Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

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

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

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

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

Earlier than realised

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

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

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

The paintings

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

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

A word about aesthetics

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

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

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

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

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

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

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

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

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

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

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

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

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

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

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

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

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

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

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

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

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

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

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

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

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

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

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

Neglected women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peggy and Betty

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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

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

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

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

Regionalism versus modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are several ways to think about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New names

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

Charles Sheeler

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

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

Aaron Douglas

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

Conclusion

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


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite (2011)

Sir Rodric Quentin Braithwaite, GCMG, Bedales School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, was born in 1932, so he’s 86 now and was 79 when this book was published. From 1988 to 1992 he was ambassador in Moscow, first of all to the Soviet Union and then to the Russian Federation. Subsequently, he became chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee from 1992 to 1993.

Braithwaite was in Moscow during most of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89), knew many of the people involved on the Russian side, and saw at first hand the impact it had on Soviet society and politics. He also knows his way around the Russian archives, which allows him to carefully weigh the evidence of precisely who said what, when, and why, at key moments of the story.

Afghanistan is not really a country

Afghan is more a territory carved out by competing empires and squabbled over by a kaleidoscope of violently opposing interests. This has resulted in an almost unceasing sequence of coups, revolutions, civil wars and local uprisings.

The people of Afghanistan are divided by race into Pashtuns [40% of the population], Tajiks [27%], Uzbeks [9%], Hazaras [9%] and other lesser ethnic groupings. Each of these is subdivided into clans defined often by accidents of geography, as so often in mountainous regions. And each clan is further divided into often mutually hostile families. All are ruled by an ethic of fierce pride, martial valour, honour, and hospitality, mediated by the institution of the blood feud. At all levels, from the local to the central, politics and loyalties are defined by conflicts and deals between these same groups, and even between individual families. There is thus little sense of a national entity on which to build a functioning unitary state. (p.12)

Probably the most important paragraph in the book.

Fighting, feuding violence is the Afghan way of life

It is entirely typical that the communist party of Afghanistan – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – which arose out of the new university set up with the help of the Soviets in the 1960s, immediately split into two violently opposed factions – Parcham (Banner) with its main support in the cities, and Khalq (People) with its main support from the peasants in the countryside.

This was the trigger to the invasion since it wasn’t the communist coup in 1978 which got the Russians involved, it was the inability of the Afghan communist party’s two leading figures, Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, to get along together, which gave the murderous communist regime its fatal instability.

The Russians are drawn in against their will

The Russians had a long-established relationship with Afghanistan, stretching back to the 1920s, well before the end of the British Empire and the independence of neighbouring Pakistan (with which Afghanistan has had a very troubled relationship).

Trade deals and support were offered throughout the century and up into the 1970s. The Soviets helped support the small and fractious communist party, continually trying to get the two factions to stop their feuding.

When the Afghan communists seized power in spring 1978 the Russians were obviously gratified, but worried by the violence of the coup itself and then by the tremendous bloodshed the PDPA unleashed on their backward country. (After executing his rival in September 1979, Amin published a list of 12,000 people the regime had liquidated since coming to power 18 months previously. Up to the time of the Soviet invasion, the communists executed an estimated 27,000 in Kabul prison alone (p.76), maybe 50,000 in the country as a whole. All in order to build the socialist utopia. It was a holocaust.)

The first chapter lays out in detail the opinions of Head of the KGB Yuri Andropov, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, Foreign Secretary Andrei Gromyko, Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov, as well as other senior Soviet politicians and the military, that intervention in Afghanistan would likely be a disaster.

Instead, the Soviet leadership encouraged the Taraki regime to ‘broaden its support base’ to include industrial workers and the urban bourgeoisie. Braithwaite shows how out of touch the Moscow Politburo was – since Afghanistan had no industrial workers and only a tiny urban, middle class.

Both Russian and Afghan communists completely underestimated the scale and depth of the opposition they faced from the overwhelmingly rural peasant population who cleaved to a deeply conservative, primitive Islamic faith and time-honoured cultural practices. Braithwaite opens the book with the general uprising against the communist regime in March in the city of Herat. It appears to have been a spontaneous outbreak of revolt at the harshness of communist rule but also at the imposition on the tribal culture of the blasphemous practices of infidel atheists. In one incident, peasants in an outlying village, infuriated by the diktat to force their daughters to school, rose up, killed the Communists, killed all the girls, and marched on Herat, there to join other insurrectionaries.

