Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck (2010)

In Africa an archaic social organisation collides with the supremacy of a technical civilisation that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it…simply by being ourselves , we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
(from the diary of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a Russo-Belgian agriculture engineer in the 1940s)

Kimbanguism

Simon Kimbangu was born the son of a traditional Congolese healer in 1899. Taken in by British Baptist missionaries, he became a catechist i.e. highly instructed in the faith, before, in 1921, having a revelation that he himself had miraculous powers, given directly by Jesus Christ. Simon healed a dying woman (named Kintondo, p.146) and stories about his healing powers spread like wildfire, that he healed the deaf and blind, that he even raised a woman from the dead. From all over the region people abandoned their fields and markets and flocked to behold the saviour.

The authorities in the shape of district commissioner Léon Morel quickly became alarmed, van Reybrouck saying the Protestant missionaries (who had trained Simon) took a moderate and sympathetic view of his teachings, but the Catholics lined up with the colonial authorities to find Kimbangu a threat to order and conformity (p.149).

Kimbagu was arrested and put through a show trial, without the benefit of a defence lawyer. Van Reybrouck gives us extensive quotes from the transcript of the trial and points out its similarities to the trial of Jesus Christ, another religious zealot shopped by the religious establishment who the prosecuting authorities found difficult to convict of any particular crime. The part of Pilate was played by commander Amadeo De Rossi (p.149). The result was a foregone conclusion and Kimbagu was sentenced to death when, to everyone’s surprise, he was given a personal reprieve by the Belgian monarch, King Albert, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life in a Belgian prison, most of it in solitary confinement, 30 years in a small cell, longer than Nelson Mandela.

The authorities tries to suppress Kimbagu’s followers, arresting them, sending them to remote parts of the Congo, outlawing his sect, sending his chief followers to camps fenced with barbed wire where they were subjected to forced labour, as many as one in five dying in the process (p.152). But this policy had the perverse result of spreading the faith throughout the country, with witnesses appearing all over to testify to miracles and healings performed by the imprisoned master. The result is that Kimbaguism has become a solidly established religion, a spinoff from Christianity in the style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Today around 10% of the population of the Congo are followers, with devotees and churches established in many other countries.

Van Reybrouck not only devotes an extended passage to Kimbagu’s biography and trial but makes a personal pilgrimage to what has become the Kimbanguists’ holy city, Nkamba, where he describes the peaceful atmosphere, and then interviews a leading figure in the church, Papa Wanzungasa, one hundred years old and still going strong. Indeed Kimbanguism is now a recognised religion. Some 10% of the population of Congo are followers. Papa Wanzungasa tells van Raybrouck about the early days of the movement, and describes how his own family members were forced to convert to Catholicism or sent to labour camps in the 20s and 30s, how the true believers held secret conventicles in the jungle, using coded messages to rendezvous at safe spots like the early Christians meeting underground in ancient Rome (p.153).

Van Reybrouck broadens the story out to place the Kimbanguists in context among a number of other charismatic religions which broke out in the Congo between the wars: Ngunzism, a spinoff from Kimbanguism which was overtly anti-colonial; Mpadism, founded by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, whose followers engaged in ecstatic dances; Matswanism, founded by First World War veteran André Matdwa; the Kitawala, the name a corruption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine, the Watchtower; and many more.

And then van Reybrouck gives a brilliant sociological explanation for all this, explaining that the new charismatic sects arose in precisely the parts of Congo where traditional life and beliefs had been most disrupted by European intervention, Kimbanguism in the coastal region of Bas (or Lower) Congo, the Kitawala (which grew to become the second largest indigenous religion after Kimbanguism), in the highly developed mining region of Katanga, in the far south-east of the country.

In all instances, then, it was a response to the disruption or destruction of the old tribal beliefs and social systems, their very imperfect replacement by zealous but thin Christianity, and maybe most important of all, to the simple fact that most Congolese, after half a century of promises, remained second rate citizens in their own country, most of them caught up in conditions of semi-forced labour to vast European mining and agricultural businesses, which ruthlessly exploited them and their entire families, uprooting villages, relocating entire populations, with no hope of any end in sight.

All these charismatic native religions offered hope to their adherents that a new and better life, one the colonial authorities had completely failed to deliver, was at hand. The Tupelepele (meaning the Floaters) followed Matemu a Kelenge (known to his followers as Mundele Funji, or ‘White Storm’) who hoped for a return to the time of the ancestors who would restore balance and prosperity for all. Its followers threw their identity papers, tax receipts, bank notes and all the other symbols of the European capitalist system which had ensnared them into the river in anticipation of a Great Liberation (p.162).

David Van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo is a brilliant and stunning achievement, a history like no other, and his extended treatment of Kimbanguism (pages 142 to 154) exemplifies many of its many strong points.

1. Van Reybrouck is not British

Van Reybrouck is not British. Much of the writing about the nineteenth century explorers is by British chaps about British chaps and, despite its best intentions, can’t help falling back into the gravitational pull of admiration for the plucky epic exploits of someone like Livingstone or Burton or Stanley. Van Reybrouck is completely clean of all this cricket and tiffin cultural baggage. He is Belgian. It’s quite a relief to read a book about colonial Africa in which the British are barely mentioned. In this book the European power which takes centre stage are the Belgians, their kings, parliaments and civil service, with walk-on parts for the French, Germans and Portuguese.

(I was pleased to read the first hand account of a Congolese who fought in the Second World War describing his initial transfer to British-run Nigeria where he found that local Africans were treated hugely better than they were in the Congo – properly fed, treated with respect, and he was amazed to discover that black Africans held senior posts in the Nigerian army, something still unthinkable in the segregated Belgian Congo of the 1940s).

2. Van Reybrouck is not a historian

Van Reybrouck is not a historian, at least not by training. He trained as an archaeologist and his first publication was of his doctoral dissertation, From Primitives to Primates. A history of ethnographic and primatological analogies in the study of prehistory, in 2010. Since then he has gone on to write historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry and plays, but somehow this archaeological background helps or might explain why his book feels open to a far wider range of influences and sources than a more narrow and conventional history by a professional historian would.

For example, it explains the brilliant and illuminating passage in the Introduction where he imagines five slides, each depicting the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Congo at widely separated moments of time, namely:

  1. 90,000 years ago on the shore of Lake Edward (the time and place where the bones of a group of prehistoric humans have indeed been found)
  2. a Pygmy boy in the rainforest two and a half thousand years before Christ
  3. AD 500 as the slow spread of agriculture (specifically, the fast growing ‘new’ crop, the plaintain) as well as basic iron tools arrive at the village where our 12-year-old lives
  4. 1560, when the 12-year-old lives in a society where small isolated villages have given way to clans of villages, themselves building up, especially on the savannah, into complex societies which can be called kingdoms, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba and the Kuba
  5. 1780, when there’s a fair chance our village 12-year-old will have been trafficked by enemy tribes down to the coast and bought by European slavers who ship him off under terrible conditions to Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South

So by just page 23 van Reybrouck has already given us a breath-taking sense of the historical and geographic scope of his account, that it will be a wide-ranging and, above all, beautifully imaginative and creative history.

3. Van Reybrouck is interested in byways

A conventional historian might mention the rise of charismatic sects and religious leaders in the 1920s and 30s as a result of the ongoing deracination of the Congolese population, but it is distinctive of van Reybrouck that he finds the story or angle which brings such a theoretical topic to vivid life. He not only gives us transcripts of the trial of Simon Kimbangu but then travels to the Kimbanguists’ holy city to interview leading adherents for himself.

What I’m driving at is that van Reybrouck’s account not only covers the conventional history and dates and events, but turns over all kinds of odds and ends and details and fragments and insights which bring the country, the Congo, and its people, really vividly to life.

He stumbles across the huge statue of Stanley which used to dominate the main square in Leopoldville, now taken down and dumped inside one of Stanley’s own early steamers in a junk yard in Kinshasa (p.99).

He explains the origins of the pop music and jazz which took Kinshasa by storm between the wars, and its mix of African languages and American jazz with the (rather surprising) importation of Cuban rhythms and sounds to create what is called Congo rumba. He tells us about Camille Feruzi, the great accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, and Wendo Kolosoyi whose guitar playing laid the basis of Congo rumba ‘the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century’ (p.168). African Jazz ‘the most popular band in the Congo on the 1950s’ led by Joseph Kabasele.

He mentions the godfather of Congolese literature, Paul Lomami-Tshibamba, who published elegant essays immediately after the Second World War questioning colonialism and was arrested and beaten in prison for his trouble before fleeing into exile in the (French-controlled) Republic of Congo, across the river (p.170). I immediately went looking for his first novel, Ngando, and am very irked to discover it has never been translated into English.

His book is studded with scores of other facts and byways and insights about Congo and its social and cultural and musical and artistic and social life which combine to build up a much more vivid and colourful portrait of the country than any purely ‘historical’ account could do.

4. Van Reybrouck has carried our many interviews

Van Reybrouck makes the commonly made observation that so many histories of Africa omit the voices of actual Africans – the difference is that he has done something about it. From his first trip to Congo in 2003, van Reybrouck sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find, eye witnesses who saw at first hand the events they describe, or had them from parents or grandparents.

It is typical of van Reybrouck that he travelled to the Kimbanguist holy city to see for himself. Historians working from colonial records in libraries and archives don’t do that. Van Reybrouck combines history with the vivid sense of journey and place of a good travel writer. And then, the qualities of a good journalist who knows how to make an interviewee at ease and extract the good stuff from a wide range of old timers.

So there are two types of Congolese testimony, written and oral.

a) People van Reybrouck spoke to

One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. (p.220)

‘Étienne’ Nkasi (introduced page 6), over a hundred years old, who remembered the name of Stanley as a living presence, who knew Simon Kimbangu when he was a boy, who remembered the building of the first railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and much more. His story weaves in and out of the main narrative so he appears on page 117, witnessing the early development of Kinshasa.

Victor Masundi (introduced page 75), aged 87 and blind, grew up in the Scheutist mission in Boma, and Camille Mananga (page 76) aged 73 recounted his grandfather’s memories of first being taken into a Christian mission.

Colonel Eugène Yoka, a former air force colonel, tells van Reybrouck about his father who had been a soldier who served in World War 1, and that his grandfather, a Bangal tribesman from Équateur province, had been one of the first recruits to the Force Publique (p.77).

Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, two Congolese who volunteered to fight in the Great War to defend the ‘motherland’ Belgium and were promptly captured by the Germans and spent four long years in a prisoner of war camp. Liberated after the war, Farnana lived for a while in Brussels where he eloquently made the case for the Congolese being treated as adults in their own country (pages 138 and 178).

André Kitardi, veteran of the First World War (pp.129 onwards) and again on pages 185 and 199 where he ends up serving in Palestine. Libert Otenga, the Congolese medic who was transported north into Egypt, then the Middle East, to India and ended up serving in Burma (p.188). Louis Ngumbi who fought for the Allies during World War Two (p.185).

Martin Kabuya, 92, whose grandfather took part in the Sudan campaign, who enrolled in the Congo army, describes his rgandfather’s experiences in the Great War (p.135) and his own role as a Morse code operator in the Second War (p.187).

Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, mother of Colonel Yoka, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served for only a few weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pp.135 onwards).

Père Henri de  la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit missionary in his 80s, nephew of the most famous Belgian missionary to the Congo, Raphaël de la Kéthulle who shares memories of his famous uncle who, alongside schools, built soccer stadiums, swimming pools and the huge Stade Roi Baudouin (pages 172 to 175).

Longin Ngwadi, aged 80 when van Reybrouck speaks to him in Kikwit, largest city of Kwilu Province, in the southwestern part of Congo, born in 1928, baptised by Jesuits, who wanted to become a priest but was rejected by the church hierarchy, so drifted to Kinshasa like so many young men in the 1930s and went on to become one of the first black professional footballers (pages 207 to 211).

Sister Apolline, also 80, a mixed race Congolese nun who started her career as a schoolteacher (p.211). Victoria Ndjoli, the first Congolese woman to get a driving licence (p.212).

Jamais Kolonga subject of a famous Congo rumba song, who’d had a long and varied life, who worked on the docks at Kinshasa as a young man, how his grandfather was converted to Catholicism and sent away two of his three wives, how his father was sent to Catholic school, taught to read and write and got a job with the Belgian company Otraco as manager of the housing district for the native workers, inspected their homes, made speeches to visiting directors and dignitaries and, once, even the king! Appointed to the Otraco works council and then the local council he was one of the first Congolese to have even a slight say in the administration (p.222). Jamais was born in 1935. At home he spoke French with his father, Kikongo with his mother, and Lingala with everyone else (p.223). Jamais went to work for Otraco in 1953 (pages 219 to 224).

b) Written texts recording African testimony and voices

Disasi Makuli (introduced page 29) was born in the early 1870s, son of tribalpeople, grew up in the tribal world and, aged ten, first heard rumours of outsiders raiding into their territory, who they nicknamed the Batambatamba, meaning the slave traders (p.41). Disasi was kidnapped by a gang led by the famous slave trader Tippu Tip. Then he is purchased by Stanley and set free, handed over to the case of the Englishman Anthony Swinburne who managed the small early settlement at Leopoldville. When Swinburne died he aged just 30 in 1889, Disasi found a new home with the British Baptist missionary Anthony Grenfell (p.68). In 1902 he set up one of the first black-run missions in Congo, at Yalemba (p.71). He witnessed at first hand atrocities caused by the Red Rubber Terror (p.89) and had many more adventures before dictating his life story to one of his sons before his death in 1941.

In 1895 a young man named Butungu left for England with a Baptist missionary, John Weeks. A year later he returned home with tall tales of sailing ships and salt water and the miracles he’d seen in London and wrote his stories down in Boloki. ‘It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century’ (p.65).

Testimony recorded in official reports about the rubber terror: for example given by Eluo, a man from Esanga, about red rubber atrocities (p.89).

The long and colourful life of Lutunu, born at the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded by Belgian artist Jeanne Maquiet-Tombeau (The Life of the Congolese Chief Lutunu, 1952), given as a slave by chief Makitu to Stanley (p.102).

The memories of Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur province, as recorded by a missionary and describing the imposition of the heavy tax burden on native workers levied from after the Great War (p.128).

