in power, so that top figures in the regime could carry on happily creaming off aid money and World Bank loans into their personal Swiss bank accounts.

Keane supports the mainstream theory the Hutu president Habyarimana’s plane wasn’t shot down, killing all on board, by Tutsi wrong-doers but by extremists within his own Hutu government. Habyarimana’s sudden death allowed Hutu supremacists to seize power and, within just one hour of the president’s death, to start issuing orders to implement the plan for the total extermination of the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda (maybe 1.5 million people) which senior members of Hutu Power had been carefully working on for years.

I take the point that what sets the 1994 massacres apart was the entirely political nature of the genocide, and the existence of a detailed plan, and the use of all the levers of the state to mobilise people to the killing, and the fact that the stated ambition was total annihilation of the Tutsis…

But I felt uneasy that Keane, like Gourevitch, devotes two hundred pages and a lot of hand-wringing to the killing of 800,000 people, but skims over the murder of 250,000 people or of 100,000 people in a sentence – as if their murders don’t matter so much because they weren’t massacred in such an organised way.

Are some campaigns of mass murder more important, more meaningful than others? Are the dead in one mass murder campaign less important than the dead in another one? The short answer, on the evidence of these books, appears to be yes.

3. What Fergal saw

Keane and his crew cross the border and are met with polite and intelligent RPF soldiers, part of the well-disciplined force which has driven the Hutu army from the country. David the noble producer had contacted the RPF from Belgium and so an army liaison officer, Lieutenant Frank Ndore, is waiting for them at the first checkpoint inside Rwanda. From here onwards, Frank will be their polite and helpful guide.

Frank takes them to meet Rose Kayitesi who’s switched from being a rebel fighter to setting up a refuge for 50 or so orphaned children aged 6 to 8 in an abandoned hotel (p.68). Some of them tell their stories, like the young girl who describes seeing her entire family hacked to death by the Interahamwe, herself is badly injured but left under a pile of corpses where she remains still till the attackers have left. Their guide, Frank explains why the Interahamwe were so keen to exterminate all children and hid in wait for them or silently listened out for whimpers and crying before moving in for the kill (p.71). Which has resulted in some of the child survivors in his care withdrawing, refusing to eat and, literally, dying of grief (p.72).

Fergal sees the river clogged with corpses (p.74). Many rivers were clogged with bodies. Lake Victoria became so polluted with corpses that Ugandan fishermen dragged them out and buried them to stop them killing off the fish (p.75).

Frank takes them to the town of Nyarubuye where some 3,000 people were hacked to pieces in and around the parish church (p.76). Keane describes lots of human bodies which have been hacked to death from every possible angle, displaying every possible wound.

They meet small groups of refugees on the road, clustering together for safety, each one generally the sole survivor of the massacre of their family, their village, their entire community.

The offices of the mayor of Rusomo have been converted into a makeshift hospital for survivors with terrible wounds. There is no medicine, no painkillers. The mayor or bourgmestre was Sylvestre Gacumbitsi and many of the poor Tutsis of the town turned to him for help as the atmosphere became tense on the buildup to the genocide. Not only did he turn them away, but a few days later he led Hutu death squads round the homes of Tutsis and directed the mass murder, using the identity cards he had in the filing cabinets in the office. Flora Mukampore only survived, badly cut and bleeding, because she hid under a pile of fresh corpses (p.89).

On the spur of the moment Keane and is producer decide to try and track down this génocidaire and mass murderer, Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, and so drive east, across the border into nearby Tanzania, and to Benaco, one of the biggest refugee camps which sprang up as hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus fled the advancing RPF.

Bencao camp turns out to be a vast mudbath, organised into ‘roads’ between groups of tents made from tarpaulin supplied by the UN and aid agencies. They spend the night and then, next morning, assiduous questioning does in fact lead them to Sylvestre Gacumbitsi. He is surrounded by young men with machetes who are carrying out his orders as he manages the distribution of rice to refugees from his canton. Keane questions him as hard as possible, putting to him the accusations of eye witness who saw him (Sylvestre Gacumbitsi) directing the killing. But the big man denies it, dismisses it all as Tutsi propaganda, and his surly followers mutter agreement.

In a flash Keane realises the génocidaires have brought their entire social system into the camps, recreated their networks of clientilism and patronage and intimidation. And the international community is going along with it, funding them, feeding them, allowing them to recreate their murderous Hutu militias (p.107).

Keane realises the international community which did sweet FA to prevent the genocide has been only too happy to jump into action when confronted with a huge refugee crisis. Setting up camps, flying in vast amounts of food, publicity photos of the faces of happy aid workers helping happy refugees, this is what everyone wanted. Keane thinks well-armed Western soldiers could have easily identified leading génocidaires and arrested them. Their failure to do so was a complete moral failure. The international community was ‘giving comfort to butchers’ (p.110).

That same night the team drive back over the bridge by the Rusomo Falls into Rwanda. They see soldiers looting refugees. Reading this, it occurs to me that most of the world is like this, and most of history has been like this: bullies preying on smaller bullies who prey on the absolutely helpless.

Drunk Tanzanian soldiers try to stop them crossing the bridge and then to confiscate their video camera, but, like their fairy godmother, Lieutenant Frank appears and gets the RPF soldiers his side of the river to pay the drunk Tanzanian soldiery a few hundred dollars and a tricky situation is defused (p.113). Really makes me want to go to Africa. Sounds like a wonderful place.

Lieutenant Frank organises a tour of the abandoned and ransacked presidential palace. (This is reminiscent of Michela Wrong touring the abandoned and ransacked palace of Joseph Mobutu or Philip Gourevitch in the abandoned and ransacked palace ditto. It’s a kind of standard element or trope of ‘the overthrow of dictators’ journalism.)

Then the team are staying at the UN offices along with all the other correspondents, journalists and news crews. (They do tend to stick together, journos and news teams.) Keane is in Kigali when half the city was still in the Hutu government hands and the RPF was shelling and mortaring its way into the government half.