The war begins

Despite all these analyses of the risk, the uprising in Herat in spring 1979 forced the Russians to get more involved, not least because the Kabul regime was begging them for help through the Kabul embassy. Reluctantly Moscow found itself sending advisers, arms and other support to put down the rebellion.

In the first third of the book Braithwaite details the fateful sequence of events, mainly driven by the poisonous rivalry between communist bosses Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, by which the Russians stepped into the quagmire. On several visits to Moscow President Taraki was guaranteed his personal safety, so that when Amin’s men kidnapped and murdered him in September 1979, Moscow leaders took it personally. Amin declared himself president and immediately instituted a rule then even more bloodthirsty than Taraki’s, with the immediate arrest, torture and execution of the former leader’s supporters and dependents, and stepping up the persecution of recalcitrants around the country.

In addition to fearing chaos on their southern border, the Russian leadership heard rumours that Amin would take Afghanistan over into the American camp – or might even have been a CIA agent! The broader background to all this was that the policy of détente with the USA – which had characterised the early 1970s – as fading, as the Americans developed and deployed a new generation of missiles, Congress refused to ratify a previous weapon reduction treaty, and the general atmosphere became more confrontational.

All these arguments began to crystallise into the decision to intervene quickly in Afghanistan to topple the unreliable and maverick Amin and replace him with a reliable Soviet stooge to secure the Soviet Union’s southern border.

It took until December for Moscow to have enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan (where there were already plenty of military advisors). They then undertook the operation to take Kabul, laying siege to all the key ministries, storming the Presidential Palace and – inevitably – killing Amin. Braithwaite describes these events in detail, with precise maps of the city centre and opposing forces.

The Soviet-Afghan War

Maybe the biggest surprise of the book is how featureless the war was. The Russians installed their own man as president, Babrak Karmal and then deployed troops to all the major cities. Immediately they faced resistance which never went away and slowly ramped up in terms of organisation and violence. The mujahideen were never a unified force – the opposite, they were highly fragmented into as many as fifty different bands of various sizes. Only slowly did they coalesce into seven distinct ‘armies’ or groups, but still very much divided along geographic, ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

The war aims of both parties were simple: The mujahideen needed to cut off the Soviet supply lines from Soviet Tajikistan to the north via a couple of well-travelled roads – so they deployed mines and roadside bombs along them and staged periodic attacks on Russian convoys. The Russians needed to cut off mujahideen supplies coming from the south, across the border with Pakistan. The Soviets developed the technique of travelling in large convoys protected by helicopter gunships; the mujahideen made use of remote passes known only to them and travelled in small groups and mostly at night.

And so both sides failed in their war aims. In fact, as Braithwaite points out, the Russians never lost a major engagement and never lost a single post or stronghold or city in the entire war.

But, like the Americans in Vietnam, they learned the hard way that victory in a guerrilla war depends not on hardware, or firepower, or manpower – it depends solely on Endurance, which means the resolve of a country and its civilian population to put up with an unending stream of casualties. If the American war in Vietnam started in 1965 it only took 3 years for opposition to peak in 1968, forcing the president not to seek re-election and his successor (Richard Nixon) to win an election campaigning to end the war. In Afghanistan the casualties weren’t so severe and there weren’t the large-scale engagements of Vietnam (nothing like the battles for Khe Sanh or Hue, no nationwide Tet Offensive), but Soviet soldiers began dying almost from day one and carried on at the rate of 150 to 200 per month.

In a tightly censored society there was nothing like the same groundswell of opposition as in America, but sooner or later every town and city became aware of the coffins returning and the steady trickle of burials of young men. While the soldiers on the ground had a growing sense of futility. Braithwaite describes several massive operations to clear out the Pandsher Valley in the east of the country of the mujahideen under the leadership of the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Russians sent in over 10,000 troops, accompanied by tanks and helicopters only to find – the insurgents had melted away into the mountains. There were some small firefights, some losses, some ‘wins’. Then, after a tactful period, the Soviets withdrew their forces and the mujahideen reoccupied the valley, and began to use it once again as a base to attack isolated strongholds and Soviet convoys. This happened year after year and bred a sense of futility even in quite senior officers.