Excerpts from the articles of Paul Lomami-Tshibamba (pages 170 and 216). An editorial from one of the colony’s most popular papers, L’Avenir Colonial (p.177).

The memoirs of André Yav, who worked all his life as a ‘boy’ in Elizabethville and wrote his recollections in the 1960s (p.123). He is quoted remembering the big miners strike during the war, which was violently suppressed by the authorities in December 1941 and the long and bitter legacy it left (p.192).

The wonderfully insightful diaries of wartime Congo kept by Vladi Souchard, pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, ‘a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction’, pages 194 to 199.

Chapters

The quickest way to convey the structure of the book is to list its chapters. Each one has a ‘colourful’ title, such as a quote, and then a factual sub-title indicating the period covered. Here are the factual sub-titles and dates covered:

  1. Central Africa draws the attention of the East and West 1870 to 1885
  2. Congo under Leopold II 1885 to 1908
  3. The early years of the colonial regime 1908 to 1921
  4. Growing unrest and mutual suspicion in peacetime 1921 to 1940
  5. The war and the deceptive calm that followed 1940 to 1955
  6. A belated colonisation, a sudden independence 1955 to 1960
  7. [Assassination of Patrice Lumumba 1960]
  8. The turbulent years of the first republic 1960 to 1965
  9. Mobutu gets down to business 1965 to 1975
  10. A marshal’s madness 1975 to 1990
  11. Democratic opposition and military confrontation 1990 to 1997
  12. The Great War of Africa 1997 to 2002
  13. New players in a wasted land 2002 to 2006
  14. Hope and despair in a newborn democracy 2006 to 2010

Between the wars

All the books I’ve read recently were about the Victorian explorers of central Africa and ended around 1910 with the death of King Leopold and his handing over the Congo to the Belgian state to become a proper colony. It’s the period after that which interests me, from the Edwardians to independence and van Reybrouck’s does a wonderful job of explaining that period, both in terms of conventional history, but also with his extensive use of individual biographies, memories, interviews and anecdotes.

The period saw the real entrenchment of colonialism but also the development and changing phases of that colonialism. Much happened but the key strands were:

Incorporation into global capitalist economy

In the 1890s the economy was a barter one. Even King Leopold’s rapacious Force Publique in effect bartered for rubber or paid forced labour exclusively with rations. The period through and after the First World War saw the introduction of money, Congo was incorporated into the global capitalist economy, with the introduction of contracts and wages (pages 127 and 157).

The budding industrialisation of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanisation and proletarianisation, but also to a far-reaching process of monetisation. (p.127)

And once you have money i.e. once you have transitioned a population from barter and traditional forms of exchange, to money, the state can control huge aspects of life, starting with contracts for wages, all kinds of laws about commercial dealings. Previously individuals worked out their own forms of exchange; now the state intervened in everything. Most of all, the state can now introduce and collect taxes. Taxes for what? Why, to pay for the state.

These economic, trade, financial practices had been introduced across Europe over centuries (think of the evolution of money and banking) and so, like the frog in the slowly heating up saucepan, everyone in the West had not only got used to them but regarded them as ‘natural’.

It’s only when you see all these instruments of state and social control being imposed on a completely virgin society that you realise how exploitative and controlling they were.

Industrialisation and proletarianisation

Industralisation and ‘development’ all sound fine until you realise their inevitable concomitant, which is the creation of a proletariat. Again, since many of the workers in the new factories or in the huge mines being created in the east of the country or on the vast new plantations growing coffee, cotton, tobacco and other export crops were only one generation removed from illiterate tribal villagers living on subsistence agriculture, the process was all the more dramatic and defined (p.125).

Between 1908 and 1921…Congo experienced its first wave of industrialisation, thereby prompting the proletarianisation of its inhabitants. (p.125)

You can see why Marxist ideology gained such traction in the developing world or Third World as it came up to independence. In Europe and America capitalism had developed a very large middle and lower middle class which benefited from it, which enjoyed a standard of living to which the more skilled workers aspired. These acted as a kind of social ballast, meaning that the industrial proletariat or working class, whatever you call it, even at their most radicalised, were never in a majority, never had the potential to overthrow the state.

Whereas in most countries coming up to independence, the clear majority of the population was treated as second class citizens and the great majority of them exploited by European employers and screwed for ever higher taxes by a state biased entirely to protecting Europeans and maximising their wealth.

When you add in the race aspect, the notion that whites exploited blacks, so that when the whites were overthrown and blacks were in power, paradise would come – and you have a very heady mix of ideas and ideologies and hopes.

Population explosion

Schools, hospitals, better nutrition, a more varied diet and medical advances such as inoculation against the worst tropical diseases, meant that the 1930s and 40s saw a population explosion (p.164). This took a very particular form, namely the explosive growth of cities. Word spread there were jobs, decent housing, money and all the excitements of modern urban life just a hundred miles from the traditional village where you lived. The village denoted crushing poverty, a corrupt chieftain and wizened elders who married all the young women. Farming was back breaking work and the crops grown were specified by the state according to unknown plans or you might be dragooned into one of the mandatory road building schemes.

So you upped sticks and hitched to the city to take your chances. Between 1920 and 1940 the population of Kinshasa doubled to 50,000. (Remember that Stanley founded it from nothing and named it Léopoldville just 40 years earlier, in 1881.) Elizabethville (named after the wife of King Albert of Belgium), centre of the mining industry in the south-east of the country, double in size between 1923 and 1929, from 16,000 to 23,000. Huge investments in the 1920s in both the mining industry and in transport infrastructure  led to Katanga province becoming one of the world’s major copper ore producers.

In 1919 the big Union Minière de Haut-Katanga corporation based in Katanga employed 8,500 workers; by 1928 it was 17,000. In 1920 there were 123,000 salaried black in the country; in 1929 there were 450,000 (p.127). By 1945, what with the huge demand for metals and foodstuffs generated by the war, the number of payrolled workers had risen to 800,000, possibly as many as 1 million (p.191).

Van Reybrouck uses the decision of Union Minière to allow workers to bring their wives to the workers’ accommodation as a symbolic moment when many black employees stopped being transitory single men on short term contracts and began to become families with careers. Black men acquired the skills required by a modern urban economy, carpenters, masons, woodworkers, as well as white collar roles such as nurses, clerks, warehouse foremen. And bar and music hall owners and the new jazz musicians who played in them. In the late 1930s the first pensions were introduced by some of the corporations. It was during the 30s, 40s and 50s that a Congolese society was created. The Boy Scouts were introduced. Football. Music.

Repression

As the colonial state extended its grasp out across all regions of the country, it faced two kinds of revolt: one the old traditional, rural one from the country and the other a new, urban one, fomented by workers and unions. This explains why ‘almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935 (p.160).

When a young Belgian named Maximilien Balot, visiting a village in Pende country to collect taxes, mishandled the situation, was murdered and his body hacked to pieces, the colonial government sent in soldiers who killed at least 400 natives, probably more (p.163).

Elsewhere, strikes among mine workers or dockers were put down with force, although actual unions weren’t very active. Most were set up by the white employers and so were another symbol of repression rather than vehicles of protest and negotiation. As late as 1955, of about 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls, only 6,160 belonged to a union (p.214).

What is an évolué?

Against this background of industrialisation and modernisation, the rapid growth of urban centres with all the features of urban life i.e. modern jobs, modern accommodation, electricity, telephones and entertainment in the form of clubs and bars and cinemas, it’s no surprise that an educated black bourgeoisie emerged. The Belgian authorities used the French term ‘évolué’ meaning, literally, people who had evolved from their primitive illiterate tribal culture to become well educated, assimilated urbanites, people who dressed, walked and talked like Europeans.

An évolué had benefited from post-primary school education, had a good income, was serious about his work, monogamous (polygamy was one of the great indicators of the tribal mindset), dressed, walked and talked in the European manner. He was proud of owning Western consumer goods like a bicycle or record player (p.215).

Like any other class rising up into one above, they were very conscious of their new status and formed groups, clubs and circles to protect it. They read and they wrote. The first Congolese writers come from this caste such as Paul Lomami-Tshibamba. But they were in the classic piggy-in-the-middle position. After the Second World War they wrote the first tentative essays about greater equality and autonomy for blacks but deep down they wanted to live like whites and be treated like whites. The irony was that, after the war, more white women came and settled in the Congo, a new white middle class came into being, more consumer orientated, with big villas and chauffeur-driven cars and children at private school.

And at exactly the historic moment when a new black middle class and intelligentsia reached out to them, van Reybrouck portrays white bourgeoisie as withdrawing into its gated communities and enforcing a new, more unbreakable colour bar. If a white journalist took a black colleague into a European bar, conversation stopped. Trains were segregated into black and white. If a black man dived into a swimming pool at a European club, the whites got out (p.216).

They had done everything asked of them, but still the évolués were treated as second class citizens. Van Reybrouck quotes a plaintive petition from the évolués of the small town of Lulabourg, who describe themselves as ‘a new social class…which constitutes a new sort of native middle class’ and concludes plaintively: ‘It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will’ (p.217).

The authorities made what, in retrospect seem like pitiful attempts to mollify these pleas. In 1948 they declared the évolués could apply for a ‘certificate of civil merit’. Holders of this grand certificate would no longer be administered corporal punishment and, if charged with an offence, be tried before a European judge. They had access to white wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through white neighbourhoods after 6pm (!).

Unsurprisingly this was met with resentment and so the authorities introduced the carte d’immatriculation in 1952 which gave the évolué exactly the same civil rights as Europeans, most notably the ability to send their children to European schools. However, in order to qualify you had to submit to a humiliating inspection of your home life, which scrutinised every aspect of your home from the sleeping arrangements right down to the state of the cutlery and the kitchen.

Very few évolués volunteered to undergo this humiliation and even fewer passed the stringent criteria with the result that, in 1958, from a population of 14 million, only 1,557 civil merits were handed out and only 217 registration cards (p.219).

All of which explains why so many of the early leaders of the African nationalist parties in the Belgian Congo were members of the frustrated évolué class.

A succession of raw materials

Congo was victim of a kind of ironic curse: the conquering Europeans discovered the country possessed a whole series of raw materials which brought the exploiting whites vast wealth but very little benefit and a lot of forced labour and misery for the native population. Van Reybrouck points out these raw materials formed a kind of relay race: just as one material ran dry or ceased to be needed by Western countries, another took its place (p.119).

Thus ivory was the commodity which attracted traders to Congo in the 1870s and 80s. But just as supplies of ivory were being exhausted in the 1890s, there was a sudden explosion of demand for rubber sparked by the invention of pneumatic tyres for bicycles and cars and Congo turned out to be home to millions of wild rubber vines, which the population was terrorised into milking throughout the 1890s and 1900s.

Then the rubber boom collapsed because so many rubber tree plantations were opening in the Far East. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87% of Congo’s exports, by 1928 just 1% (p.119). But just as the bottom fell out of the rubber market, Congo was discovered to be one of the world’s great sources of precious metals and minerals, chiefly copper, which underwent an explosion of demand during the First World War.

The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun and on the Somme had brass casings made from 75% copper mined in the east Congo region of Katanga. The bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80% copper (p.137). There was steady demand between the wars, and then another huge spike 1939 to 1945.

And then, just when demand for copper dropped following WW2, its extensive supplies of uranium made Congo’s mines out east of permanent interest to the Americans (p.191). And when demand for this fell with the end of the Cold War in 1990, a new demand was opened up with the spread of personal computers and then mobile phones, which require cobalt and other rare metals which are found in the eastern part of the country.

Conclusion

My reading of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the industrial revolution and the age of capital is that the industrial revolution was a kind of catastrophe. Contemporaries marvelled at the power and size of the new machines, especially the new railway engines unleashed on the world in the 1840s, but were puzzled and horrified at how such incredible ingenuity and engineering prowess seemed to make a large part of the population poorer than it had been before, the puzzle Karl Marx set out to solve and which his devotee Hobsbawm echoed 100 years later.

Nobody knew then what we know now about the cyclical nature of capitalist boom and bust, about successive waves of technological, consumer and marketing innovation. After the second industrial revolution provided a cornucopia of new inventions into the 1870s and 80s it was possible to believe that the new sciences of economics and sociology would guide society towards a technological utopia.

What is quite obvious is that nobody at the time understood the forces driving Western societies and the entire world forward with such relentless energy to a series of disasters: from the prolonged depression of the 1870s and 1880s which nobody understood, through to the gathering rivalries of the 1900s which led to the unprecedented cataclysm of the Great War and then to the thirty years of chaos which followed – the instability in Europe, America and Asia crystallised by the collapse of the entire financial system in 1929 followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia which ten stricken years later plunged the world into an even greater cataclysm.

My point is that Stanley and Leopold and the sadists in the Force Publique and then much of the colonial administration and the white Belgian masters certainly made countless mistakes, indulged in lies, extortion, torture and murder, or the relentless humiliation of colonial racism. And I’m not suggesting we ‘forgive’ them or let them off the hook. But at the same time this epic account, for me, brings out how humans in all areas, at all levels of society, don’t really know what’s going on. How could we? We can’t see the future from whose perspective the general trends of things even begin to make some sort of sense.

Who today can really predict the long-term impact of the digital revolution, of COVID-19 or global warming? After all the colour and vibrancy of van Reybrouck’s brilliant account I was left with a profound sense of humanity’s helplessness, a blinkered inability to understand the situation or manage ourselves which the next sections of the book – about the rush to independence, followed by civil war, military coups, corrupt dictatorship, political chaos, catastrophic war and social collapse are not, I suspect, going to do anything to disabuse me of.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.


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Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part two

‘[Dr Livingstone] left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa.’
(Henry Morton Stanley in his obituary of Livingstone published in the Graphic magazine, 1873)

Expeditions covered in the second half of the book

  • Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, 1871 to 1872
  • Livingstone’s final expedition, 1872 to 1873
  • Stanley’s great expedition across Africa from East to West, 1874 to 1879
  • Stanley working for King Leopold II of Belgium, 1879 to 1885
  • The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

This is the third version of the meeting between Welsh workhouse boy-turned-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone which I have read, and arguably the most effective.