At short notice the team is invited to visit a Red Cross hospital. To nobody’s surprise a hospital in a war zone is packed with terribly injured soldiers and civilians. He sees a small Tutsi boy whose arm has been cut off. Details like that, snapshots, say more than all Keane’s editorialising.

When they leave to drive back through roadblocks to the rebel side of Kigali, they are hustled into smuggling with them two European missionaries who have escaped from a mission up country because Brother Otto’s arm was wounded and he needs treatment. Nerve-racking moments as they smuggle the two missionaries out of the Hutu side and into the RPF side. If the Hutus stop them, maybe they’ll arrest the missionaries, maybe the whole team, or maybe just shoot them all.

Later, Keane hears the missionaries’ story. To seek out help they left behind a mission full of Tutsi children they had been protecting. The children knew it was coming. They asked to be locked in a room. A week later the militia came and slaughtered all 50 of them. Brother Henri tells Keane all this though tears.

That night the team get drunk with their faithful guide Lieutenant Ndore who insists, like all the RPF they’ve met, that it’s not about ethnicity, it’s about power and politics. A political cabal and their clients had made personal fortunes creaming off the nation’s wealth and turning the civil service into a party machine (p.20). They wanted to carry on doing so under the dictatorship and didn’t want to be forced to accept a multi-party, multi-ethnic constitution which the ‘international community’ was forcing Habyarimana to accept.

Without political power the whole system of patronage and clientelism would collapse. (p.23)

The politics of ethnicity

Throughout the book Keane repeats the same notion, which is that the genocide may have been defined in terms of ethnicity but it was at bottom politically motivated. It took expression in ethnic cleansing but it was about one group, one party, the extreme wing of the president’s MRND party and its extended clients, clinging on to power and consolidating its power for ever.

Keane’s insistence can be interpreted several different ways: one is that he is sticking to a humanistic conviction that ethnicity isn’t the be-all and end-all because this optimistic conviction allows him to hope that ethnicity can be overcome and so that the genuinely multi-ethnic state which the RFP promises can be brought into existence.

But it is possible to devise a kind of reverse interpretation of the same set of facts, which is: what if, in many countries, ethnicity is politics? In the 25 years since Keane wrote this book ethnicity hasn’t disappeared as a defining factor in political cultures around the world, it has grown, particularly in the last decade. All round the world we have seen the rise of nationalist leaders waving their national flag and liable to attack minorities: the BJP demonising Muslims in India; the military junta in Myanmar ethnically cleansing the Rohingya; China brutally clamping down on the Xinjiang Muslims. And anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming widespread across the West.

Keane’s book was written before any of this happened but, at various points, it emphasises that these kinds of divisions between ethnicities are not inevitable but are always stirred up by politicians with essentially political motivations i.e. using ethnic differences in order to stir up their base and remain in power. And in the money.

Back to the journey

Anyway, back in the narrative, it’s time to say goodbye to the helpful, intelligent Lieutenant Ndore and so Fergal gives him the edition of Yeats’s poetry which he’s been carrying round, as a thank you present (p.141).

He writes a half-page note about visiting the Amohoro stadium in Kigali, which the UN forces managed to secure during the genocide and where they protected thousands of terrified refugees.

And the second half of the same page records a visit to the Milles Collines Hotel, also guarded by a small contingent of UN soldiers, where hundreds of refugees were still living in terror that the Interahamwe lounging at the roadblocked entrance would one day simply walk in and hack everyone to pieces, the hotel which was to become famous because of the movie, Hotel Rwanda (p.142).

Keane and his crew are assigned a new RPF minder named Ernest to replace Lieutenant Frank, but he is a kid, unreliable and always wants to sleep. He is meant to guide them on the route south into Burundi. They get into their Land Rovers and drive to the town of Kabuga, which saw heavy fighting. Every building is damaged, bodies, not just of humans. A dead cow is wedged into a doorway (p.145).

Ernest then tells them he knows the route to the border with Burundi and sets them off down a road which gets smaller and more jungley until they pass two wrecked vehicles and realise the road is landmined. As this is sinking in, they see two figures ahead burying something and, in a sweaty panic, hurriedly turn the jeep round and drive all the way back to Kabuga.

After recovering from this stressful experience back in Kabuga, they set off south again, this time by a different route. Hours of nervous tension driving through jungle with one of the crew’s two Land Rovers making bad sounds as if it’s about to break down. They arrive at the village of Zaza, held by the RPF, who are guarding several hundred Hutu prisoners. Keane quotes an African Rights report which estimates that 800 people were murdered in the commune of Zaza, and quotes one woman survivor who watched the children being hacked to death and was, again, buried under a pile of bodies, covered in blood and so thought dead by the attackers (p.154).

They spend a nerve-racking night in this village, given a few rooms in an abandoned house by the RPF officer, who commands just 15 men to hold a remote village filled with 300 or more Hutu prisoners, while everyone knows the Interahamwe are out there in the jungle.

Next day, 12 June 1994, they finally make it to the Burundi border and are checked through by drunk Tutsi Burundi soldiers. They say goodbye to the two Ugandan drivers, Edward and Moses, who have to turn round and drive right the way across Rwanda and back across the northern border, into Uganda, before it gets dark.

They are met in Burundi by Rizu Hamid, a South African-born Asian who’s worked as Fergal’s fixer before, during his time in South Africa. She is, of course, ‘tough and dedicated’. He is awestruck by her ability to smooth talk even the most difficult, dangerous soldiers at roadblocks (p.167). But then we long ago learned that everyone Fergus works with is an epitome, world beating, top of their profession, and so on.

Rizu has arranged for a young government soldier named Sergeant Patrice to be their minder as they penetrate back north into the government-held areas of west Rwanda to meet and interview, well, murderers.

After a series of nerve-wracking encounters at no fewer than 30 roadblocks, the crew finally arrive in Butare and put up in a basic hotel. David and Fergal interview the Rector and Vice-Rector of Butare University. Like other Hutus they’ve already met, this couple are far from stupid, but believe the government’s line entirely: that the nation was under threat from the RPF’s 1990 invasion, that war was the only way to defend themselves, that the RPF only seek to reassert Tutsi paramountcy and restore the Hutu serfdom of pre-1959.