Voices from the Soviet-Afghan

One of the distinctive features of Braithwaite’s book is the deliberate effort to include the testimony of a huge range of participants. He has gone out of his way to include letters, diaries and interviews with the widest possible range of participants – not only soldiers, from generals down to foot soldiers, sergeants and quartermasters, but lots from doctors and nurses, political commissars, the numerous advisers who worked in Afghanistan including agricultural, scientific and medical advisers, interpreters and security guards, intelligence officers and helicopter pilots, tank drivers and sappers, engineers and youth advisers – with lots of women featured from all walks of life – mujahideen leaders and fighters…

It’s like those ‘Lost voices from….’ series about the Great War or WW2, except we very rarely hear the voices of a cross-section of ordinary Russians. This aspect alone makes this a fascinating and valuable book.

In fact, although it refers to the fighting in the relevant places, there’s a case for saying this is more a social history of the war which pays attention to the experiences of a large cast of characters.

For example, there’s a long and detailed section about the physical process of gathering the remains of killed Russian soldiers, with eye-witness accounts from the morgue of how body parts were scooped into lead caskets by very drunk morgue assistants, on the shipping home and then on the generally bad reception any soldier accompanying a dead colleague’s body to his home was likely to get from his grieving relatives. Thorough explanations are given of the process of the draft which the Soviet authorities introduced, again with interviews from soldiers involved. And there is a fascinating section about the small number of Russian soldiers who went over to the side of the mujahideen, taking Muslim names and sometimes wives. Where possible Braithwaite follows the entire careers of some of these defectors and their colourful adventures, right up to the time of writing (2010) 20 years later.

It feels like no aspect of the war is left unexamined, making this read like a very rounded, comprehensive account.

Phases of the Soviet-Afghan war

  1. December 1979-February 1980 – the initial invasion and overthrow of Amin.
  2. March 1980-April 1985 – the mujahideen improved their guerrilla tactics of hit and run attacks, the Russians learned how to protect convoys and strongholds better. 9,175 Soviet soldiers killed: average of 148 per month.
  3. May 1985-December 1986 – Mikhael Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He immediately ordered his generals to find ways to wind down the war and offensive operations were scaled back. Still, 2,745 soldiers were killed, average of 137 a month.
  4. November 1986-February 1989 – The Soviets replaced Babrak Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai who was instructed to initiate a policy of National Reconciliation. The Soviet withdrawal took place in two phases – between May and August 1988, and November 1988 to February 1989, when the last tanks were filmed trundling back over the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Uzbekistan.

The end of the Soviet-Afghan war

The Soviets didn’t lose a single battle or control of a single town or city but they lost the war. The last section of Braithwaite’s book describes the long drawn out process of negotiating a withdrawal, started by the new Mikhail Gorbachev almost as soon as he came to power in March 1985, but which took an inordinate period of time to square with interested parties like Ronald Reagan’s America, Pakistan, the Najibullah regime in Kabul, and the United Nations who were called on to supervise the withdrawal.

In total some 14,500 Russians died, while anywhere between 1.5 and 2 million Afghans were killed with up to 5 million fleeing as refugees outside their country.

But, as Braithwaite points out, this must be compared to the slaughter of Afghan by Afghan in the civil war which broke out, or came into the open, after the Soviets left. By 1996 some 40,000 inhabitants of Kabul alone were estimated to have died in the fighting.

Soldier-bards

I had no idea that the war led to the flourishing of songs composed by the soldiers themselves, many of whom took guitars or harmonicas – handily portable instruments – with them. Braithwaite refers to them as ‘bards’ and many of the songs became very well known, not only among the veterans – who are known as the Afgantsy (plural of Afganets). Here’s a well-known example, ‘Black Tulip’ by Alexander Rozenbaum. Quite a lot different from the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix which were the soundtrack to Vietnam.