This is because, in the preceding chapter (chapter 18) Jeal had given a clear and vivid description of how utterly prostrate Livingstone was, his obsession with tracing the river Lualaba crushed by porters paid by Arab slavers to refuse to accompany him, forced to return to the miserable slaver town of Ujiji on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika where he discovered that all the trading goods and supplies which had been carefully selected, bought and sent to him by Dr John Kirk, British consul in Zanzibar, had been treacherously sold off by the Arab in charge of delivering them, so that all his native porters abandoned him, leaving the man penniless, betrayed, abandoned and completely demoralised by the complete failure of his expedition to the Lualaba, the crushing of all his hopes as an explorer. That is the moment when Henry Morton Stanley walked into his compound, accompanied by hundreds of porters laden with supplies. So the reader understands why the meeting came as such a huge psychological relief to both men.

As to Stanley’s epic trek across Africa which revealed for the first time that the Luabala was a tributary of the Congo, I have covered that in my review of Jeal’s biography of Stanley.

The origins of the Nile and what is an ‘origin’?

On reflection, I think Jeal would have done better to have started this book with a factual description of the actual geography of the Nile, carefully explaining what we now understand of its modern course; because, with this information imprinted on our minds, the reader would be much better placed to understand the importance of all the discoveries and theories bandied about by the explorers whose expeditions he describes over the next 350 pages.

It is only on page 316, in the context of Stanley proving once and for all that the river Luabala did not flow north and east to form a tributary of the Nile, but instead flowed north and west to become the main tributary of the Congo, thus, in effect, confirming Speke’s discovery that the northern outlet of Lake Victoria is the origin of the White Nile – it is only here that Jeal, almost casually, comes clean and explains the entire modern understanding of the multiple sources of the Nile, referencing subsequent expeditions, in 1891, 1898, 1935, and as recently 2006, which have traced its origins further and further into obscure watercourses in Rwanda and Burundi.

And it is only tucked away in the heart of his book, that he raises a central question which is: How do you define the source of a river? Eventually all major rivers splinter into tributaries which themselves divide into contributory creeks and streams and springs and so on. How many do you include? How do you define The Source? Apparently Stanley said that, if you go that far, it was only a small step to attributing the origins of a river to the clouds passing overhead and the rain that falls.

Jeal, like the explorers, is happy to stop at the assertion that Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile.

Some incidents

Stanley on the Congo

Stanley’s work for King Leopold II of Belgium, building a road up the river Congo, establishing way stations, transporting sections of steam ships along it which could be assembled above the Congo’s fearsome rapids, are all placed in the context of establishing the infrastructure for the wicked Congo Free State which Leopold was seeking to establish (described in detail in chapter 28).

De Brazza

Stanley’s work for Leopold is also placed in the context of international rivalry with France embodied by the attempts of French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to claim the north side of the river Congo . This led, among other incidents, to the confrontation at Stanley Pool with Brazza, who had soldiers and tried to claim the south bank of the Congo for France. It was only by the resolute action of the British station chief at Kinshasa, young Anthony Swinburne, that the region, and what would go on to become Congo’s capital, remained in Leopold’s control.

The Congo situation was to be stabilised at the 1885 Conference of Berlin by the formal assignment of the vast region of the Congo to Leopold’s personal fief. Jeal covers all this but, because his focus is the Nile, he is most interested in the fate of central and East Africa.

Muslim versus Christian

Here the deep structural issue was whether the region would fall under Muslim or Christian domination. The Christian British were, in a sense, biased, identifying the cause of civilisation and progress with themselves and their religion. But most of the Brits involved knew the simple fact that Islam represented slavery, because east central Africa was being laid waste by a slave trade carried out entirely by Muslim Arabs, seizing black African slaves to ship them to the Arab Middle East, destroying entire villages, laying waste to areas, shooting slaves who were too weak or ill to trek the thousand miles to the coast.

Samuel Baker founds Equatoria

This is why those concerned for the region didn’t want it to fall under the control of Egypt, because Egyptian control would almost certainly involve the extension of slavery into the region of the Great African Lakes, Buganda, Bunyoro and so on.

Nonetheless, it was the noted explorer Sir Samuel White who penetrated south on the Nile with a host of soldiers and riverboats given by the Khedive of Egypt, and simply declared, without consulting any of the native rulers, the existence of a new southern province of Egypt which he named Equatoria, in May 1871.

This incident, peripheral to the quest for the source of the Nile, would go on to have long-term political ramifications which echo to this day.

Retreat to Fatiko

When Baker attempted to penetrate further south, he was met with fierce resistance from the army of king Kabarega of Banyoro and was forced to stage a fighting retreat to Fatiko, one of those defeats in the face of stronger African foes which were to be presented as a kind of moral victory in the British press (Isandlwana, 1879, Gordon and the Khartoum garrison massacred, 1885).

According to Jeal, it was the publicity surrounding Baker’s military expedition which first really publicised to many politicians and businessmen the geographic and commercial potential of opening up central Africa.

Stanley’s call for missionaries

This is why one of the most important events of the period was Stanley writing a letter, in May 1875, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the region was crying out for Christian missionaries to set up schools, educate the locals, encourage Western style trade, with a view to stamping out slavery and other barbarous practices like human sacrifices, to develop and raise the living standards of Africans. And the numerous missionary societies of Britain responded (p.302).

Almost inevitably, when the missionaries came, they faced the same kind of antagonism and sometimes horrific violence which the explorers had faced or witnessed but, by and large survived, because the latter had guns and were moving through, not settling in, dangerous territories.

Atrocities against missionaries

In January 1885 Mwanga king of Buganda, arrested the missionary Mackay and had three of his young black converts taken from the mission school, their arms hacked off, and then slowly roasted to death on a spit (p.348). In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington who had been sent by the CMS to become the first bishop of East Africa, was arrested by Mwanga and speared to death along with all 50 of his porters (p.349). On 30 June 1886 Mwanga arrested and executed 45 Catholic and Protestant converts, strangling several with his own hands, having the others castrated and burned alive (p.349).

These sorts of atrocities inevitably caused outrage in the newspapers and forced European governments to step in ‘and so something’ to protect our gallant missionaries. Thus the 1890s saw a wave of annexations and mandates, Malawi in 1892, Uganda declared a protectorate on 27 August 1894.

Rivalry with Germany

It must also be noted that, if the British endured a rivalry with a France determined to push east from their West African possessions, beyond Chad, across the desert and into Egyptian and Sudanese territory, and south as far as the Congo, the British also faced rivalry with Germany in East Africa.

Chancellor Bismarck sent envoys to sign deals with local rulers, amassing influence over such a large area that eventually it justified a full-blown diplomatic agreement between the two governments, in 1886, which secured for Germany the southern portion of the region which was to become Tanganyika, and present-day Tanzania.

In response, the British government approved the granting of a royal charter to Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, sowing the seeds of what was to evolve into Uganda and Kenya (pages 362 to 363).

Wikipedia has two maps which vividly contrast territorial ‘ownership’ of Africa in 1880 and 1913, before and after the great ‘scramble for Africa’. Apart from showing the obvious way in which an entire continent was gobbled up by half a dozen European powers, the two things which stand out for me are 1. The extent of French possession, coloured blue. 2. The fact that German East Africa (dark grey) presented an impassible obstacle to imperialists like Cecil Rhodes who wanted to create one unified band of British colonies stretching the length of Africa. How frustrated he must have been!

Political geography of Africa 1880 and 1913. Source: Wikipedia

The Emin Pasha relief expedition 1886 to 1889

I’ve summarised the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in my summary of Jeal’s Stanley biography. Suffice to say that, as in his descriptions of Livingstone’s two last expeditions or Stanley’s trans-Africa trek, arguably the summaries Jeal gives in this book are better than the ones in the Stanley book because they are much shorter, much punchier, and focus on the key events and decisions: I understood the importance of Stanley’s fateful decisions during the Emin Pasha expedition much better from the 10-page summary given in this book (pages 365 to 375) than from the several chapters devoted to it in the Stanley biography which, for me, buried the important things in a sea of details. In particular, the notorious moral collapse of the Rear Column into Kurz-like barbarism is much more vivid when compressed onto just two pages (pages 371 to 372).

Royal Navy anti-slavery

It gets very little publicity but the British government tasked the Royal Navy with maintaining squadrons whose sole purpose was to intercept slave ships and quell the ocean-borne slave trade.

During the nineteenth century, 17,000 members of the Royal Navy died as a result of their service with the West and East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadrons. (p.362)

Part two

Part two of Jeal’s book is titled ‘The Consequences’ and deals with just that, the long term consequences of all this imperial jostling for African territory at the end of the nineteenth century. I’d read almost all the stories Jeal tells of the earlier expeditions in his biography of Stanley or Frank McLynn’s book about African exploration. Part two of Jeal’s book leaves all that Victoriana behind to deal with the dawning era of state-sponsored exploration. It broadens out to be about the general Scramble for Africa during the 1880s and beyond – to my surprise, to a great deal beyond – in some instances (Sudan and Uganda) bringing the story right up to date, with summaries not only of their twentieth century histories, but their post-colonial political histories right up to the year the book was published, 2011.

Sudan

In both countries Jeal says the British made a series of fateful mistakes. In Sudan it was yoking together the utterly different Muslim Arabs of the north with the African animists and Christians of the south. Since the British got on better with the Arabs, who had more Western-friendly economic and social systems, the northerners inherited most of the political, economic and military levers of power and looked down on the black African southerners. Jeal singles out the British commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael (served 1916 to 1933) for refusing to even visit the south for his first seven years in post and then being so shocked by its primitive condition that he perversely refused to encourage investment in it.

All this made it almost inevitable that, once the country was granted independence, many in the south would want their own government. South Sudan tried to secede in 1955, leading to a civil war which continued on and off for over 60 years until South Sudan gained its independence as a nation state in July 2011. (With depressing inevitability a civil war then broke out within south Sudan in 2013 which lasted till last year, 2020.)

In other words, the long term consequence of Britain drawing the borders of the territory as it did, and administering it as it did, was long term instability, war and suffering.

Uganda

The other major British error Jeal lingers on, was not retaining the region of Equatoria, claimed and invented by Baker in 1872 in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, as a distinct country.

Although it contained numerous tribes, the inhabitants of Equatoria had the advantage of being related by language and tradition. Instead the British made the disastrous mistake of dividing Equatoria along a horizontal line through the middle and assigning the northern half to Sudan and the southern half to Uganda, a decision taken by Sir Harry Johnston in 1899. Jeal goes into some detail as to how the inclusion of the Equatorial kingdoms, of Baganda in particular, helped to unbalance the tribal makeup of Uganda from the start.

Jeal gives a brisk summary of Uganda’s history after it gained independence from Britain in 1962, namely: the rise of a typical African dictator or Big Man, Milton Obote; a crisis caused by how to handle the semi-independent nation of Buganda within Uganda: Obote suspends the constitution in a 1966 coup and rules as a dictator until he was overthrown by his military leader Idi Amin, who himself emerged as a murderous tyrant ruling for 8 years until himself overthrown when the army of neighbouring Tanzania along with Ugandan exiles invaded and restored Obote for the next 6 years (1980 to 1986). Currently Uganda is ruled by former general Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew the previous regime in 1986 and has ruled a one-party state ever since.

Summarising the plight of both countries, Jeal says:

Britain should have stayed longer in Sudan and Uganda, should have spent more money there and better prepared these countries for independence. (p.418)

The case for intervention

In his final pages Jeal recapitulates the case for European intervention in the area of central Africa he’s been describing. One of the central motives was to stamp out the slave trade which the big five explorers he focuses on (Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley) witnessed, described and railed against with passion and persistence.

Jeal argues that if the Christian European nations had not intervened in central Africa, the area would not have remained a pristine paradise, as some anti-colonialists claim. It had already been heavily despoiled by the Arab slave trade which was encroaching deeper and deeper into the interior with every year, bringing devastation, mass murder and enslavement.

The whole of central equatorial Africa would have become part of the Muslim world, with slavery an inescapable part of it, unless the colonial powers had come to stay. (p.430)

On this reading the case against the Europeans isn’t that they colonised Africa, as such. Jeal goes out of his way to assert that the British in particular did bring impartial justice, schools, education, railways, roads and economic development which lifted most Africans out of grinding poverty to levels of affluence and literacy inconceivable only a few generations earlier.

No, the case against the European colonialists is that they made terrible decisions about borders and administrative regions, tried to run their colonies on the cheap, ignored native traditions and chieftains and kingdoms in preference for a British style central administration and parliamentary democracy and that, when they handed all this over to African rulers in the 1960s, it quickly became obvious that the countries couldn’t be ruled by Westminster-style politics, but only from the barrel of a gun in the hands of the country’s strongest institution – the army.

The criticism is not that Britain colonised Africa. It’s that the British did it so badly. Upon independence, the continent’s 3,000 ethnic groups ended up divided up into 47 nation states. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy centuries-old beliefs in animism, spirits and personal responsibility, but not long enough to imprint the universal literacy and faith in education which underpins the success of the West. The complete inappropriateness of imposing a Westminster-style parliamentary system onto nations with radically different traditions and definitions of power and authority, led almost all of them to collapse and be replaced by the rule of Big Men backed by the army. In the mid-1990s there were 31 civil wars raging in Africa, resulting either from the terribly drawn boundaries or the deliberate incitements of Big Men (p.434).

Responsibility

It seems to me attributing ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt’ for the dire post-independence fates of many African nations is pointless. Identifying errors and mistaken decisions with a view to avoiding them in future or using the analysis to try and address current problems might be a worthwhile activity. But blaming some white guy for what he said or wrote 150 years ago seems futile. It’s only a form of self-promoting rhetoric and psychological bonding for the righteous who like to make those kind of criticisms. Blaming ‘the white man’ or ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ hardly seems very practical to me.

As Jeal candidly admits, the violent and semi-genocidal actions of the Islamic government in Khartoum dwarf anything the colonial authorities ever did. Similarly, Idi Amin’s regime undertook large-scale repression of sections of Uganda’s population, which may led to as many as 500,000 deaths and the wholescale expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population (30,000 came to the UK, some 10,000 to other western nations).

The idea that what exactly Speke said to Burton in Aden 150 years ago is given more space in the book than the massacres commissioned by the governments of Sudan and Uganda almost amounts to a subtle kind of racism, or at the very least, bias, whereby what one white man said or wrote 150 years ago is considered more important than the death of 100,000 Africans in the recent past.