Next day they go to interview the town prefect, Sylvan Nsabimana. They ask him about the fate of the last few hundred Tutsi left alive in the whole region who are being held in a camp right outside the prefect’s office. Nsabimana is all reassurance and tells them that, in fact, he is planning to evacuate the children to nearby Burundi, the following day.

Keane presses him on the murders, on the genocide but, like every government official they meet, Nsabimana repeats the government line that there was no genocide, that the government was protecting the country against attack by the RPF, who are wickedly planning to restore their oppressive rule. If confronted with examples of actual killings, Nsabimana gives the stock answer that, alas and alack, casualties happen in time of war.

The next day Fergal, Rizu, David and the rest attach themselves to the convoy of lorries carrying Tutsi children to freedom in Burundi. they pass through a series of nerve-racking roadblocks, which Nsabimana himself negotiates their way through and then, finally, they cross the border into Burundi for good and Keane’s Rwandan journey is at an end.

Thoughts

How long did Fergal’s Journey last in total, then? Two weeks? Three weeks? Less than two weeks? He doesn’t say, but it certainly wasn’t long and he didn’t really get to talk to that many people, 20 to 30 maximum. Compare and contrast with Philip Gourevitch who visited Rwanda for a total of something like nine months and gives the impression of having spoken to hundreds of people.

Keane’s book is shorter but it is much more intense. The descriptions of his anxiety in long trips through the jungle and his terror at roadblocks manned by drunken soldiery are very vivid. And his first-hand account of seeing the actual bodies piled up in streets and fields and offices and churches is powerful. Almost powerful enough to make you forget the preening opening of the book.

For all his feeble inability to really grasp the scale and depth and meaning of the genocide, Philip Gourevitch’s book is a lot better. It has far more history and context than Keane’s and he includes testimony and interviews from far more people, including lots of UN officials and, crucially, the brains behind the RPF, Paul Kagame.

And Gourevitch also continues the story on past the genocide itself, for quite a few years, up till 1998, so he gives a far better sense of the ongoing political importance of the huge refugee camps in Zaire, and how they came to trigger the first Congo War – a depth of perspective which is necessarily missing from Keane’s account which, in essence, boils down to vivid reportage of a hurried, stressful 2-week visit to the country in June 1994, smack bang in the middle of its combined civil war and genocide.

He didn’t have to go

The very force of Keane’s candidly described terror keeps prompting the same thought. He undergoes ordeals of tension and stress, bursts out swearing at the drivers, has to get drunk at night to obliterate the sights he’s seen or take pills to get to sleep. He thinks forlornly of his family. He wishes he were back home. The rector of Butare university invites him to his house to watch Ireland play in the World Cup, in New York, and Keane desperately, desperately wishes he was there.

Well, OK, the reader thinks: so go on, then – leave. Hire a taxi, get driven clean out of the danger zone, catch a plane home, be with your family. Tell the BBC you’d like to be the Westminster correspondent. Or work on Strictly Come Dancing. If you hate your job so much, if it means you end up seeing too many corpses, meeting too many evil people, having too many nightmares, here’s an idea – quit being a foreign correspondent and go home.

No-one is forcing Keane to repeatedly travel into war zones and risk getting casually murdered by drunk soldiers at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere. This is a choice he has made.

When he keeps telling us how wretched and awful and terrifying and lonely and damaging it is to be in such horrific zones and see so many corpses and confront so much evil, the reader thinks: well, don’t do it, then. But don’t willingly and voluntarily choose this line of work, hustle for the job, undertake the assignments – then bleat about how horrible it all is and expect my sympathy.

The shameful record of the Americans

The US administration of Bill Clinton did its best to ignore the genocide. America (and Belgium) insisted on reducing the UN presence from 2,500 to 250 on the eve of the genocide, guaranteeing that the UN could not intervene, and reinforcing them with a mandate which stipulated no military intervention. Even when they could see Tutsis being hacked down from their offices, they were unambiguously instructed not to intervene to save anyone.

‘Never again must we…. All it requires for evil to flourish is good men to do nothing…We must never forget the victims of the Holocaust… blah blah blah.’ Whenever you hear public figures spouting that kind of feel-good cant, remember it’s bullshit.

Once alerted to the killings, the Americans deliberately delayed sending what UN troops remained in Rwanda a consignment of arms and armoured cars to help them. America insisted on charging full market rate for the vehicles and their delivery, which the UN couldn’t afford (p.123).

On President Bill Clinton’s orders the Americans refused at every level of government to use the word ‘genocide’ for, if they did, America would have been legally obligated to intervene and America did not want to intervene.

When the victims of a genocide were being murdered in front of their eyes, the Americans did everything in their power to avoid giving any help. Beyond shameful. Complicit.

French support for the genocidal regime

The French continued to support the genocidal Hutu regime after the genocide was well under way and opposed the Tutsi RPF which ended the genocide, because partly because the génocidaires spoke French, and the PDF (hailing from the former British colony Uganda) spoke English. Seriously.

The French had long supported Habyarimana and had no wish to see him driven from power by the rebels. The pro-Habyarimana faction in Paris was led by François Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe, who saw Rwanda as part of a Francophone Africa under threat from the encroachments of the English-speaking nations to the north and east i.e. Uganda and Tanzania. Among Jean-Christophe’s gifts to the Rwandan president was the personal jet which was shot out of the sky on 6 April. The implication of this friendship was clear: if the price for maintaining some degree of French influence was the preservation of despots and kleptocrats, then Paris was always more than willing to pay.

In contrast to Habyarimana, the leaders of the RPF were largely English-speaking. The long years of exile in Uganda had forced them to abandon the French language. For their part the French maintained a military mission and a sizeable detachment of intelligence officers in Rwanda. With their contacts inside the army and at every level of government and the state media, Paris could not have been ignorant of the genocidal intentions of many of the senior officers and officials. For the French to suggest otherwise would be a lamentable comment on the abilities of their own intelligence services and diplomats. (p.26)

As part of a sustained effort to discredit the invading RPF and continue support for the genocidal Hutu Power regime, a French security agent claimed he had the black box from Habyarimana’s shot-down jet which proves it was the RPF who fired the missiles. But he provided no actual evidence and soon disappeared from view (p.117).