Modern Afghan history – thirty years of war

At one point Braithwaite makes the simple but powerful point that the Soviet war was in fact an intervention in an ongoing Afghan civil war. The communist ‘revolution’ (coup) was itself a result of the fractured nature of Afghan society, was characterised by extreme violence against its opponents which promoted uprisings and revolt. I.e. the Soviets walked into an existing civil war situation and, long before they left, the various mujahideen organisations were positioning themselves for the civil war which was to continue after the last Soviet left. Only the rise of the Taliban which was formed around 1994 as a reaction to the endless warring of the corrupt mujahideen warlords, eventually brought the civil war to an end, with the Taliban installed as the de facto rulers of the country by 1996.

So the civil war could be said to have lasted from 1978 to 1996 with a nine-year intervention by the Russians.

Of course, the Taliban government was then overthrown in 2001 by the Americans who invaded and installed their man in power, President Hamid Karzai, hoping that free and fair ‘elections’ would rally the population to a peaceful democracy. Lols.

But the Taliban regrouped and began a deep insurgency against American and allied forces. It is during the 2000s that the British were assigned peace-keeping duties in Helmand Province in south-west Afghanistan, with some 454 deaths to date. As and when the UN forces withdraw, it is an open question whether Afghanistan will return to civil war or whether the Taliban will return to power.


Timeline

1. 20th century background

1901 1 October Habibullah Khan, son of Abdur Rahman, becomes emir of Afghanistan.
1919 20 February Habibullah is assassinated. His son Amanullah Khan declares himself King of Afghanistan.
1919
May – Third Anglo-Afghan War: Amanullah leads a surprise attack against the British.
19 August – Afghan Foreign Minister Mahmud Tarzi negotiates the Treaty of Rawalpindi with the British at Rawalpindi.
1929 Amanullah forced to abdicate in favor of Habibullah Kalakani in the face of a popular uprising. Former General Mohammed Nadir Shah takes control of Afghanistan.
1933 8 November Nadir is assassinated. His son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, proclaimed King.
1964 A new constitution ratified which institutes a democratic legislature.
1965 1 January The Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) holds its first congress.
1973 17 July Mohammed Daoud Khan declares himself President in a coup against the king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

2. Build-up to war

1978
27 April the ‘Saur Revolution’ – Military units loyal to the communist PDPA assault the Afghan Presidential Palace, killing President Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family.
1 May The ‘Saur Revolution’ – The PDPA instals its leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, as President of Afghanistan. Once in power, the communists…

started a massive reign of terror: landowners, mullahs, dissident officers, professional people, even members of the Communist Party itself, were arrested, tortured, and shot in large numbers. (p.6)

July – A rebellion against the new Afghan government begins with an uprising in Nuristan Province.
5 December – Treaty signed which permits deployment of the Soviet military at the Afghan government’s request.
1979
March – rebellion against communist rule in Herat.
14 September – President Nur Muhammad Taraki murdered by supporters of Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin. Braithwaite describes in detail how he was abducted, separated from his wife, and smothered with a pillow (p.73). The murder of a man they promised to safeguard spurs the Soviet leadership to plan to replace Amin.
24 December – The Soviet army invades Afghanistan to overthrow the very unpopular Amin regime and restore a more friendly client ruler.
27 December – Operation Storm-333: Soviet troops storm major governmental, military and media buildings in Kabul, including the Tajbeg Palace, and execute Prime Minister Amin. The Russians instal Babrak Karmal as president.

—The Soviet occupation turns into a war and lasts nine years and 56 days—

1988 14 April – The Soviet government sign the Geneva Accords, which include a timetable for withdrawing their armed forces.
1989 15 February – Last Soviet troops leave the country. Civil war breaks out immediately between rival mujahideen groups.