To put it another way, once your mind is contemplating the murderous post-independence regimes of Sudan or Uganda, being concerned about what exactly Speke said to Burton 150 years ago seems absurd and irrelevant. In a way the brutal realities Jeal describes in the last 30 or 40 pages of his book, make the entire account of the Victorian explorers seem like a fairy tale, like a weightless fiction, like Alice in Wonderland.

Attributing some kind of responsibility to the colonial authorities who took bad decisions from the late 1890s through to the 1950s is probably a more worthwhile activity, but Jeal zips through this final part of the book at top speed. The colonial and post-independence history of two nations like Sudan and Uganda are just too big and complex to be managed in such a short space, and by an author who is much more at home investigating Stanley’s father complex or Baker’s love for his slave wife. In other words, is happier retailing ripping yarns of Victorian derring-do than giving a dryer, cold-blooded analysis of contemporary African politics.

Still, I suppose it’s to Jeal’s credit that he doesn’t just end the book with the fiasco of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1889, as he might have done but makes an attempt to bring it up to date, skimpy though it feels.

Up until the last 40 or so pages Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure is full of extraordinary stories of Victorian heroism and endurance, illness and obsession. It is entirely fitting that this book was turned into a series of BBC Radio 4. It has exactly that Radio 4 feel of comforting, white bourgeois, public school nostalgia. And if you’re in that kind of mood, why not? But the harsh realities described in the final passages make you realise that that world – of dashing Victorian chaps – only really survives between the covers of this kind of Radio 4-friendly history.

Logocentrism

Mind you, this aspect of Jeal’s book, namely the foregrounding of European written accounts over African oral or unrecorded accounts, is a subset of the larger bias embedded in Western practice, which is the privileging of the written word.

Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley are the subject of so many books not only because they are such epitomes for those who like tales of Victorian adventure, but because they wrote so much and so much of it is stored in libraries and archives. This presents potentially endless opportunities for each generation of biographers to rework the sources and present new versions of their lives. It guarantees a steady little cottage industry which keeps their names in the public eye, sort of (among fans of this kind of thing at any rate).

Whereas where are the biographies of the Africans they met, of King Kamrasi of the Bunyoro or King Mutesa of the Baganda, to name a couple of the most notable? What of all the other chieftains and leaders, let alone their hundreds of thousands of subjects?

There is a profound structural inequality not just in the fact that the West or, in this case, Britain, with its public schoolboy taste for foreign adventure encouraged by its public schoolboy publishing and public schoolboy bookselling industries, will carry on writing, publishing and consuming books of imperial derring-do for the foreseeable future and getting them comfortably serialised on Radio 4. But in the way that we in the West foreground writing and written sources, written accounts and written description, journals, diaries, letters and every form of text over other types of record or history (predominantly oral).

In this deep sense, the very way the subject of history is conceived and practiced in the West militates against cultures with alternative methods of recording the past. Consigns them to eternal silence and subordinateness.

The sources of the Nile

My major practical criticism of the book isn’t any of these: you get what you pay for and Jeal delivers an intelligent and pacy account of the five great Victorian explorers of Africa.

But I think even on its own terms, the book would have benefited from a better explanation of the actual sources of the Nile, which are only partly explained in a throwaway few pages around page 316. I had to google the subject to find out what current knowledge on the sources of the Nile is (and to be surprised that, right up to the present day, explorers are still claiming to have found the ‘real’ source, tucked away in the rainforests of Rwanda, so that there is still, surprisingly, scholarly debate on the subject). I think this could have been stated and explained, with maps, much more clearly; and that, on balance, the best place to have put it would have been at the start so the reader had the clearest sense possible of the geography, before commencing the accounts of the explorations.

Chief Cammorro’s view

‘Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they don’t have the strength to be bad.’

The words of Cammorro, chief of the Latuka, as quoted by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who is not necessarily a reliable witness and who, possibly, put into the chief’s mouth his own hard-bitten and cynical views. But in the context of the violent Africa described in this book, very apposite whoever exactly said it.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


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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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  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in Czechoslovakia

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won the civil war.
  • 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

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter X)

Brief bio

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave woman, and an unknown white father, probably in February 1818. He speculated that his father was the plantation master, but he never had any proof.

Fred Bailey, as everyone called him, was about seven years old when his mother died, and soon after that he was given to Lucretia Auld, who sent him to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore and his wife, Sophia, who was the first to teach him to start to read and write, until her husband forbade her.

After seven years of relative good treatment as a domestic slave in Baltimore, Bailey was sent to a plantation to work in the fields and subjected to brutal treatment. He made good comrades among the other male slaves and helped organise a group escape of about 6 slaves in April 1836, but the conspiracy was discovered and Bailey was severely punished.

Two years later, in September 1838, aged 20, he finally managed to escape to the free North. In 1837, Bailey had met and fallen in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. She encouraged his aspirations to be free, lent him money and helped his escape. The escape was quite elaborate, requiring Bailey to take a train north, then a steam ferry across the Susquehanna River, and then resume the train journey, to arrive at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold.

To do this he required a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs and he needed to carry identification and protection papers certifying that he was free, which he had obtained from a free black seaman. Full details of the thrilling escape are given in the Wikipedia article.

Three points about this:

  1. Anna’s help was absolutely central to Bailey’s escape.
  2. Bailey gives no details whatsoever of the escape in this book: in this narrative he says that even hints about how he did it would close the escape route for any who wanted to follow him.
  3. It reads like one of the accounts of Allied airman escaping Nazi-occupied France, what with the need for a disguise and false papers. They are two very similar genres.

Bailey moved on from Philadelphia to New York where he was married to Anna Murray then, to be safe, they moved further north, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here he was welcomed by a network of  abolitionists who helped freed slaves. He wanted to change his name to establish a new identity and one of these white supporters suggested the name Douglass, the name of a character in Walter Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake, which the supporter happened to be reading at the time (explained in chapter XI).

After the newly named Frederick Douglass made a speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to lecture about his life as a slave. He was so eloquent that auditors doubted such an articulate man could ever have been a slave and that was the spur for him to write this autobiography, the Narrative, which became an international bestseller.

The publicity the Narrative brought made him made Douglass fear he might be tracked down and recaptured by his previous owner, so he fled to England. Here he became a free man when a group of supporters purchased his liberty for $700. In spring 1847 Douglass returned to America and launched his own newspaper. He published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in April 1861, Douglass lobbied President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause and lobbied for the emancipation of slaves to become a Union war aim and so his joy when Lincoln finally makes the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 is often quoted by historians. After the war he campaigned for the swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting suffrage to freed slaves. It was finally ratified in 1870.

Douglass rose to hold a series of official positions, serving the US government as a Federal Marshall in the District of Columbia, as consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. These experiences form the basis for his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881.

Douglass died in 1895 shortly after delivering a speech about women’s rights.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

It’s a short text. In the Oxford University Press edition, it’s 92 pages. But a little like another short book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, it manages to convey an entire world of suffering and humiliation in a short span.

The text is packed with examples of the wickedness and evil of slavery which appal and disgust the reader. But what really strikes home is the universal perversion of normal human relationships which slavery brings. He never knew his birthday, no-one told him. He was separated from his mother when he was months old; she was sent off to slave from dawn to dusk at another of his master’s holdings. On a handful of occasions, when her day’s work was done, she walked miles to see him and bed down with him for a few hours but she was always gone in the morning. When he was seven he learned, some time after the fact, that she had died.

He explains how frequent it is that a master impregnates one of his female slaves and goes on to raise the child, his own child, as another slave. On the one hand it is ‘cheaper’ than buying new slaves. But on the other, it leads to terrible perversions of human relations. Think about it: a man makes his own child a slave. If he shows any partiality for the child, his white children or wife and even the other slaves will resent it. And he looks on while overseers whip his own child, or watches his half-brothers whip his own child.

The slave narrative genre and its conventions

The notes in the OUP version I read mention the 1839 book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This was an anthology of documents assembled by the American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. They bought thousands of old newspapers from libraries and scoured them for all references to slavery, personal accounts, letters, articles and hundreds of adverts, especially for runaway slaves, written by slavers themselves.

When cut and pasted together the book formed a harrowing testimony to the brutality of the slave regime which completely contradicted the lying speeches of southern politicians and commentators.

But from a literary point of view, the important thing about American Slavery As It Is is how influential it was. Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the direct inspiration for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself influenced millions. Charles Dickens’s American Notes quotes whole ads from American Slavery. And  also Frederick Douglass quoted extensively from the book in the many speeches he gave.

My point is that the recycling and formatting of descriptions meant that anti-slavery books quickly became a genre with its own conventions and formats. Certain topics were expected. Certain arguments were repeated. As I read through the Narrative I was certainly horrified by Douglass’s experiences of the systematic heartlessness, cruelty and brutality of the American slave system. But I also began to notice that the narrative is artfully arranged to press its readers’ buttons.

Consider his audience. It was the educated, bien-pensant, North American nineteenth-century middle-classes, the same high-minded New England abolitionists who attended his lectures. What were their values? They believed in family, in home, in chastity and fidelity. They believed in religion, the ten commandments, we should love our neighbour as ourselves. They believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, that men should use chaste and dignified language and refrain from swearing. They had a sentimental post-romantic ideology of fine feelings and romantic attachments. They disapproved of alcohol and many advocated complete abstention.

As I read Douglass’s Narrative it almost felt like he had a checklist of these Victorian values in front of him and went out of his way to show how slavery, slave owners and their overseers were the exact opposite of everything the Victorians held precious, and embodied the diabolical anti-type of every single Victorian value.

Chastity

Many male slave owners had sex with their female slaves. Female slaves were unable to maintain their chastity and there was no-one to protect them. All those fair damsels being rescued from dragons in sentimental Victorian art and literature were mocked by the reality of the systematic raping of millions of helpless black women.

Family values

Rape

Male slave owners completely inverted the idea of family values by siring multiple mulatto children with numerous slave women, obviously out of wedlock. Douglass himself thought his father was probably the white owner of the plantation he was born on. It is doubtful if his mother gave anything like what we mean by ‘consent’ to him raping her. Douglass must have gone through his life knowing he was the result of white master rape.

Destroying families

Not only that, but slave owners thought nothing of breaking up families, dividing husband and wife or parents from children, at the drop of a hat, with no warning, and forever. After Colonel Lloyd hears criticism of himself from a slave who didn’t even realise Lloyd was his master (Lloyd had some 1,000 slaves), he acts decisively and cruelly.

The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.

Douglass being separated from his mother while still a baby was no accident; it was an intrinsic part of a system which went out of its way to destroy all natural family feeling.

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labour. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Anti-fathers

The fathers of these half-breed slave children were happy to watch them be degraded, worked to death, punished and whipped to shreds. Pretty much the exact opposite of what the ideal, caring and loving Victorian paterfamilias ought to be. A diabolical inversion.

Truth telling and lies

Colonel Lloyd had met the slave about an errand on a road, asked him who he belonged to, was told ‘Colonel Lloyd’ and when he asked what kind of owner Lloyd was, the slave (not realising he was talking to the man himself) replied that he wasn’t treated well. Tearing him away from his family was the slave’s punishment.

OK, upsetting story: but, as is his way, Douglass then goes on to make a much wider sociological point, which is that it was this kind of event which taught all slaves never to tell the truth. Again, for the Victorians this was a much more important issue than it is to us today. Douglass was addressing the Victorian value which goes something like ‘a gentleman always tells the truth’. All Victorian mummies told their little boys and girls to always tell the truth. Well here, Douglass shows his reader, is a vast system which indoctrinates millions of slaves into never telling the truth, into hesitating to reply to any enquiry, of being afraid to tell the truth to anyone, in any situation, in case they are a spy for their owner trying to catch them out (which does, Douglass assures us, frequently happen).

Slavery was not only based on multiple lies about human nature but it created a culture of systematic lying. For God-fearing Victorian evangelists this was horrifying for who is the Father of Lies in the Bible? The Devil. Slavery does the Devil’s work by turning its wretched subjects into sinners.

Chivalry towards the fairer sex

As we all know Victorian ladies fainted at the sight of a grand piano’s legs and Victoria chaps were aroused by an exposed ankle. Slave culture drove a coach and horses through these fancy pretensions with slave women regularly stripped naked and degraded.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Male slave owners could have sex with any slave they wanted to. Apart from anything else the system institutionalised rape on an industrial scale. He tells the story of his Aunt Hester, a good looking woman who he now realises his master was raping. When his master catches her in the company of a male slave from another property:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b——h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, ‘Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

If chivalry means something like respect towards and consideration for ‘the fairer sex’, then slavery was its diabolical antitype, combining systematic rape, stripping naked and degradation, along with the most violent and cruel physical punishment imaginable.

Decency

Not only were the women regularly raped and/or stripped and whipped, but most slaves had very few clothes to cover their bodies with, to maintain what the Victorians thought of as their ‘decency’, and then only of the poorest quality. These often degenerated to rags. Where Douglass grew up, the children weren’t given any underclothes or garments to his their privates, just one long shirt.

The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

This indecency would have scandalised Douglass’s high-minded, religious readers.

Christian values

Slave owners simply deny that slaves are human and therefore ineligible for the rights and respect preached by Christianity (see below). By direct contradiction, Douglass makes plain at various points in the narrative that he is a practising Christian who believes the series of incidents which led to his eventual freeing were the results of a special Providence. In fact he devotes the final section of the text, the Appendix, to making an unambiguous extended declaration of his profound Christian faith.

As to whether religion had a positive effect on slave owners, the answer is No. In 1832 Douglass was transferred to the ownership of young Master Thomas Auld who turns out to be a mean and cruel owner. In August 1832 his master attends a Methodist camp meeting and is converted to the new religion, and yet it in no way moderates his behaviour. He continues to whip and punish Douglass for  numerous infringements of his petty rules. In fact, Douglass states that conversion to more active Christian belief made his master’s behaviour worse:

I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.

Douglass routinely watches Auld whip a helpless young slave woman, Henny, and piously quote scripture to justify doing so: ‘“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’ (Luke 12:47).

Not really up to managing slaves, Auld loans Douglass out to a Mr Covey, a notorious ‘nigger breaker’, even though he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. Once again this Mr Covey manages to be super-pious and extremely violent to his slaves. Covey whipped Douglass more than any other master. Later on Douglass is totally explicit on this issue:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighbourhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ‘religious’ wretch.