[President Habyarimana’s] brother-in-law Protais Zigiranyirazo was up to his neck in the trade in endangered species. Protais was a founder member of the Zero Network and an original shareholder in Radio Milles Collines. A book David has brought with him on our journey, Murder in the Mist, alleges that Protais was involved in the murder of American naturalist Dian Fossey because of her attempts to save the gorillas of the Rwandan rain forest. To date he has not even issued a rebuttal, much less attempted to sue the author. Protais is currently enjoying the sanctuary provided by the government of France, along with his sister Agathe and several other family members. It is not likely that they will see the [presidential] palace again, but they have the security of foreign bank accounts and the sympathy of the Quai d’Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) to console them in exile. I can see what sickens Frank. (pages 119 to 120)

That last sentence refers to the way the entire RFP up to its leader Paul Kagame were sickened at the absolute inaction of the ‘international community’ to prevent the genocide. The inaction was led by America which blocked every attempt to intervene, and by France, which energetically supported the genocidal regime, gave it arms and weapons even as the genocide was taking place and set up safe havens in the west of the country for genocidal Hutus fleeing the advancing RPF.

As the RPF rolled through the country and brought the genocide to an end, the French government flew the genocidal regime’s leaders to safety in Paris, where they’ve been leading lives of luxury ever since, right up to the present day, 2021. What’s not to despise and loathe about the despicable French government and security apparatus?

Mistaking genres

Lastly, maybe my negative reaction to Keane’s book is my fault. Maybe I’m being dim. Maybe I’m getting my genres mixed up. Maybe I’m expecting the objectivity of a history from a text which, right from the start, declares it is going to be an entirely subjective account. Only right at the end of the book did it occur to me that this kind of subjective journalism is maybe a variety of confessional literature.

When Keane writes at length about the nightmares he’s suffered ever since his Rwanda trip, about his drinking, about how scared he was at numerous points, about how he lost his temper with the driver and came to loathe their irresponsible RPF guide Albert, how much he missed his wife and how much he wished he could just go home – I found all this tediously subjective, but maybe I’m being an idiot for expecting anything else. It is titled a journey and clearly states right from the start that it is going to be a highly subjective account of one man’s experiences of a nightmare situation.

And, after all, maybe Keane’s prolonged descriptions of his feelings and psychological struggles are a deliberate strategy to take you with him right into the belly of the beast, to make you feel the fear and see the bodies, designed to be an immersive experience which combines historical background and political analysis with stomach-churning descriptions of what it was like.

I still didn’t like this book, but maybe my allergic reaction is my fault because I was continually judging it by the wrong criteria, assessing a work of confessional journalism as if it was a factual history. Anyway, I’ve given you enough evidence to make up your own mind.

Credit

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane was published in 1995 by Viking. All references are to the 1996 Penguin paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.

Recap

An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.


Michael Crichton reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history whose stories Borges has cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it then expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges goes on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and before leading her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and drilling down to one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the particular subject of this narrative.

Born Edward Osterman, Eastman he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the whole goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with. Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest. He collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, appear to rip open his guts and pull out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flows just outside the building.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of altogether in favour of the ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays gathered in Labyrinths.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise this is what has happened because the angels recreate his worldly house and study. However, as a great and learned man, they pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone. The result is that the angels , as warning and punishment, slowly degrade his house and then his own body. Day by day ghost Melancthon awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock. Then a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside. He discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown. And, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia. So he packs up and off he sets.

After a gruelling journey, overcoming numerous threats and natural disasters, he finally arrives in Isfahan and falls asleep by a mosque.

But that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended, thrown into prison and tortured. He is brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here.

The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and a fountain which has treasure buried under it, but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it.

He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns all the way back to his house in Cairo, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure. So the dream came true, just not at all in the way expected.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a Dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic.

So the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together. In this quick journey through the future the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope.

At each step of the way the Don asks for some grace or favour but the newly promoted Dean puts him off, until he finally gets fed up of him and tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison.

At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself back in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘I told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. It is very careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. it mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (a showy, pseudo-academic concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said his earliest and most enduring inspiration derived from the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

One of the most obvious recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently very modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central. A great deal could be said on the subject of fiction and identity but I’m going to pass.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

The 1934 preface is only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use of certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I came away with the strong conviction that ‘the Baroque’ is above all about Power, the Complete Power wielded by monarchs who believed in their Divine Right to rule and the Total Power over all believers claimed by the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church.

Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas Borges, if he is anything, is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

Borges may be correct in using the term ‘Baroque’ to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from The Baroque style in art and architecture.

And the Baroque is, above all, deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed throughout by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. This bookish humour is entirely Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved so much.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

‘Pity always was a luxury. It’s all right if the tragedy’s a comfortable distance away – if you can watch it from a seat in the cinema. It’s different when you find it on your doorstep – on every doorstep.’
(John Custance in The Death of Grass, page 145)

This isn’t a particularly well-written novel, the prose style is starchy, the dialogue is as forced as a 1950s movie, and the major outlines of the plot often feel preposterous, BUT… by God, it has grip! Starting slowly, it picks up speed and turns into a hair-raising description of a polite, middle-class England which is utterly destroyed as the entire world falls to a devastating virus which kills all species of grass, thus plunging the entire globe into famine and bloodshed, and swiftly turning the handful of jolly middle-class chaps and chapesses we meet at the start of the book into hard-faced killers.

John Christopher

John Christopher was just one of the pen-names of the prolific English genre novelist Sam Youd (1922 to 2012). Youd left school at 16, worked as a clerk and then was drafted into the army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1941 to 1946.

He was determined on a career as a professional writer and his first ‘normal’, mainstream novel, The Winter Swan, was published under the name Christopher Youd in 1949. However, he was attracted to science fiction and wrote science fiction short stories under the different byline of John Christopher from 1951, getting them published in various specialist sci-fi magazines.