3. Post-Soviet civil war

1992 24 April – Warring Afghan political parties sign The Peshawar Accord which creates the Islamic State of Afghanistan and proclaim Sibghatullah Mojaddedi its interim President. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami, with the support of neighbouring Pakistan, begin a massive bombardment against the Islamic State in the capital Kabul.
28 June – As agreed in The Peshawar Accord, Jamiat-e Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani takes over as President.
1994 August – The Taliban government begins to form in a small village between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.
1995
January – The Taliban, with Pakistani support, initiate a military campaign against the Islamic State of Afghanistan and its capital Kabul.
13 March – The Taliban torture and kill Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the minority (and Shia) Hazara people.
1996
26 September – Start of another civil war in Afghanistan, which lasts until the U.S. invasion in 2001. The forces of the Islamic State retreat to northern Afghanistan.
27 September – The Taliban conquer Kabul and declare the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Former President Mohammad Najibullah, who had been living under United Nations protection in Kabul, is tortured, castrated and executed by Taliban forces.
1998
August – The Taliban capture Mazar-e Sharif, forcing Abdul Rashid Dostum into exile.
20 August – Operation Infinite Reach: Cruise missiles fired by the United States Navy into four militant training camps in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

4. 9/11 and after

2001
9 September – Resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud killed in a suicide bomb attack by two Arabs disguised as French news reporters.
20 September – After the September 11 attacks in the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush demands the Taliban government hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and close terrorist training camps in the country.
21 September – The Taliban refuse Bush’s ultimatum for lack of evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11 attacks.
7 October – Operation Enduring Freedom The United States and the United Kingdom begin an aerial bombing campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
5 December – The UN Security Council authorize the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help maintain security in Afghanistan and assist the new administration of Hamid Karzai.
20 December – International Conference on Afghanistan in Germany: Hamid Karzai chosen as head of the Afghan Interim Administration.
2002 July Loya jirga – Hamid Karzai appointed as President of the Afghan Transitional Administration.
2003 14 December Loya jirga – A 502-delegate loya jirga held to consider a new Afghan constitution.
2004 9 October – Hamid Karzai elected President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after winning the Afghan presidential election.
2005 Taliban insurgency begins after a Pakistani decision to station around 80,000 soldiers next to the porous Durand Line border with Afghanistan.
2006 1 March – George W. Bush and wife visited Afghanistan to inaugurate the renovated Embassy of the United States in Kabul.
2007
13 May – Skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama sends an additional 33,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, with the total international troops reaching 150,000.
2011
– After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, many high-profile Afghan officials are assassinated, including Mohammed Daud Daud, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammad Khan, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, and Burhanuddin Rabbani.
– Afghanistan National Front created by Tajik leader Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Related links

Dr. Strangelove by Peter George (1963)

‘We trust each other to maintain the balance of terror, to behave rationally and to do nothing which would cause a war by accident or miscalculation or madness. Now this  is a ridiculous trust, because even assuming we both had perfect intentions, we cannot honestly guarantee anything. There are too many fingers on the buttons. There are too many reasons both mechanical and human for the system to fail. What a marvellous thing for the fate of the world to depend on – a state of mind, a mood, a feeling, a moment of anger, an impulse, ten minutes of poor judgement, a sleepless night.’
(U.S. President Murkin Muffley to Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski, Dr Strangelove, page 113)

Background

This novel has a bit of a history to it.

In 1958 British author and former RAF officer Peter Bryan George published a Cold War thriller titled Two Hours to Doom, using the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Short and serious, it was designed to show how easily a nuclear war could be triggered. In America it was renamed Red Alert.

In the late 1950s movie director Stanley Kubrick had been mulling over the idea of some kind of story about nuclear weapons and was recommended to read George’s book. He was impressed, bought the book rights, and began working with George on a screenplay. But as work progressed Kubrick became more aware of the absurdity and black humour latent in the whole subject of nuclear weapons – the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and so on – and the project slowly morphed into a black comedy.

On the back of this realisation, Kubrick brought in comic novelist Terry Southern as a co-writer in late 1962. This eventually led to a falling-out between Kubrick and the original author, Peter George. The film was shot and edited in 1963 and was due to be released on 22 November, when President Kennedy was assassinated on the same day. The film was re-edited to remove some references to the fictional president who features in the movie (the film originally ended with a massive food fight in the Pentagon War Room and when the president is hit by a particularly big custard pie, one of the generals yells, ‘Gentleman, our beloved president has been shot!’ – this entire scene was cut). It was finally released in January 1964.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled George used a working version of the screenplay to write a short novelisation, and that is the text under review.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

It’s a short, fast-moving text, only 140 pages long and broken up into punchy scenes which alternate in quick succession, as in the movie.