For pious, religious Northern readers, what could be more horrifying than this hypocrisy and the devilish quoting of scripture to justify cruelty and sadism?

Bad language

The Victorians disapproved of bad language. D—n and b——h are spelled with the central letters omitted so as not to offend the gentle reader. By contrast, the overseers who managed their slaves on the owners behalves are consistently depicted as swearing their heads off and uttering all the worst oaths available.

This ‘profanity’ was far more offensive to Victorian readers than it is to us today. The height of this sin was blasphemy, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to use the name of God or Jesus in angry outbursts instead of contexts of veneration. Profanity had been a serious crime in early modern (Elizabethan and Restoration) times and was still highly frowned on in polite society in the nineteenth century. Whereas:

Mr. Severe [the overseer] was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself.

Drunkenness

Same with alcohol. Overseers are often depicted as the worse for wear, another value whose transgression meant much more to Victorians than to us. Drunkenness was seen as a vice, and one which degraded its practitioner.

In this respect, as so many others, Douglass goes out of his way to show how Southern slaveowner behaviour was the exact antitype of ‘true’ religion and civilised values.

Whipping and blows

So much for Douglass’s enumeration of the way the institution of slavery mocked and inverted traditional Christian and Victorian values.

At a kind of higher level, slavery mocked the very idea of a civilised society. The most obvious way is that, in a civilised society, men show respect and courtesy to each other, whereas slave society was drenched in wanton cruelty and, in particular, the universality of whipping.

It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.

Douglass shows that pretty much all slaves are whipped, some to a hair-raising degree, whipped for half an hour solid till the overseer is exhausted and strips of skin hang off the slaves’ bloody backs.

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time. Colonel Lloyd had three sons—Edward, Murray, and Daniel,—and three sons-in-law, Mr. Winder, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Lowndes. All of these lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased, from old Barney down to William Wilkes, the coach-driver. I have seen Winder make one of the house-servants stand off from him a suitable distance to be touched with the end of his whip, and at every stroke raise great ridges upon his back.

At the other end of the spectrum, less devastatingly violent but just as demoralising, are the frequent blows and cuffs and beatings which some slave owners handed out to their chattel, sometimes on a constant level, for almost all a slave’s waking hours. He evidences the household of Mrs Hamilton in Baltimore, who sat in the middle of her living room with a bullwhip by her side and:

Scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without her saying, ‘Move faster, you black gip!’ at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.

Compare and contrast with all those Victorian novels where the weak and fey female politely accepts the visitation of a charming young gentleman and they politely discourse over tea and cakes. The reality of slave society’s continual, constant violence makes a mockery of those scenes.

Injustice and murder

Obviously slavery was a vast system of injustice which gave rise to countless millions of daily instances of injustice. But Douglass is careful to include some instances of what he regards as murder, where a slave overseer simply murders a slave dead. Now entire mid-Victorian novels could rotate around just one murder, the newspapers went mad every time a salacious murder was committed and there were outcries against the heartless perpetrators or such heinous crimes. As long as the victims were white.

Douglass goes out of his way to describe the murders of several slaves, namely when the grave and serious overseer Mr Gore shoots dead Demby, a slave, for running away during a whipping and hiding in a creek. Mr Gore tells him to come out of the creek, says he’ll count to three, counts to three then shoots Demby through the head.

Or Mr Thomas Lanman of St Michael’s who murders two of his slaves, one of them by knocking his brains out with a hatchet.

The individual stories are upsetting, but the point Douglass is making is that both times the overseers got away with it. They were never charged or ‘brought to justice’. Even if the white ‘justice’ system made a few cursory attempts at an investigation it soon fizzled out, the whole thing was hushed up, and the overseers continued on their career of whipping and occasionally killing their slaves.

Slavery was a system which literally got away with murder, thus undermining the fundamental basis of all civilised society, which is the sanctity of human life.

Suicide

Nowadays we think of suicide as the result of mental illness or mental problems to which we must be sympathetic and supportive. But for the Victorians it was first and foremost a terrible sin which automatically condemned its practitioner to hell.

Which is the relevance of Douglass’s admission that it was only when he could read and began to read abolitionist tracts against slavery that the full force of the horrific iniquitous system in which he found himself became clear and he began to have suicidal thoughts. Reading had shown him the hellhole he was in but offered no escape. Anyone who has had suicidal feelings will recognise that mental condition, the feeling that you are trapped, in a box, in a cell, in a hole, with no way out except to do away with yourself.

Thus Douglass’s admission of his own suicidal ideas is an example of the double-sidedness of the narrative: it is a true and accurate first person description of his feelings. But at the same time makes a massive general point about the effect of the system on its victims, creating widespread feelings of hopelessness and despair, so frowned on by Victorians, and which often led to the actual act of suicide, which was an unambiguous sin which condemned its practitioner to hell.

In its way, suicide was more iniquitous and evil than murder, in which the victim, according to Victorian theology, at least stood the chance of going to heaven. Douglass shows that slavery was not just a system of universal violence, rape and sadistic punishment, but also spread the sin of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Are slaves human?

The fundamental crux of the issue was whether slaves were fully human. Southerners said no. They used a wide variety of arguments to support this position, but sooner or later all the arguments boil down to claiming slaves are a difference race, a different species: they were cursed to slavery in the Bible, they enjoy slavery, they were animals so they couldn’t be reasoned with and needed the firm discipline of slavery, they were congenitally unfit for freedom, and so on.

Whereas abolitionists argued that, yes, slaves are human, as human as all other humans, with the full set of human feelings, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and intellect, they are creatures of God like you and me, and so are due the entire panoply of human rights, freedom under the law, equal access to justice and so on.

It is to address the slaver accusation that slaves are somehow not fully human in their a) intellect and b) feelings that Douglass goes out of his way to prove the opposite.

Feelings

This motivation (to prove that slaves are capable of all the human emotions) underlies the passages in the first few chapters about his mother, Harriet Bailey, how they were separated when he was a baby but how she still made long pilgrimages to see her son. These passages are not only heart-breaking in their own right but are making a fundamental point: slaves have feelings, too. They are capable of just the same fine family sentiments as the most dignified of white people.

This is not a trivial issue. A key plank in the defence of slavery was that slaves were incapable of finer feelings and emotions. You could split up their family units as if they were livestock because they were incapable of feelings, you could whip them like you whipped a donkey because they didn’t feel it. Passages like the ones about his mother are at pains to utterly discredit this argument.

Intellect

As to intellect, slavers were able to use the circular argument that their slaves were ignorant, illiterate and stupid and so it was pointless trying to educate them. Douglass singles out the key moment in his escape from slavery as coming when his mistress in Baltimore, Mrs Sophia Auld, naively offered to teach him to read and write. In fact she didn’t get very far before her husband learned what she is doing and delivers a key speech:

‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’

Hearing this was like a thunderbolt to Douglass’s mind. It lay bare in a flash the key to the white man’s domination over the black. Education. Literacy. Those were the sources of the white man’s power:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

And although his mistress obeyed her husband and abruptly stopped teaching him his letters, the next few chapters give a moving account of how Douglass picked it up on the streets, doing favours for white boys and getting them to identify the different letters for him, picking them out in the dirt or on brick walls, slowly learning to spell out the words in adverts and shop signs, painfully teaching himself to read. Also his master’s son, Master Thomas, was attending junior school and so Douglass was able to sneak looks at his schoolbooks and even swipe his old ‘copy books’ and use them to teach himself to write out letters. And once he could read, it opened up the vast treasure house of knowledge, law and power.

So Douglass’s narrative not only describes the author’s slow, painful self-education and the path to empowerment which he undertook – but the narrative itself, its sheer existence, is a massive rebuttal and disproof of a central plank of the slaver argument that blacks are somehow intrinsically incapable of thought and intellect.

This book at a stroke demolished that argument forever. Give a black child the same education as a white one and he or she can go on to become easily the equal of any white person, arguably their superior because they have had to overcome so many obstacles in a white persons’ society.

A treasury of arguments and examples

Douglass’s narrative became such a central text in abolitionist literature not only because it is a vividly written, easily accessible and heart-breaking first-hand testimony to an evil system; but also because it was a cannily assembled series of counter-arguments to all the slavers’ justifications for their system.

It can be plundered for scenes which graphically depict the stomach-churning violence or the subtly corrupting effect of slave-owning on initially ‘good’ people. But it was also a goldmine of anti-slavery arguments which could, and would, be quoted extensively in abolitionist lectures, articles and speeches for decades to come.

P.S.

I had included some photos of slaves taken for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 for a study in which he tried to prove that black people constituted a different and inferior race to whites. The ownership and purpose of these images is now highly contested, as is Agassiz’s reputation. I had included the photos as visual evidence of the abjection and humiliation to which slaves were subjected. But, on reflection, I think a) I was perpetuating that very objectification and humiliation by including them, and b) the people in the photos have living descendants who have complained to Harvard about the ownership and use of the images, and, to be blunt, how would I like to see photos of my great-great-great grandparents stripped naked and humiliated? So I’ve removed them.


Related links

Other posts about slavery and racism

Origins

Slavery

The civil war

20th century racism

Art

Some Norfolk churches

St Nicholas’ Church, Blakeney (notable feature: beacon tower)

The village of Blakeney is on the North Norfolk coast. It is built around a couple of streets which slope down towards the tidal frontage of the river Glaven, which loops round the mud flats to form Blakeney Haven. Nowadays the haven is a narrow, shallow, muddy channel with a small road running parallel to it and wooden jetties which children catch crabs from, overlooked by the quietly opulent Blakeney Hotel.

The haven leads round to a flat open gravel and mud area where cars can park (unless there’s a high tide) so that visitors can stroll round the little town’s roads, climb the grassy mound which overlooks the sea, take the kids crabbing or set off for a walk along the North Norfolk Coastal Path which runs along the frontage here, heading off west towards Morston Quay or east along a grassy causeway round to the village of Cley.

So nowadays Blakeney is a small but (in the summer) bustling tourist village, but from the high Middle Ages (1400) through to the 17th century it was a thriving fishing port and it could afford to pay for the building of a massive church in the Perpendicular style dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, St Nicholas.

The Perpendicular style (1380 to 1500) was the last of the three main Gothic styles of churches in England and is easily spotted because by the 1400s architects had perfected the technique of making big windows. The fact that the 4-light windows along the ground floor of Blakeney church are wider than the wall between them instantly tells you this is a Perpendicular or ‘Perp’ church.

St Nicholas church, Blakeney (Source: Visit East of England website)

Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that although the church was founded in the 13th century, most of the structure dates from the 15th century when Blakeney was at the height of its importance as a seaport.

An unusual architectural feature is a second tower at the far end of the chancel, on the left in this photo. It was used as a beacon for ships entering the haven at dusk or night and was helped by the fact the church stands on a low bluff about 30 metres above sea level. It has many interesting features inside including a vaulted chancel with a big stepped seven-light lancet window and the hammerbeam roof of the nave. Above all it feels spacious, clean and very well maintained. It feels used and loved and some of that love rubs off on the visitor.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul church, Fakenham

Fakenham is a market town about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. It sits on the River Wensum although in an hour or so wandering round I never saw the river. Fakenham has a population of about 7,500 i.e. it’s a small sleepy place. It’s surrounded by a ring road and some modern superstores, a Tescos and an Argos and their big car parks. But if you walk the short distance into the town centre you arrive at an attractive wide medieval street lined with Georgian houses, although admittedly many of them now house charity shops or takeaway food joints. And off to the north, on the highest piece of land, is the grassy graveyard and imposing parish church.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul church, Fakenham (Source: A Church Near You website)

The chancel and nave were built between 1300 and 1375 in the middle of the three Gothic styles, the Decorated style (1280 to 1380). The west tower was added between 1400 and 1450 and is 115 feet tall. Note the clerestory of windows along the main body above the ground floor aisle. One way of distinguishing Fakenham’s Decorated from Blakeney’s Perpendicular style is by looking at the windows along the aisle. The decorated ones have three lights and are still round-headed. The Perpendicular ones are that bit more sophisticated, with four lights, wider and flatter.

St Andrew’s Church, Wellingham (notable feature: painted panels)

Wellingham is a tiny hamlet 8 miles south of Fakenham. There’s no pub, no shops, just a handful of farm buildings, a manor house, some holiday cottages, hardly anything. Except this lovely unspoilt church, which doesn’t even have a wall dividing it from the single-track road, just a bluff of grass you climb up onto the grassy churchyard. St Andrew’s has a classic village church shape: a rectangular chancel then a step up to the roof of the nave, a south porch and a square two-storeyed tower with battlement, no aisles (i.e. extensions either side of the nave), no transepts (i.e. extensions north and south of the tower. Inside it feels dark and magical.

Scholars believe the nave was built by the Normans and the chancel was added in the 13th century. The earliest firm date is 1304 when its first rector is recorded. The two 2-light windows and single lancet window in the chancel probably date from the 13th century. The consistent ‘look’ of the exterior walls and tower indicate that the entire church was given a thorough restoration by the Victorians. That explains why it feels so neat and pointed and clean.

St Andrew’s church, Wellingham. Note the abundance of grass

But all these details pale into insignificance when you go inside and discover the great treasure the church contains – an early 16th century roodscreen complete with original paintings! The screen was the gift of one Robert Dorant and a half-legible inscription on the right hand pane dates it to 1532, during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 to 1547). This explains why some of the figures have distinctly Tudor clothing and hats.

Tudor painted panels in Wellingham church showing left: St George slaying the dragon, right: St Michael balancing souls and Christ rising from his tomb (source: Vitrearum’s Medieval Art)

The three panels on the left (north) side are:

  1. Saint Sebastian transfixed with arrows
  2. Saint Maurice with sword and lance
  3. Saint George killing a dragon: a damsel is standing at top right waiting to be rescued, a cartoon king and queen watch from the battlements of a nearby castle at top left, and a few dogs frolic around in the joyful manner of the Middle Ages.