His first book as John Christopher, the science fiction novel, Year of the Comet, was published in 1955. The Death of Grass, published the following year, was his second sci-fi novel and his first major success as a writer. Youd went on to write a further ten or so sci fi novels as John Christopher – although he also wrote in a variety of other styles (detective stories, light comedy, cricket books) under no less than seven other pseudonyms. In 1966 he started writing novels for teenagers, what we nowadays call young adult fiction, producing about 20 of these, notably the Tripod and Sword of the Spirits trilogies.

The Death of Grass

The book opens by introducing us to a nice middle-class family with two brothers, John and David Custance (‘Don’t say “blimey”, David, it’s common.’)

David inherits his grandfather’s farm in a remote valley in Westmorland, while John pursues a career as a civil engineer in London. He marries Ann and has two children of his own, Davey and Mary. They often socialise with a friend of John’s from the army, Roger Buckley, and his placid wife, Olivia and son Steve. Ann dislikes Roger, who is a PR officer at the Ministry of Production, because he is so cynical and ironic (and given to quoting classic poetry, usually for ironic effect).

But Roger is the one, because of his position inside government comms, who is able to give John and David advance news that the virus affecting rice which has arisen in China, the ‘Chung-Li virus’ which has been in all the newspapers, is now heading for Europe and that even lovely old Blighty might eventually face the same kind of famine and food riots that are happening in the Far East.

And so it turns out. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are reported as dying of starvation as their entire rice harvest fails, spilling over into famine in Indochina and India, but we in the West rely on grasses and grains, not rice and so, for a season, watch with detached pity the mass starvation in the East.

When scientists eventually successfully kill off the original virus using ‘isotope 717’, there is much rejoicing around the world… until it is realised that killing off its competitors leaves the field open to a variant of the original virus which does target grasses and is more virulent than its predecessors.

In the first 4 or 5 chapters we see all this entirely through the dinner party chat and family dinners of John, Ann and their kids, of Roger and Olivia, and on a few occasions when John and his (wifeless, childless) brother David get together. John and Roger go for lunch at the latter’s club (chops and lager). Or the Buckleys and Custances enjoy their annual summer trip to stay in Roger’s caravan on the coast, while the kids play on the beach. They tut about the situation in the East, the womenfolk want the government to send more food supplies to the famine-affected areas and disapprove of Roger when he cynically says we need to keep all the food we can for ourselves.

When The Collapse comes, it comes suddenly and with no warning. Roger shows up at the building site of John’s latest building project, takes him to an empty pub and tells him the shocking news: England has only been fed by shipments from America and the Commonwealth. Now those shipments are ending. Within a week 55 million people will have no more food (p.45).

Not only that but – quite incredibly – the government has decided the only way to ensure the survival of at least half the population is to… liquidate the other half. The government has fallen, been replaced by a new hardline one which is drawing up plans to drop nuclear bombs on all the UK’s major cities! (p.48)

OK. Hard to credit, but within the swim of the narrative, it seems madly plausible. Earlier, we had a scene when John and Ann were visiting his brother Davy at the farm in the remote valley, Blind Gill, and he’d been a little shocked to learn his brother had bought a load of timber and was going to build a stockade, a fence against the one narrow entrance to the valley. Back in London, John had mentioned all this in one of his regular lunches with Roger.

Now Roger tells John to drop everything, go collect his daughter from her private school in Beckenham, and that both families must set off immediately for the North and David’s farm in Blind Gill. We are given a vivid scene of John, in a blur of panic, having to reassure his daughter’s tall, no-nonsense headmistress, Miss Errington, that everything is alright, and John’s distress as he looks round at all his daughters friends and wonders what will become of them (p.50).

But returning to his home in London, John discovers Roger has been delayed by his car having a busted gasket and having to take it to the garage. It’s 4pm before the two cars set off, loaded to the gills with all the belongings they intend to keep.

But the fateful delay means that, by the time they get clear of the North Circular Road, they are met by an army roadblock which has only been set up in the last hour or so. On the radio government announcements that nobody must leave London. The officer manning the roadblock says it’s just a manoeuvre, nothing serious, but won’t let them or anyone else through.

They turn round and Roger suggests a) taking a quiet rural side road as far as they can out of town and that b) he and John head back into the centre to a shop he knows. It is a gun shop. The two men try it on with the owner, a small, hunched, self-possessed and wordy man named Pirrie who refuses to serve them and, when John tries to jump him, pulls a revolver on them and starts to phone the police (p.60). It’s then that John tells him the full story, the imminent end of food, the famine, the collapse of society – and about his brother’s valley, Blind Gill, where they’re heading.

Pirrie phones his wife and tells her to pack their essential belongings into the car. (So that’s three cars – John and Ann and Mary in a Vauxhall; Roger and Olivia and Steve in a Ford; Pirrie and his wife, Millicent in their Citroen). Then helps our guys load up the car they came in with a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. When a passing bobby asks them what they’re up to Pirrie calmly and confidently lies that he’s been asked to take this all over to the local police station. It is the first occasion he shows John and Roger how resourceful and calm he is under pressure.

They drive to Pirrie’s house where his wife Millicent (20 years younger, very attractive) has packed their car. Pirrie gets into it and they arrange the rendezvous at the quiet country road where they left their wives. They park and reconnoitre and see an army checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead round a corner. They wait till it’s dark and then ambush it. Roger drives forward loud and drunk, while John and Pirrie sneak up from the sides and take aim at the three soldiers as they approach Roger’s car. In the end, it is Pirrie who kills all three with just three shots. He owns a gunshop. He is a marksman. They throw the bodies in a ditch and lift the barricade. The killing has begun.

They get safely beyond the barricaded area then sleep in the cars. Next morning they drive to Davey’s boarding school (Saxon Court). Everything seems normal as they collect the boy, who insists that his friend, nicknamed Spooks, comes to.