The plot is: the American general of a US Air Force base – General Ripper – goes mad and orders his wing of bombers armed with hydrogen bombs to attack their targets in Russia. As per protocol the bombers cut off radio signals from any source and can only be recalled by the secret recall code known only to Ripper. Ripper then orders all the men on his base to secure the perimeter, warning them war with Russia has broken out and they are going to be attacked by commies, in all likelihood masquerading as American soldiers.

Meanwhile, General ‘Buck’ Turgidson is cavorting with a scantily clad ‘personal assistant’ in a Washington hotel, when the phone rings and he is summoned to the War Room of the Pentagon. Here he meets President Murkin Muffley and the joint chiefs of staff assembled beneath an enormous board showing a map of the Soviet Union, with dots indicating the ring of American planes converging towards Russia.

The president demands to know why this attack has been launched without his permission, and Buck Turgidson becomes the main spokesman for the armed forces, explaining why greater autonomy for commanders was thought a good idea, why nobody, not even the president, can recall the bombers, only except General Ripper can because only he has the recall codes, but that the general is holed up in his air force base and is firing on the local army unit which went along to contact him – and that an intense pitched battle has broken out at the base.

It just so happens that inside the base is an upper-class RAF officer on an exchange with the USAF, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. He is summoned to Ripper’s office and becomes a sort of confidante for the rest of the novel to the general’s thoughts. Mandrake learns to his horror that Ripper has ordered a nuclear attack, and then listens in bewilderment to Ripper’s mad explanation about some kind of commie conspiracy to poison our drinking water with fluoride in order to sap ‘our vital bodily fluids’. Mandrake listens, appalled, while Ripper reveals that he first became aware of this conspiracy during the act of love when he was not able to perform as he used to. This, Ripper tells Mandrake, could only be because of the communists sapping his bodily fluids, not because he’s getting on a bit. The fact that the governments of the West are going ahead with adding fluoride to water and even food, shows the extent of the fiendish commie conspiracy to sap the bodily fluids of the Free World. The only solution is for one brave man to take the decisive step and attack the Reds before it’s too late, and that’s why he’s sent his wing of bombers to bomb Russia.

In other words, World War Three breaks out because of one middle-aged man’s sexual dysfunction.

Back in the War Room, the president invites the Russian ambassador, de Sadeski, to come and witness everything for himself and then vouch in a phone call to the Soviet premier Kissof that the whole thing is a big accident. Unfortunately, the Soviet premier is drunk and tearful. President Muffley struggles to make it clear that he’s doing everything he can to recall the planes. It is at this stage that ambassador de Sadeski  reveals that the Soviets have a new Doomsday Bomb, of inconceivable power, designed never to be used but to intimidate any possible attack. One nuclear strike on Russia and it will go off, obliterating all life on earth.

Eventually, the besieging American troops fight their way into the air force base and, although General Ripper disappears to a corridor and then off the base, Mandrake is instrumental in figuring out the recall code, phoning it through to the Pentagon, who are able to recall all the nuclear bombers.

All except one. The plane nicknamed by its crew Leper Colony and captained by Captain ‘King’ Kong, a yee-hah Texan good ole boy, is attacked by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile as it crosses the border into Russia, which doesn’t destroy it, but knocks out its radio. Therefore it never gets the recall message. Therefore it proceeds to drop its nuclear payload on its target in Russia. Therefore the Doomsday Bomb is triggered creating a vast cloud of radiaoctive debris which will slowly encompass the earth wiping out all life on earth.

On the last few pages the hitherto minor character of Dr Strangelove, a German captured from the Nazi rocket programme who has been working for the Americans, outlines a plan to build fallout shelters in America’s deepest mineshafts, complete with food and air and water filter systems, where a select couple of hundred thousand humans can hide out for 100 years or so until it is safe to go back to the surface.

Thoughts

Comedy

Doesn’t sound that funny, does it, but the comedy emerges from the absurdity of each specific situation, and the logic of this absurdity pushes the characters into becoming larger and larger caricatures – General Ripper the deranged air force general, Buck Turgidson casually saying US casualties from the Russian reprisals will probably only be twenty million dead, thirty million tops, Captain Mandrake retaining his absurd British stiff upper lip even as he listens to General Ripper’s demented outpourings, and the redneck simplicity of Captain Kong, determined to go all the way, boys, and whose gung-ho, never-say-die spirit ends up exterminating the human race.