The panels on the right (south) side are:

  1. St Michael with vertical golden wings weighing souls in a balance: in one pan are a pair of tiny naked Christians who are being helped into Paradise by the Blessed Virgin who is hanging her rosary on the scales; in the other pan are a couple of black little devils, with a third hanging on the edge of the pan trying to weigh it down.
  2. Christ depicted as the Man of Sorrows rising from a white sepulchre: he is surrounded by the images of the sacred objects associated with the Passion, namely the spear, the pliers and nails, the sponge, the crown of thorns, even the dice the soldiers used to gamble for his clothes. A scroll over his head reads Ecce Homo or ‘this is the man’, the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his crucifixion.
  3. the third panel is now blank although Walter Rye, who recorded his visit in the 1870s, wrote that you could make out the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury (subject of the current exhibition at the British Museum).

It’s absolutely astonishing that you or I can just walk in off a country lane, stroll right up to these priceless paintings and kiss them, touch them or admire them as we wish.

St Mary’s church, East Raynham (terrible condition)

The solid grey flint appearance of the church and the fussiness of the details all point to the fact that this is a Victorian church, rebuilt by 5th Marquis of Townshend in 1866 to 1868 by Clark and Holland of Newmarket at a cost of £5,000. The walls are flint with stone dressings and it has slated roofs except for the leaded chancel, not that you really notice, it’s all a rather sombre grey colour. Despite the date of the build it is not ‘High Victorian’ in style but an attempt to recreate the Decorated-Perpendicular detail of the church it replaced although with a kind of Disney extravagance, including as many Gothic tricks and features as they could cram in, from the buttresses and fiddly machicolations to the octagonal stairway against the tower.

St Mary’s church, East Raynham (photo by the author)

But the really striking thing about this church was the appalling dereliction and neglect of the interior. Large areas of plaster had fallen off the walls and shattered on the tiles. All the pews were laced with cobwebs and bird poo littered the carpet between the pews. I’ve rarely seen a church in such a shabby state. It was like it had been utterly abandoned and left to rot for years. It was symptomatic that there was no guide or leaflet telling the visitor anything about the church. I’m reluctant to be moralistic but I thought the condition of this church was a scandal, especially as it is only a few hundred yards from grand Raynham Hall, country seat of the Marquesses Townshend, who you would have thought have some kind of obligation to keep it in a decent state.

All Saints Church, Helhoughton

Helhoughton is a small village 4 miles west-south-west of the town of Fakenham, population in 2011 was 346. There is no pub and no shop. I know because I asked. The church is built in the curve of the small road through the village. I was doing a circular walk around the three villages which surround the grand Raynham estate, East Raynham, West Raynham and South Raynham. Helhoughton is a half mile detour to the north and so can be considered a kind of honorary Raynham.

All Saints church, Helhoughton

The nave and chancel, constructed from flint and stone with some brick dressings, combine to make it appear a very long church. The chancel dates from the 14th century and has two bays. The tower dates from the 15th century but the nave which connects them dates from the late 18th century which explains the visibility of red brick around the building (during the Tudor period builders shifted from using flint or stone to the much cheaper and flexible new material of brick, signalling the end of the great medieval period of church building).

The chancel needs those two brick buttresses you can see in this photo. When you walk round the outside you can see the south wall is bulging outwards.

Inside you are struck by the fact that the nave doesn’t have a vaulted, arched or barrel roof, like most churches, but during a restoration of the 1980s was given a completely flat white plaster ceiling with spotlights embedded in it, like in a modern bedroom or fashionable kitchen. Which creates a pleasingly incongruous effect.

But this feature aside, I found the interior was in poor shape, with broken plaster strewn across the floor, cobwebs between the pews and the ancient font green with mould. I chatted to a local lady who was outside her nearby house, gardening, and she explained that the congregation has dwindled to about 7, whereas the total estimated costs of a complete restoration to stop the church collapsing are in the order of £140,000. Where is the money going to come from to stop thousands and thousands of historic old churches like this mouldering and collapsing?

  • All Saints Church, Helhoughton on the Churches of Norfolk website

St Margaret’s Church, West Raynham (ruined)

It’s tempting to say St Margaret’s was the most spiritual of all the churches I visited because it is in ruins. The church was abandoned in the 18th century when the parish was consolidated with East Raynham and left to collapse. It now consists of fragments of the west tower, nave and chancel. For the rest, it is open to the sky and the elements.

Remnants of the tower and north doorway of St Margaret’s church, West Raynham, (Source: Geograph)

These ruins stand in a small churchyard which has been allowed to go wild except for a handful of tastefully and mown paths through long summer grass. This care and taste set a tone of respect for the old ruins’ natural environment which is very calming and rather wonderful. Wild flowers push up among the long grass hiding the ancient gravestones. In what remains of the nave there is a carved wooden Madonna and in what was once the chancel, three solid, geometrical, unadorned slabs of stone make an altar which is powerful and dignified. All rather wonderful.

St Martin’s church, South Raynham (tranquil)

St Martin’s feels like a really rural church, located at the end of Church Lane and amid open fields, I arrived after walking country paths from St Margaret’s West Raynham a mile to the north. It is another ‘long’ church, with the tower at the west end then a long nave, and chancel. Compare and contrast with the shorter, more compact church at Wellingham. It is probably a rebuilding of the 14th century, embellished in the late 15th. The squareness of the windows suggests they are later, Decorated additions, cut into earlier walls. All the guides mention its ancient mensa or altar stone but to be honest I didn’t notice this. I just enjoyed the quiet beauty of the location and the air of calm sanctity of the interior.

St Martin’s church, South Raynham (source: Geograph)

All Saints church, Litcham (magnificent rood screen)

Sometimes the graveyard sets the tone for a church before you’ve properly looked at it let alone gone inside. Litcham is a charming little village built on the slope of a hill with a pub facing a tiny village green then a minor road sloping down, presumably to a small river or stream, and on the left is the churchyard buttressed by a brick wall. There’s hardly any traffic and nobody on the street. It’s feels quiet and sheltered.

All Saints church, Litcham (source: Norfolk Churches)

From the outside the most striking thing is the tower which is built in brick and your hunch that it is a later addition is confirmed by a stone plaque embedded in it with the date 1669 and the name of the donor Matthew Halcott. Inside the guide explains that Halcott was a Royalist who paid for the erection of a new tower to celebrate the Restoration of Charles II (in 1660).

Anyway all this is swept away when you walk inside to the calm, cool, shady interior, look around and see an awesome treasure, the church’s magnificent rood screen, not only the painted panels along the bottom but the slender decorated pillars supporting the extraordinarily ornate and beautifully coloured tracery within its five arches. It takes your breath away.

The painted rood screen at All Saints church, Litcham

There are two sets of four painted panels on either side of the gates which open into the chancel and themselves contain 3 painted panels, so that’s a total of 22 in all. Some are better preserved than others, and the church guide mentions St Cecilia, St Dorothy, St Agnes with her lamb, St Petronilla with her large key and book, St Helena with her cross, and St Ursula holding arrows while some of her eleven thousand virgins hide amid her skirts. All women.

Figures on the south side, to the right, include St Gregory in a papal tiara, St Edmund holding three arrows, a figure leading a dragon on a halter, St Walstan, St Hubert, St William of Norwich, and St Louis of France. All chaps.

Interesting as these are as examples of medieval iconography, the real impact is made by the entire shape, design and colouring of the screen as a whole, with the intricacy of the painted decoration echoing the fine filigree carving of the wood into the five decorated ogee arches and the complex window-style arches above them, echoing the shapes of windows, sedilia and other features of Gothic architecture. A little like Islamic religious decoration, it invites the visitor to be transported into its world of patterns and decorations, rapt away from the humdrum and everyday into a world of gorgeous shapes and colours, symbolic of the medieval heaven with its elaborate hierarchies of angels, symbolic colours, and endless  joy of eternal adoration.

St Andrews Church, East Lexham (ancient round tower, modern paintings)

The village of East Lexham, 7 miles north of Swaffham, has almost entirely disappeared. The church stands in a grassy graveyard with a large modernised barn complex to the west, a wood to the east and farm buildings to the south. The church has two notable features.

The round tower is thought to be the oldest in England, built around 900, i.e. in the reign of Edward the Elder, King of the Saxons from 899 to 924. There are some 180 churches with round towers in England: 124 in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk, 7 in  Essex and 2 in Cambridgeshire, and there is, you will be please to know, a Round Towers Churches Society which needs your support.

St Andrew’s church, East Lexham (Photo by the author)

The second notable feature is that, inside the church are three very striking modern paintings by contemporary artist Richard Foster. I’ve seen many modern sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, altar covers and so on, but hardly any straight paintings. they are in a pleasingly realistic style and depict The Rising from the Dead set in a nice looking English graveyard, a tall modern fisherman representing the church’s name saint, St Andrew, and The Nativity featuring a modern-dress Mary, contemporary looking ‘shepherds’ and a very modern looking angel.

The Nativity by Richard Foster in East Lexham church (photo by the author)

St Nicholas Church, West Lexham (round tower)

Only a mile off the A1065 is the very quiet hamlet of West Lexham. As you wangle through the village’s curved road it’s easy to miss the turnoff up a steep track to the car park for this church which also serves what appears to be a professional vegetable garden with rows of polytunnels. Anyway this is another very old round tower church.

The tower itself is probably Saxon, and crudely constructed of flint and mortar with a couple of small high windows. It was recently restored which explains it whitewashed appearance. By contrast the main body of the church was almost entirely derelict by the early 19th century and was rebuilt in the early 1880s as the solid buttresses and the uniform flint walling suggest. So you have the oddity of a solid Victorian church propping up a Saxon tower.

Exterior of St Nicholas’ church, West Lexham (photo by the author)

St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (Saxon tower)

This church is right by the busy A1065 Mildenhall to Fakenham road, about 4 miles north of Swaffham. The car park is easily mistaken for a layby. The village of Newton-by-Castle Acre barely exists (it has a population of 37) and gets its name because it is half a mile south of the more famous village of Castle Acre, itself home to the large grassy mound at the centre of a ruined castle and the nearby ruins of a priory.

The prosperity which lifted so many communities in 14th and 15th century East Anglia passed newton by and so the church was not rebuilt in the high Gothic style and so is not very different from the Saxon church built here in the 11th century. So although the two windows in the west of the nave are Victorian restorations of 15th century enlargements, the slender lancet window at the bottom of the tower is more indicative of what the earliest English churches looked like.

In fact the tower is the most interesting and important feature. It’s almost entirely Saxon workmanship with crude flint and mason work with large irregularly carved blocks of local car-stone as the quins or corners. The windows on each of the tower’s four sides are different in design, though all small and cramped in the Saxon style.

The line sloping across the tower at roof level indicates that there was once a south transept, long since disappeared. Originally the nave and chancel roof would have been thatched. The terracotta tiling was added during extensive restoration in 1929.

Exterior of St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (photo by the author)

Several things are notable about the interior. One is that the nave, tower and chancel are all the same width, with the opening into the chancel the original Anglo-Saxon one, very narrow, giving a pleasantly claustrophobic, coffin-like feeling, indicative of its great age.

There are a couple of modern wooden features, a pulpit and vicar’s stall which were made in 1959. But what really got me about this church was it is another one which is in a terrible state. The entire length of the tiled floor is green with mould and algae, particularly bad in the tower floor which isn’t just damp but wet, and in the chancel large sections of plain whitewash are bubbling or have fallen off the wall onto the floor.

Interior of St Mary and All Saints Church, Newton-by-Castle Acre (photo by the author)

St Peter and St Paul Church, Swaffham (impressive hammerhead angel roof)

Swaffham is a small market town on the A1065, 12 miles east of King’s Lynn and 31 miles west of Norwich. It has a population of 7,000. It’s big parish church is set back a few yards from the main market square, in fact a narrow triangle formed by the fork of two roads, along the sides of which and in the central space there’s still a daily market.

It’s a big, impressive, well-maintained church dating from 1454, at the height of East Anglia’s prosperity. There are aisles with 3-light Perpendicular windows, and clerestories to north and south, as well as a large transept chapel on the south side, and a tall, 2-stage tower (1485 to 1510) which you can see for miles around. It is made of rugged Barnack stone, and is fabulously decorated with symbols, most notably the large wheels containing the crossed keys of St Peter and the crossed swords of St Paul, which appear around the base course.

Instead of entering through a south porch you enter directly through the west doorway which means you are immediately struck by the immense size of the interior and the high height of the wooden ceiling. It’s only after a few moments, when your eyes have adjusted that you realise just how awesome this roof is.

It is long, with 14 ‘bays’ and an awesome early 16th century double hammerbeam wooden roof. Double hammerbeam means there are two separate beam ends to each arch and each one has a carved wooden angel with outspread wings bearing a shield at the end. Not at first obvious is that the panels above each window also contain four carved wooden angels. In total the rof, symbolic of heaven above us, contains almost 200 stately guardian angels guarding our destinies and protecting us from sin. It’s an awesome sight and feeling.

Hammerhead roof of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Swaffham (photo by the author)

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ…

‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16)

The risen Christ at Wellingham surrounded by the impedimenta of the crucifixion, the ‘instruments of the Passion’, watched by the king, left, and a red-capped cardinal c.1532

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

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

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

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

Executive summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despair

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

Room for psychology

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

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

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

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

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

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

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

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

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

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

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

Chapter 2

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

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

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

And:

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

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

Chapter 5

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

Chapter 6

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

Chapter 7

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

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

Chapter 8

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

Chapter 10

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

Chapter 11

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

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

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

Chapter 12

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

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

Chapter 13

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

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

Chapter 14

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

Chapter 15

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

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

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

Chapter 16

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

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

And:

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

And:

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

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

Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

Themes

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

Mother-son relationship

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

London high life

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

Politics

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

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

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

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

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

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

Christianity

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

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

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Saki’s works

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

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

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

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

Camp and homosexuality

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

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

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

And Pan:

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

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

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

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

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

Childhood unhappiness

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

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

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

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


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

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

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

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

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

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

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

3. Tobermory (C)

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

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

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

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

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

6. The Background (C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

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

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

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

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

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

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

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

10. Sredni Vashtar

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

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

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

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

11. Adrian (C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. The Chaplet (C)

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

13. The Quest (C)

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

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

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

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

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

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

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

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

17. The Music on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

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

20. The Peace Offering (C)

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

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

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

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

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

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

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

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

23. The Hounds of Fate

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

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

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

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

24. The Recessional (C)

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

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

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

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

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

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

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

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

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

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

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

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

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

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

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

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

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

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


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

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

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

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

Studied heartlessness

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

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

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

Christianity

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

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

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

Culture

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

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

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

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

And:

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

Money / greed

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

Aunts

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


Related links

Saki’s works

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen (1997)

‘He’s a whole different person,’ Trish whispered.
‘Good,’ Krome said. ‘He needed to be.’
(Lucky You, page 446)

Carl Hiaasen’s campaign to make you loathe and despise Americans for their stupidity, greed and violence continues in this, his seventh solo novel, set among the slimy lowlifes, retards, rednecks and religious nutcases of South Florida.