They push on north and see bombers flying towards Leeds. The radio has stopped working. Normal authorities have ceased. Can the bombers really have been going to bomb Leeds? Madness. At another army roadblock a Yorkshire soldier advises a roundabout route north.

They come to a level crossing whose gates come down cutting John, Ann and Mary off from the cars ahead. John goes to investigate, sees a woman who’s been raped inside the station house, runs back round the house to see two men struggling with his girls and at that moment someone whacks him with a block of wood, knocking him unconscious.

When John comes round, he is being tended by Olivia. Roger and Pirrie took a while to realise his car was missing and return. In the meantime the bandits have taken John’s car and women. They could be anywhere. It is Spooks who points out a trail of oil on the road from a leaking gasket. They follow it out to the country where they ambush the three men. They have taken it in turns to gang rape John’s wife and daughter. Pirrie shoots them but not to kill. Our guys rush up to Ann and Mary who have both been raped. Ann takes John’s machine gun, stands over her rapist and rips him to pieces with a burst of machine gun fire that empties the magazine. In her biography of John Wyndham, Amy Binns points out that it was this scene which prevented Death of Grass being made into a movie, but in reality the book has this very hard, brutal edge throughout. No-one emerges as a ‘hero’.

Chapter 7 All the way through the narrative has been punctuated by the characters listening to the radio. At one point the plummy BBC voice goes off the air and is replaced by a spokesman for a new Citizens Emergency Committee (p.92) which claims to have taken over London.

Heading north they swerve into another roadblock outside the town of Masham by a self-defence force, multiple guns pointing at them and their guns are in the boots of the cars, They end up being stripped of cars, petrol, most of their food the guns and ammo. When completely finished, the dozen Masham defenders melt away leaving our crew to walk up a hillside and sleep the night atop the defensible hilltop. But Pirrie had insisted on bringing his blanket with him and reveals, now, that he kept a rifle stashed inside (he tells us he used the same tactics when with the Army in Arabia, against thieving Arabs).

Now they are a tired party, heading north and on foot, with at least three days march ahead of them (pages 97 to 105).

Chapter 8 They come across an isolated cottage with smoke coming from the chimney, and shoot dead the burly cottager who opens the door holding a shotgun, and then his wife who is inside, also with a gun. John shoots her in the face with his shotgun but she doesn’t die, instead falls to the floor screaming with pain. Pirrie eventually arrives with the rest of the party and executes her. You can see why it was a non-starter as a film adaptation.

They load up all the goods they need, and the wives cook a full English breakfast from eggs and bacon. It’s only then that they find the murdered couple’s daughter, Jane, cowering in her room upstairs. To John’s surprise, Olivia and then Rodger insist that Jane comes with them. If they leave her there, the next gang of marauders will rape and kill her. Initially Janes just wants to be left alone but Olivia eventually talks her into going along with them.

It was while in this cottage that Roger scans through the airwaves, most of which are silent, and comes across a broadcast from America saying that all Europe has plunged into barbarism. Some atom bombs have gone off. Last flights carrying European leaders or royal families have landed in the States, which still has ample food stocks but is instituting rationing (pages 116 to 117). Well, thinks John, one day the Americans might return from over the seas to the Old Continent, bearing a virus-resistant grass, but God knows what kind of savage society they’ll find if they do.

Nature is wiping the earth clean (p.125)

Pirrie’s young wife, Millicent, is a bit rougher than the others, a bit less pukka. This is indicated by her slightly ‘Cockney’ accent and by the fact that she flirts increasingly with John, as he makes more and more decisions (and becomes more and more hard of heart). She ironically calls him Big Chief.

That night, when John’s on sentry duty guarding the group who are sleeping in a dell, Millicent creeps up and tries to seduce John. She is half succeeding and manages to get him into a clinch when her husband, Pirrie, announces his presence. We learn Pirrie’s first name is Henry (p.127) as he confronts them. Then, in a striking show of brutality and the new immorality, Pirrie shoots and kills MiIlicent and John lets him. When John had begun to raise his shotgun, Pirrie immediately swung his rifle towards him. John was powerless but he doesn’t feel anything. He and Pirrie throw the body over an embankment to hide it from the others.

Chapter 9 Next day, Pirrie is confronted by the others about murdering his wife and says she had cuckolded him many times (is that an expression any living person uses nowadays, ‘cuckolding’?) so he was within his rights. He then surprises everyone by saying he is going to take Jane, the murdered cottagers’ daughter, to wife (p.134). The women object but don’t stop him repeatedly telling Jane to go to him and, eventually, she does, docilely. This is the new order of relationships. Ann confronts John about it all and John says, at that moment, Ann and Mary meant more to him than anyone else.

They cross up onto the tops of moors and it starts to rain. Down in the valley they can see the village of Sedbergh burning. The men confer and agree they need to be a larger group with more men and guns in order to see off the looters and gangs which are probably forming. A while later a group of four women, two children and a couple of weedy men approach in the rain, pushing prams loaded with belongings. Feebly these losers ask to join their group, but there’s too many of them and they have no guns.

The encounter is interesting because it highlights the very class-based aspect of the story. John’s two children were at prep school, and the narrative has taken us to both these schools where we met the head master and head mistress of each. Right at the start of the book, Ann had told her son Davey not to say the word ‘Blimey’ because it is common. Now, when the oldest man in this shabby group opens his mouth John instantly nails him for a manual labourer, knackered after a lifetime of loyal and inefficient service (p.142). Their children’s names are Bessie and Wilf. Compare and contrast the pukka, upper-middle-class Custance children, named Davey and Mary. Two nations.

Then another larger group comes along, the man carrying guns in a swaggering way. John hails them and there is some blunt talking. Pirrie says that if they’re to unite in one band they’ll all have to obey John Custance here. When their gruff Yorkshire leader, Joe Ashton, starts to demur, Pirrie raises his rifle, the other goes for his revolver and Pirrie shoots him dead. The others are so stunned it takes them a moment to recover and by then Pirrie, John and Roger are covering them.

Pirrie takes it a stage further and orders the rest of his group to line up, shake hands with Custance and identify themselves. John is acutely aware of the ritual element, as his new men line up to offer fealty to their new warlord. The manual labourer from the other group has watched all this and makes another plea to join the enlarged group. In a flash, John realises the power of the ancient feudal system and the deep pleasure it gives to be in a position of power and able to offer mercy and help to the helpless.

Chapter 10 John now leads his group of 34 souls down through the looted ruins of Sedbergh and up to a resting place high up overlooking the Lune Valley. Roger is in charge of the rearguard. Pirrie has settled into being John’s lieutenant. John has a testy dialogue with him, reluctant to completely abandon the notions of democracy and decency, while Pirrie continually reminds him of the realities of the new world.

They come across an abandoned house on the tops. Pirrie takes a party to check it’s secure – the whole thing is running like the army, now – and then the party take separate rooms while John organises a guard. In a bedroom Ann accuses him of becoming a gangster and John insists he doesn’t want to and it will all change when they finally arrive at his brother’s farm. Ann complains that all the women ask her for decisions, since she is the Chieftain’s Wife. His children are scared of him. Even cynical old Roger and Olivia are scared of him, now. In a gesture towards their old friendship, John calls Roger and Olivia up to share the main bedroom, bed for the kids, carpeted floor for the adults.

Ann and Olivia see Pirrie walking off with Jane, presumably to have sex with her in the heather. The women loathe him and despise his taking advantage of the docile farm orphan. They discuss giving Jane the sharpest knife they can find in this cottage so she can slit Pirrie’s throat, but John springs to his lieutenant’s defence, which triggers an angry debate about what he’s become. He keeps saying that, as soon as they reach his brother’s farm, he’ll abandon his duties and everything will return to normal.

In the middle of the night they are attacked by quite a large group of men and it turns into a shooting match. John is dismayed when they start throwing grenades, but when the grenadier stands up to throw, a lucky shot from our guys in the house makes him drop the grenade and set off all the others. At that the attackers withdraw. John doubles the guard for the night. In the morning they go and survey the corpses, only a couple. Some of the men in the groups our heroes have accumulated fought and killed in the war, so they’re used to it.

Chapter 11 They finally march the last few miles to the narrow entrance to the valley named Blind Gill where John’s brother, David, has his legendary farm. There’s a nice stockade built across the valley entrance and Pirrie and John are admiring it from the road when a burst of machine gun fire scatters them. Pirrie is knocked to the road but, when Jane scampers out, picks up his body and carries him to the ditch the rest are taking cover in, it turns out it’s only as graze to the head which knocked him over.

John walks back towards the stockade carrying a white flag and tells whoever’s manning the machine gun that he’s David’s brother. He hears a utility vehicle fire up behind the stockade and motor off, then return a bit later. Then he hears his brother Dave’s voice. Dave makes his people open the gate a fraction so John can squeeze in. The brothers have a joyous reunion but then Dave devastates John by telling him he can’t bring his band in, only Ann and Mary and Davey. He explains that others got there first, have helped him man the barricades, they’ve already had to turn away some of their relatives. There just isn’t enough land to support them all.

John goes back to his people hiding in the ditch and they’ve already guessed the bad news. He puts it to them straight. Roger tells him and Ann and Mary and Davey to take up the offer and for a moment John is tempted. But then glances at Pirrie watching him, tapping the side of his rifle. He realises he wouldn’t make it in alive.

He goes back for another parley with David who, this time, is surrounded by other men, who listen to the conversation, David clearly doesn’t have any room for manouevre. Desperately he suggests John leads his group off and then ducks out, and doubles back with Ann and the kids. He’ll be waiting to let them in tonight. But both men know it won’t work. They shake hands and John is let through the stockade gate again.

Chapter 12 Pirrie has a plan. That night John and Pirrie wade through the freezing cold river which flows underneath David’s stockade and, once inside, open up a fusillade on the half dozen men manning the stockade and its machine gun, killing them all. During the gunfight, Pirrie is hit, collapses into the water and is washed downstream, dead. John’s last memory, as he passes out from his own injury, is of his own people swarming over the now-undefended stockade.

Chapter 13 In a short chapter obviously intended to be unbearably moving, John regains consciousness in David’s old house, his mind full of confused memories of being a boy, of having to attend his grandfather’s funeral, of the reading of the will where it was announced that David would inherit the farm, of his mother’s clumsy attempts to reassure him he would get her money and so have a decent life – these memories interspersed with present-moment impressions of Ann his wife treating and  reassuring him.

Because in his and Pirrie’s assault from within the stockade either he or Pirrie shot dead his beloved brother, David. Now John staggers to his feet, over to where his brother’s corpse is laid out on a bed. He kisses it, then turns to leave the bedroom. Ann asks:

‘Where are you going?’
‘There’s a lot to do,’ he said. ‘A city to be built.’ (p.195)

Old army tricks

Without any song and dance it is made clear that quite a few of the male characters served in the army and fought in the war. One man they meet said all this chaos and bloodshed was fine when it was somewhere else, but is strange here in England. John remembers handling a gun in the army and we are told he shot someone, but it feels sickeningly wrong shooting one of his own people. When he takes sentry duty he cups a cigarette in his palm to hide the glow, an ‘old army trick’ (p.124). We are told one of the Yorkshire band, Will Secombe, fought in the war, and Noah Blennitt, leader of the gunless loser group.

Because the novel turns into a series of military encounters. Some straightforward fighting, some less obvious but still military-style negotiations need to be held with other parties, such as happen atop the moor when Pirrie shoots dead Joe Ashton, leader of the other group. The way so many of the characters served in the Second World War, saw dead bodies or killed during it, underpins and informs the narrative.

Viewed from a certain angle, the entire novel is actually a sort of extension of war literature.


Introduction by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane was commissioned by Penguin to write the introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition and it made me pretty angry.

Macfarlane went to private school, then onto Cambridge, so he is well placed to lecture the rest of us about how to live, and to make a career as a writer in an industry dominated by the privately school, Oxbridge-educated elite.