Each Hiaasen novel has a central theme from which a complex matrix of crazy events and related sub-themes unfurl. This one is the Florida state lottery. On the week in question there are two winners of the lottery who have to share the prize money of $28 million and this is enough to trigger a 480-page firestorm of greed, crime and corruption.

JoLayne Lucks

One of the winners is JoLayne Lucks, 35, a physically fit black woman who lives in a trailer park (Hiaasen’s favourite location for his collections of lowlifes and criminals). JoLayne’s hobby is breeding turtles. She has 46, all different species, in an aquarium outside her trailer (so they’re pretty small, 3 or 4 inches long with heads ‘the size of grapes’, p.379).

Bode and Chub

But what spices things up and drives the plot is that the other winners are a pair of educationally sub-normal rednecks: Bodean James Gazzer, 31, five foot six, who’s made a career of blaming everyone else for everything that’s gone wrong in his short shitty life, who’s recently gotten interested in anti-government militias of the Waco Siege and Oklahoma City bombing variety (backstory pages 18 to 22), and so who’s drifted into the white supremacist ‘culture of hate and hardcore bigotry’ (p.20). Bode makes a living creating forged documents.

A couple of months before the start of the narrative, Bode had hooked up with Chub, a beer-gutted six-foot-two, ponytailed, unshaven, unwashed, smelly slob (full name: Onus Dean Gillespie, backstory page 96). The two bond over a shared contempt for:

government, taxes, homosexuals, immigrants, minorities, gun laws, assertive women and honest work. (p.3)

In fact, as the story opens Bode has just decided to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood (p.36). For the rest of the novel Hiaasen has a lot of fun attributing every prejudice and bigotry going to the short, angry, venomous Bode, and his dumb, grunting sidekick, Chub. It is the couple’s ignorant but venomous race-hatred and bigotry which is the real subject of this novel.

Having read half a dozen Hiaasen novels I fully expected that Bode would end up committing a string of heinous crimes and then being grotesquely killed in the end and, having just completed it, I can tell you that’s exactly what happens.

Tom Krome the journalist

Hiaasen was and is a rather renegade, award-winning journalist and his first novels feature some very renegade journalists who, you imagine, are like fictional versions of himself let completely off the leash. The series starts with the protagonist of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, the award-winning journalist Skip Wiley, who goes beyond the bounds of ordinary journalism by setting up an eco-terrorist group.

Here in Lucky You there’s another of these journalist incarnations, this one named Tom Krome. Krome emerges as the decent bloke hero of the story. He also allows Hiaasen to share his thoughts on what’s happened to the newspaper business in the 20 or so years since he joined it back in the 1970s. This is that the newspaper industry has been eviscerated by accountants, keen to dispense with almost all the editorial content and to sack seasoned journalists, in order to turn newspapers large and small into efficient, advertising-revenue-generating machines with the result, as his managing editor comments, that the news gets softer and softer, contains less and less real journalism, more and more fluff about pageants and fetes, until nobody bothers reading it any more (p.321).

Interesting to read laments about the death of journalism and newspapers from 25 years ago. Newspapers are, nowadays, of course, in an even more parlous condition.

Anyway, Tom Krome is depicted as a good journalist, with old-school instincts for following a story. with the result that he’s found himself fired from a number of papers till he’s ended up at the minor league Register, where he has to answer to an idiot named Sinclair, Assistant Managing Editor of Features and Style, and stuck covering weddings and divorces. It rankles – a lot!

Grange, town of religious visions

Now JoLayne Lucks lives in an area called Grange, which is notorious for its religious sightings and miracles.

Grange’s meagre economy had come to rely on the seasonal Christian tourist trade. (p.420)

We know this from a number of storylines and events:

  1. Tom Krome’s new girlfriend, Katie (who is cheating on her husband, Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr.) is a True Believer in miracles and healing.
  2. One of JoLayne’s neighbours in the Grange trailer park, Demencio, operates a religious fraud: he owns and displays a four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary with a reservoir of scented water inside, which is operated by a footpump so that the waiting queue of the faithful each get to kiss the statue and see miracle-working tears trickle from its yes. That’s before or after they’ve bought some of Demencio’s over-priced mementos and merchandising, which is where he makes his money.
  3. But Demencio isn’t the only one. There are various other religious fradusters around who capitalise on the town’s reputation, not least a failed carpenter by the name of Dominick Armado who, one drunk night, at a very low ebb in his private life, drilled perfect half centimetre holes in both his hands and now touts them as miraculous stigmata, charging a few dollars a time to allow credulous pilgrims to touch them, pray to them or have their photo taken with God’s Chosen One (p.378).

As a character wonders, late in the novel, having encountered all this religious nuttery, and after Armado has insisted on showing her the new holes he’s drilled in his feet, surely there must be something which explains all the freakery:

Surely this could be explained – a radiation leak in the maternity ward; a toxin in the town’s water supply. (p.460)

Early plot

The plot gets going when Tom Kromer is reluctantly sent out out to Grange to interview some blah blah lottery winner on what he thinks will be the epitome of boring small-time journalism. But Krome is won over by JoLayne’s style and balls. He arrives to find her front door is open and, on knocking and entering, discovers her in her bath, butt-naked, covered in bubbles and holding a shotgun pointing at his groin. So: quite ballsy, then. JoLayne listens to what Krome’s got to say, then politely refuses to be interviewed or to feature in any news reports. He goes back to his motel to ponder his next move.

What drives the novel is that the two thick racists, Bode and Chub, are not content with getting half the week’s winnings. They want it all. So Bode insists that they, also, drive out to Grange, They quickly establish that there’s only one lottery ticket outlet in the little town, at a branch of the Grab’N’Go chain, and they work out that JoLayne is the likely winner by cross-questioning the shops’ dim assistant named ‘Shiner’, the useless son of a born-again Christian mother.

Bode and Chub drive to JoLayne’s trailer and beat the crap out of her in a bid to get her ticket. Their plan is that Bode will present to the lottery authorities with one ticket and claims half the $28 million, and Chubb will present with JoLayne’s and claim the other half. The lottery tickets are sold anonymously, there are no names attached, so whoever is holding it is the owner.

Bode and Chub savagely beat JoLayne, introducing a sickening note of violence into the book at an early stage. They punch her in the breasts and groin and push the barrel of their revolver into her mouth, demanding to know where the ticket is. But not before JoLayne uses her long fingernails to give them cuts on the face, to rip out half of Bode’s eyelid and half of Chub’s eyebrow. She’s feisty.

It’s a stalemate until the rednecks have a brainwave: they shoot one of her precious baby turtles and threaten to shoot all the rest, at which point JoLayne gives in and hands over the ticket. They beat her up a bit more and leave. On the way out of town they revisit the Grab N’Go where they recruit the idiot Shiner to their fledgling White Rebel Brotherhood, explaining to him that all his failure in life is due to a conspiracy of fags and blacks in Washington DC, and (the reason for making a fuss of him) persuading him to lie about serving JoLayne the winning ticket.

Tom Kromer is woken up in the dark of his Grange motel bedroom. It takes him a while to realise it’s JoLayne who’s snuck into his room. When she won’t let him switch on the light and he puts his hands up to her face, he realises she’s been really badly beaten.

She takes him back to her trailer which is wrecked, with blood everywhere. Tom begs JoLayne to go to the cops but she refuses. Tom eventually realises it’s because she thinks if the cops start searching for them, the two hoodlums will destroy the ticket and she needs that ticket. Why?

And here enters the environmental angle, which is such an important element in Hiaasen’s fiction and which had been missing from the narrative up to this point. Turns out JoLayne works as an assistant to Dr Cecil Crawford, Grange’s vet (p.51) and has a natural feel for animals. In her time off she likes to sneak into Simmons Wood, a lovely piece of unspoilt wilderness and observe the wild animals (backstory p.137).

The point is that one day JoLayne is horrified to see a notice up warning that Simmons Wood is going to be demolished and turned into a shopping mall. She wants the lottery winnings not for herself but in order to buy Simmons Wood and preserve it for future generations. So that’s why she doesn’t want to call the cops or have her story written up in the papers; because that might force the thieves to destroy the ticket and she needs that money.

(The wood is owned by an old man, Lighthorse Simmons, who used to love to hunt there. He’s gotten old now and on his last trip was accidentally shot by another hunter. Now it’s his two greedy children, Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson, who are selling the land off and greedily hoping to make the maximum profit.)

Mary Andrea Finlay Krome

Tom has a wife, Mary Andrea Finlay, who he’s been trying to divorce for four years. She fancies herself a leading actress, although she only appears in provincial theatres. Tom’s attorney, Dick Turnquist, has been trying to serve papers for divorce on her for years, but it’s one of the running gags of the story that Mary is constantly on the move, one step ahead of the lawyer and his endless quest. The narrative is punctuated by the lawyer periodically phoning up Tom for another bulletin on how he just failed to nab her yet again.

Katie and the judge

Then there’s Katie, wife of Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. Tom has been having an affair with Katie for precisely 14 days, a whirlwind of sex and guilt, because Katie, in between blowjobs, is also a devout Christian, who has championship sex and then days of chronic guilt.

Because Kromer doesn’t ring her that night, from the motel in Grange where he’s staying, Katie has a fit of religious conscience and decides to admit to her husband she’s having an affair. More than that, in a fit of compulsive honesty she lists to the judge every sexual encounter she’s had with Krome, starting with the first blowjob she gave him in his car. American Christians are such fun! She’s also motivated by the knowledge that her 40-something husband is screwing both his legal secretaries, Willow and Vine. Katie hopes that if she confesses to her adulteries, he will too. Of course he doesn’t. But he is furious and instantly decides to take revenge.

Which is why, when Krome gets back to Miami from his brief trip to Grange, he discovers all the windows in his house shot out. Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. had gotten his legal assistant, Champ Powell, to do it.

When Tom phones her, Katie drives right round, explains what has happened, apologises, says she thinks it’s best, under the circumstances, to call off their affair and, as an afterthought, mentions that she thinks her husband, in his psychopathic jealousy, is going to have Krome killed. Great. Just great. A few blowjobs and fancy fucks and now his life is in danger, thinks Tom.

When Krome checks back into the office of the Register his numbskull editor, Sinclair, declares the lottery story dead and assigns him something else. Krome refuses to take it. He wants to track down whoever beat up JoLayne, he wants to turn it into a real journalistic investigation. Sinclair refuses to budge. So Krome quits and walks out. He calls JoLayne and tells her he wants to help her get her ticket back and save Simmons Wood.

The mob

Then there’s the mafia connection. Hiaasen goes into some detail to explain that the people who want to buy Simmons Wood – who Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson are so keen to sell to – are actually organised crime.

Richard ‘The Icepick’ Tarbone is a major player in organised crime in Chicago. He regularly creams off large amounts from the accounts of a big union called the Central Midwest Brotherhood of Grouters, Spacklers and Drywallers International. One of the ways this is done is for the union to buy up land and make a big show of investing millions in some project, only to encounter a string of problems, such as lack of labour, strikes, shortage of materials, failure to secure the right permits and so on, which eventually let the project plough into the sand. No-one looks too closely at the accounts to see that the actual losses are over and above the ones posted – and that is the amount creamed off by the union (the process is explained in detail on page 139 and is, according to Hiaasen, common practice in Florida real estate deals: ‘Gangsters bought and sold real estate in Florida every day’, p.440).

Trouble is the realtor in charge of the sale, is Clara Markham, has now received a new bid for the land. It’s from JoLayne who, as soon as she realised she’d won the lottery, got in touch and said she’s outbid all other bidders to buy the wood.

The union’s lawyer aka the Icepick’s fixer, is Bernard Squires. When news comes in that there’s a rival bid the Icepick tells Squires to get his ass down to Florida and sew up the deal in person. Trouble is the realtor in question, Clara Markham, happens to be a good friend of JoLayne’s, not least because of JoLayne’s expert veterinary treatment of Clara’s Persian Cat, Kenny (named after Kenny Rogers, the country singer) and so when JoLayne begs her for a week’s grace (to give her and Tom Krome time to track down the rednecks who stole her lottery ticket), Clara is happy to play along, to Bernard Squires’ mounting frustration.

Moffit

Oh I nearly forgot to mention Moffit. He is a big, imposing, immaculately dressed Afro-American who is an old, old friend of JoLayne’s, they go back to high school and he’s always had a deep and enduring flame for her. And he happens to work for the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency.

There’s often a figure like this in Hiaasen’s plots, an old buddy who just happens to have access to government or police computers, a figure who can, therefore, conveniently join the dots and fill in plot holes. Compare with the FBI agent who helps Erin out in Strip Tease.

The quest

Thus it is that by page 100 the narrative has established two damaged people, JoLayne (veteran of six relationships with six loser men and now recovering from a bad beating) and Tom Krome (trying to juggle the demands of his psycho wife, possibly being chased by hitmen set on him by a judge, and now unemployed) decide to track down Bode and Chub (who, being morons, are continuing to use the credit card they stole from JoLayne, and so are leaving a fairly easy trail to follow) and get her lottery ticket back.

And this ‘quest’ is the motor for the next 300 pages of fast-moving, savagely satirical and often very violent narrative. If you are sensitive about racist language, psychology and scenes, this most definitely is not the book for you. The novel takes the reader deep into the damaged psyches of two violent and repellent white supremacists.

Highlights from the rest of the plot

Bode and Chub eat several successive evenings in Hooters restaurant where filthy, slob, face-scratched Chub falls in love with a leggy blonde waitress named Amber who smiles in order to get her tips but finds the pair disgusting.

Once Moffit has learned about JoLayne’s being beaten up and robbed he is very angry and uses computers and cop contacts to identify Chub and visit his apartment. He trashes it, searching thoroughly for the lost lottery ticket, discovering no end of white supremacist posters, guns and porn, before deciding to freak out the racist idiot by writing in three-foot-high red letters on the wall ‘FEAR THE BLACK TIDE’.