Macfarlane’s sensitive books about mountains or walking ‘the old ways’ are favourably reviewed by other private school and Oxbridge-educated types – for example, The Old Ways was described as ‘a tour de force’ by William Dalrympple, himself attended Britain’s premiere Roman Catholic public school, Ampleforth, and then Cambridge – and Macfarlane has won a heap of awards judged by like-minded, pampered and deeply spiritual souls. Like calls to like. The chumocracy. Or just the narrow ruling class which runs the arts and media.

Macfarlane tries to make out The Death of Grass to be a serious and prophetic piece of literature, rather than the intense, gripping but ultimately shallow, potboiling thriller which it obviously is. Macfarlane tries to argue that the novel deals with nature’s revenge and uses the hundred year-old hackneyed Freudian term ‘the return of the repressed’. This is obvious bollocks, as you can see from my plot summary. People shoot each other. Nothing repressed about it.

And also, for anyone with even a passing interest in ecology or biology, there is precious little scientific content in the book. After scattered references to the Chung-Li virus in the first 40 or so pages and Roger’s pub chats with John about scientists’ attempts to fight it, the virus as such disappears from the story, which turns into the intense and violent adventures of a small group fighting their way across England.

Like many authors asked to write an introduction to a book, Macfarlane pads out the little he has to say by giving summaries of a lot of other books which are like it. Thus in the introduction’s eight pages he manages to namecheck and summarise:

  • Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore (1947)
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
  • The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Genocides by Thomas Disch (1961)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

So instead of describing the book he’s introducing, Macfarlane devotes a lot of effort to showing us how well-read and clever he is. Amazingly, he then lets loose a volley of characteristically upper-class criticism of British exceptionalism and the English character, which is so characteristic of modern upper-class progressives who have enjoyed all the privileges of an elite public school and Oxbridge.

He is quick to inform us that he despises ‘British exceptionalism’, the lingering thought that the British are ‘morally superior to other cultures and nations’ (for example Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, imperial Japan or Maoist China) tut tut no no. He descants on ‘the hollowness of the idea of “Englishness”‘ – which Macfarlane despises as only a superior-minded, privately educated Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge can.

Tut tut, all you stupid chavs who are patriots or love your country or thought that Britain was standing up to Hitler, Russia or the murderous Japs during the Second World War, tut tut, you should listen to superior beings like Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge Robert Macfarlane, who goes out of his way to tell readers that they ought to despise the novel’s depiction of ‘a Batsford England of bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns and well-fed burghers, warm beer, cricket on the green, tea on the lawn, and fair play.’

Stupid British people! Listen to Robert and learn to despise yourselves and the wretched, hypocritical country you live in!

Macfarlane goes onto completely lose all credibility by claiming J.G. Ballard as a ‘prophet’ of contemporary society a notion which, after having read Ballard’s complete works, I completely reject and devoted a blog post to:

Rather pathetically, Macfarlane says Ballard predicted reality television, the advent of ‘happy slapping’ and the decline of high-rise living:

a) as if Ballard actually did prophesy them instead of, in fact, being as aware of their development as anyone else who reads the papers and magazines (predicting the rise of ‘happy slapping’ as a major claim to fame! my God, what an idiot)

b)as if that is what Ballard’s claim to fame should rest on, on being a supposed prophet! Of course it shouldn’t, you nitwit! It isn’t on his claim to fame as a ‘prophet’ but the quality of his writing that a writer’s claim to fame should rest – otherwise he’s just an essayist or superficial cultural commentator, alongside thousands and thousands of others all lamenting the awfulness of modern society, much like Robert Macfarlane wringing his hands over anyone who could be nostalgic for an England of ‘bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns’.

Ballard’s claim to fame isn’t that he predicted ‘the decline of high-rise living’ – plenty of intelligent architects and sociologists objected to high-rises from the moment the first ones were built. Ballard’s claim to fame is that he wrote stunningly complex and visionary novels like The Crystal World or The Atrocity Exhibition and conveyed in all his best work a unique sense of psychosis and mental collapse in grippingly bizarre settings and scenarios.

To suggest that Ballard’s fame should rest on his ‘prediction’ of 24-hour TV and ‘happy slapping’, good God, what an obtuse, illiterate and superficial notion, and what an insult to a great writer.

Macfarlane then goes on to try and claim visionary prophet status for Christopher and this book. God, what a tired and jaded case to make for a writer, that he was a ‘great prophet’. Of course Christopher wasn’t a bleeding ‘prophet’. Thousands of science fiction writers had depicted global catastrophes and ecological collapse and global famine and the rest of it for decades before Christopher, and novels, plays, dramas, and movies on the exact same subject have carried on proliferating like all other cultural products in a world drowning in cultural product.

The simple truth is that while any number of writers, novelists, essayists or film-makers have carried on making any number of cultural products, the human population has carried on growing exponentially and we now know we are destroying the world like a species of unstoppable vermin.

That’s the truth Macfarlane is too scared to speak. It is the overpopulation of the entire human race which is killing the planet. Instead Macfarlane’s introduction takes the tired and lazy route of blaming everything bad in the world on the British and on their sense of ‘exceptionalism’. The Death of Grass is a gripping genre novel but with a lot of shocking moments and unexpected insights into human nature. Macfarlane does the unexpected subtleties and psychological disturbances of this book a disservice by pressing them into the service of his own lofty, woke, public school, snobbish progressivism.

It was precisely this kind of metropolitan urban elitism which is so dismissive of ‘British exceptionalism’ and contemptuous of ‘English values’, which mocks the English flag and loses no opportunity to slag off white people and their ‘institutional racism’, which hypocritically spews such unremitting criticism of the nation, language and history from which it has benefited so enormously, which helped deliver the 2016 Brexit vote from a huge number of ordinary people fed up of being patronised and despised and ignored and last year helped the incompetent and corrupt Conservative Party win huge swathes of the industrial north and gain a historic general election victory which will probably keep them in power for the rest of the decade.

So, far from being an apt introduction to Christopher’s sci fi classic, I take Macfarlane’s introduction to be a patronising insult.


Credit

The Death of Grass by John Christopher was published by Michael Joseph in 1956. All references are to the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

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