When they return to the trashed apartment, this message freaks Bode and Chub out so badly that they pack all their worldly goods and drive south, planning to steal a boat (the ironically named Real Luv) and hide out in the Everglades until they can claim their lottery money and organise their white brotherhood. (In case I haven’t mentioned it, that’s Bode’s plan; to use his winnings to set up a nationwide white Aryan militia.)

Shiner turns up to join them. He’s quit his job at the Grab’N’Go and, in an access of idiotic enthusiasm, has had the initials of the movement tattooed on his bicep. They agree with him to drive south and rendezvous on the coast where they can steal a boat. What the other two don’t expect is that, to please them, Shiner kidnaps Amber from the car park outside Hooters at the end of her shift.

Meanwhile, Tom and JoLayne track down the bad guys by calling her credit card company and finding out where money is being spent. They establish the pair keep eating out at a local Hooters, but spend a long time debating where and how to take the crooks. They have staked out Chub’s apartment so are able to trail them south to a marina where they watch Chub steal a speedboat. Tom and JoLayne  themselves hire a boat for a day.

Thus the main setting of the book shifts, rather surprisingly, from an urban setting to an uninhabited island off the coast of Florida, where Bode and Chub and wimpy fat skinhead Shiner and surprisingly tough waitress Amber rig up a miserable camp. A rainstorm hits. Jolayne and Tom have followed at a distance (not least because, like all Hiaasen heroes, Tom is expert on the water, has binoculars to follow the bad guys’ boat at a distance etc). Now they moor their boat on the other side of the island, and stalk and watch developments among the baddies.

The grotesque highlight

Each Hiaasen novel has a grotesque highlight, a memorably gruesome image which stays with you. In Double Whammy it’s the redneck killer with a dead pitbull’s head attached to his wrist. In Stormy Weather it’s the crooked property salesman crucified to an outsized satellite TV dish by a disgruntled customer. In this novel, it involves the drooling idiot Chub.

Chub, among his countless other vices, snorts glue or aerosols. At various points in the narrative he manages to make himself insensible on whatever sniffable substance he can lay his hands on. On the boat trip out to the island Chub makes himself so blotto on a tube of boat glue he finds, that he passes out with his hand trailing in the water only to wake and find half of it eaten off by a giant crab.

This section on the island drags on a bit, with various arguments and shifts in psychological dynamic between the three white supremacists and their waitress hostage described at what begins to feel like inordinate length.

Tom and JoLayne rescue Amber, Bode dies

Eventually, in a fury of frustration, Chub finally tries to rape Amber and she is fighting him off when there’s a gunshot. Chub is thrown off Amber’s naked body because Tom has just shot half his shoulder away, swiftly followed by a shotgun butt to the head which knocks Bode unconscious.

Tom and JoLayne patch up Chub to stop him bleeding to death, then put Shiner and Amber into the stolen boat, with a map and instructions to go back to civilisation, which they do without mishap.

But, as so often happens (as happened in the very similar situation in Stormy Weather), although they’ve tied up the bad guys, one of them – Bode – manages to get loose and makes a run for it through the mangrove groves to the other end of the island where Tom and JoLayne’s boat is moored.

Except Tom chases him and tackles him in the shallows, they both thrash around kicking and punching. Unfortunately, Bode kicks a stingray which was having a quiet nap on the mud floor and responds by embedding its big sting deep in his thigh. Bode lets go of Tom who staggers upright, himself half-drowned in the epic struggle, then pulls Bode in from the shallows onto the sand. And here he bleeds to death (p.397). Yes, I thought he’d meet a sticky end, Hiaasen’s baddies always do.

The judge, his assistant and the exploding house

This main central plank of the narrative is interspersed with two other plot developments:

Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. gets cold feet. Having had all Tom’s windows shot out he becomes paranoid that Tom will track him down and do something bad to him and/or write about him in his newspaper. So the judge decides that he must not only scare Tom Krome, but kill him! So he gets his legal secretary, Champ Powell, to blow up his house. Champ is a whizz at the law but less so at arson and pours out so much gasoline round Tom’s empty house that he passes out, falling against the cooker as he does so, and blowing the house to kingdom come, killing himself. His body is charred beyond recognition in the ensuing fire. The point is – everyone now thinks the corpse in the house was Tom: everyone thinks Tom is dead, from his managing editor at the newspaper (who didn’t even know he’d quit), to his lawyer, his wife he’s trying to divorce, Katie his lover (who’d admitted everything to the judge) and so on. This sparks a complicated trail of interactions and consequences, while Tom is happily oblivious to it all, far away in the outback trailing the racists.

Sinclair becomes Turtle Boy

Quite a lot earlier in the plot, the editor of the Register had told Sinclair to get his ass up to Grange and find out what Tom Krome was up to and why he wasn’t reporting in to the office (we know it’s because he’s followed the bad guys out to the island but nobody else knows that).

Sinclair does so, and tracks down the house of JoLayne and her neighbours, Demencio and Trisha, but here something weird happens: he has a spiritual awakening.

When JoLayne left with Tom, she asked her neighbours Femencio and Trisha to look after JoLayne’s 46 little turtles and, business with the Weeping Virgin falling a bit slack, Demencio has a brainwave. Why not paint the faces of the 12 apostles onto the shells of 12 of the turtles and claim they appeared overnight? The scam is a runaway success, drawing in thousands of paying believers to the aquarium the pair set up specially for the ‘Holy Turtles’.

Now when Sinclair, poking around to find Tom Krome, is introduced to Demencio and Trisha, when they give him one of the lickle baby turtles to hold, Sinclar has a profound spiritual experience, is converted on the spot. He takes to wearing a white gown and immersing himself in the lined trench Demencio builds for the apostle turtles and letting them crawl all over him. He forgets about his job, he forgets about Tom Krome, he experiences otherworldly bliss and speaks in tongues.

Soon rumour gets round of the freak Demencio nicknames ‘Turtle Boy’, and Sinclair finds himself becoming a major religious attraction in his own right.

There’s quite a lot more plot complexity and detail, because one of the central aspects of the genre of farce is that it has a preposterously convoluted plot.

The bad judge is arrested

By the time Tom and JoLayne return safely to civilisation the threat against him has been lifted. The police have by this stage realised the corpse in Tom’s house was not him but the judge’s legal assistant, and the judge’s wife, Katie, has told the police all about the judge’s arsonical felonies, so that the judge has forgotten about Tom and is packing to escape to the Bahamas. Only to walk out his front door and be arrested by the FBI (p.430). So that storyline, which had taken up a lot of space and complexity, is happily resolved.

Thoughts and reflections

1. White supremacy and race anxiety

Religion is the most obvious and flagrant subject of the satire, what with Demencio’s weeping Madonna and the apostle turtle scams (not to mention Shiner’s born-again mother who I haven’t mentioned so far but insists she can see the face of Jesus printed on the local highway and eventually goes into a kind of religious partnership with Turtle Boy.

But the religious satire is overshadowed by the novel’s larger, more serious theme, which is race, or race relations in America. It is the central theme in Bode and Chub’s lives that they plan to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood dedicated to the salvation of the white race, against the great tide of blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians and liberals and Jews who they see as taking over their country. Their paranoia is satirised in Bode’s incoherent notion that a vast UN or NATO force is waiting on the Bahamas and, at any moment, will invade mainland America and suppress the white race in the name of the international conspiracy of thingummy, something – whenever he gets to this point, in his explanations to Chub or Shiner, Bode gets confused and angry, realising his paranoid delusions don’t actually make sense (pp.351).

The pair’s stupidity is satirised by the way Bode doesn’t realise the White Rebel Brotherhood is the name of a popular rap band. When he learns this it infuriates him, so that Bode changes the name of his little gang to the White Clarion Aryans, who:

‘We believe in the purity and supremacy of the Euro-Caucasian people.’ (p.299)

So far, so dumb, so satirical and so fairly funny. But it isn’t funny when they beat the crap out of JoLayne and grab her breasts and punch her in the groin calling her the n word. A ‘bad’ word here or there is piss in the wind compared to the force of their deep, raging, unrelenting, racist bigotry.

Hiaasen goes some way to investigating the roots of the problem, with periodic explanations that the roots of their hatred lie in the endless frustrations of lazy, stupid, badly educated, dropout, unemployed, lowlife, small-time criminals.

But towards the end of the book there’s a powerful scene where JoLayne cradles the badly wounded Chub in her lap, tending to the wound Tom has just shot in his shoulder (to stop him raping Amber) because she can’t bear to see anything die. JoLayne asks him directly the reason for his unrelenting rage. But all she gets back is cuss words (p.391). Nothing can be explained. These people are too damaged to change and too mentally limited to reflect on their own lives and beliefs.

Same when Bode is dying. JoLayne pitifully asks him:

‘Please. I’m trying to understand the nature of your hatefulness…What did I ever do to you?’ She demanded. ‘What did any black person ever do to you?’ (p.398)

To which Bode can only reply with a thin list of petty offences, none of which get at the real psychological root of such monstrous anger and hate.

On a different plane, the issue of race recurs in the ‘mixed race’ relationship between white Tom and black JoLayne. This mainly takes the shape of her teasing him about his white liberal guilt (p.346) and his honky ass. There’s the moment in the car driving south when she takes the mickey out of the way he only likes ‘white-boy rock’, triggering a spluttering defence on his part, which makes her crack up with laughter (p.244).

This is meant to be fairly light-hearted joshing but to me, at any rate, indicated yet another way in which racial differences seem to be so difficult to normalise. All I mean is that JoLayne and Tom are as liberal individuals as it is possible to imagine, and yet even for them, the difference in skin or race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call it, still creates nervousness and imbalances of power. Can it ever be completely neutral, a relationship between a black person and a white person, completely without an awareness of race? Not if this novel is to be believed.

Anyway, back to Bode and Chub and their pathetic white supremacy, Hiaasen gives it a thorough and extended hammering, but satire doesn’t change anything in the real world. Hiaasen was mocking white supremacy and ignorant bigotry back in 1997 yet Donald Trump came to power on the back of a huge sea of it 20 years later, and his presidency climaxed in the amazing scenes of the Proud Boys storming the Capitol and waving the Confederate flag.

The problem doesn’t seem to have gotten any better in the 24-odd years since 1997, does it? Writing savagely satirical novels isn’t enough. Nowhere near.

2. America, criminal state

Last time I went to New York I hated it. I watched American TV, listened to American radio, saw American hoardings, browsed in American shops, and felt suffocated by it, by the unrelenting commercialisation of everything. There seems to be little or no natural interaction between human beings behaving innocently, politely and candidly. Absolutely everything is monetised, is a deal, every service in a shop or hotel or taxi requires a tip. Money is front of everyone’s mind.

And that’s what comes over in Hiaasen’s books. There’s no character that doesn’t have an angle. They are all after something, and they all spend all their time calculating the odds, the profits and losses, of every deal and every venture. Demencio’s religious frauds are obvious butts for satire, but there isn’t much essential difference between that and the various crooked lawsuits we learn Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. has been involved in. Everyone is faking and lying for money.

Hiaasen gives a particularly detailed explanation of how the judge swings one last crooked judgement before he realises he has to flee the Feds. He finds in favour of a well-known insurance fraudster, 70-year-old Emil LaGort who makes a living out of tripping or falling at supermarkets then suing them for negligence (p.374). Generally, LaGort’s claims are thrown out or he settles for small fees, but the judge rings up LaGort’s attorney and advises him to go hard on the next case. The lawyer is puzzled. The judge explains that, if the lawyer sues LaGort’s latest corporate target for $500,000, he (the judge) will find in his favour – on the understanding that LaGort’s attorney will then give him half that amount. Why? To pay for his hurried flight to the Bahamas.

In other words: the American legal system is not just a bit crooked, it is one enormous scam, from top to bottom, a vast system of interlocking scams and deals at every level, greased by money and bribery.

These aren’t generalised slurs. Hiaasen gives detailed descriptions of hos America’s countless scams and cons work in practice. He explains in great detail the mafia scheme for creaming money off failed building projects, described above. The mafia makes money by commissioning large-scale property developments which are then left deliberately incomplete and declared write-offs, so the mob can launder money through them. The result is to leave Florida covered with abandoned works, whose sole material impact is to devastate the landscape. And this is happening all the time, has been going on for decades.

Hiaasen’s America is all like that, at every level. You can visualise a hierarchy, like a medieval diagram of the ‘estates’, with scumbags like Bode and Chub at the bottom, organised criminals like The Icepick and his fixer Bernard Squires at a higher level, doing deals with bribeable cops, supervised by crooked judges like Battenkill, and then the crooked local politicians Hiaasen has lambasted in other novels sitting at the top, easy to buy and influence with big dollar campaign contributions, the whole thing covered by a TV and print media which are themselves only interesting in keeping the gravy train of corruption and payola spinning forwards in order to bring in those advertising dollars. Money money money. An unending panorama of greed and corruption in every direction.

And then, in a stroke of genius, you give all these crooks and retards and mobsters and hitmen high-powered guns and automatic weapons and let them loose on each other.

Everyone who lived in Dade County knew the sound of a semiautomatic.’ (p.311)

It’s a modern vision of the Inferno. It is contemporary America. In the week since I finished reading the book I think there have been three mass shootings in America, one just yesterday in Hiaasen’s own Miami. What a great country.

3. Americans have a word for it

As part of their can-do, get a move on, hurry hurry culture, Americans just seem to have snappy nouns and catchy phrases to describe things and actions that the English bumble over. A few examples being:

  • to cinch = verb, when you’re wearing a hat with a loop of string under the chin and a toggle which you can move up the two bits of string to tighten them up, you ‘cinch’ it tight; women cinch a scrunchie on their hair
  • a domelight = the overhead light in a car (p.249)
  • to fishtail = verb, to have the rear end of a car slide from side to side. ‘Recklessly he gunned the truck across Highway One and fishtailed into the northbound lane.’ (p.265)
  • a hummer = a blowjob (p.325)
  • a ride-along = someone who comes along for a ride in a car (p.400)
  • walk-ons = when you run a boat hire company in a marina and you get customers who haven’t booked ahead but just walk up and ask if they can hire

Credit

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1997. All references are to the 1998 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

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Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


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