Comparing book and film

This book can’t help being completely overshadowed by the movie. Scenes and dialogue we know from the movie become clunky, less slick and funny, when transferred into George’s prose.

Some interest is given by spotting the differences between this text and the final movie, which were presumably added during production:

  • The army attack on Ripper’s air force base takes place during the night, in the book, but during daylight in the movie – maybe making it easier to see on film.
  • In the movie Mandrake is alerted to the fact that the Russkies have not attacked America (as Ripper claims) by finding a transistor radio which is merrily churning out pop songs – it is when he brings it to General Ripper that the general sinisterly locks the door and reaches for his handgun, effectively taking Mandrake prisoner and forcing him to listen to his demented ramblings – the book isn’t so sinister, with Ripper simply calling Mandrake to his office then, when he goes for a pee, Mandrake takes a phone call in which furious superiors shout down the phone that there is no Russian attack, and what the hell is the general playing at.
  • In the book, after his men have surrendered to the besieging force, General Ripper steps out into the corridor and disappears, Mandrake finding out later that he has flown off in his private airplane; the movie he steps into his office bathroom and blows his brains out, which is both more dramatic, more contained within the ‘set’ and so more claustrophobic, and more bleakly nihilistic.
  • In the book the character of Dr Strangelove only speaks at the end, with a brief discussion of his surreal proposal about saving the human race in mine shafts. In the movie he has dialogue from earlier on – presumably to introduce and build him up. Also in Peter Sellars’ brilliantly manic performance, Strangelove’s inability to control his artificial arm which gives impromptu Nazi salutes, is conveyed earlier, and through visual slapstick in a way the novel can’t do.
  • Finally, the book makes clear that there is going to be a 6 to 12 month delay before the whole world is wiped out, plenty of time to organise the mine shaft scenario – but the movie can’t end on this rather vague, long-term idea, and so the mineshaft discussion is moved to just before the Leper Colony bomb sets off the Doomsday machine, so that the film itself can end with footage of numerous nuclear bombs exploding, visually conveying the sense of complete apocalypse. Again, the movie ending is much tighter and more impactful.

Maybe I’m just more familiar with the movie, but where book and movie differ, the movie always seems to be smarter, funnier and more resonant.

Aliens

What is unique to the book, and may be the best thing about it, is the way it is bookended by an introduction and epilogue by supposed aliens, who, having arrived at a desolated Earth, try to piece together what has happened and have supposedly stumbled across a charred copy of this text. The text is presented as if published by these aliens as part of their series The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.

Logically, it doesn’t stand up – a written account of these events wouldn’t have been created in this format, or included detailed dialogue from a load of characters who all died e.g. the crew of Leper Colony – and you can see why the idea cluttered up the movie and so was dropped from the film version. But in the text it does work to give a brief, poignant and scary vision of a post-human world utterly destroyed by nuclear holocaust due to man’s stupidity and irrationality.

Movie trailer

Credit

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George was published by Bantam Books in 1963. All quotes and references are to the 2000 Prion Books paperback edition.

Related links

The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist pickled in gin or nicotine, or a cripple – or dead. (p.148)

28 chapters divided into two parts: 1. The Planning 2. The Execution.

Part one – The Planning (chapters 1 – 10)

The opening chapters introduce us to Donovan Grant, ‘Red’ Grant, a psychopath who loves killing. He discovered this as a violent young man in the countryside of Northern Ireland, graduating from going out at full moon to kill animals, to slitting the throats of tramps and vagrants, and then being employed for nefarious purposes by the local Sinn Fein.

Grant was sent off to do his National Service in Germany, where he promptly defected to the Russians who realised his special value, selected and trained him intensively to become a perfect killing machine, in fact Chief Executioner, for Bond’s nemesis, SMERSH, the execution department of what he calls the MGB (P.36). Now he is called Krassno Granitski, code name ‘Granit’.

Cut to the head of the SMERSH (Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov), known as ‘G’, P.39), the Head of Army Intelligence and a few other Soviet high-ups having a major conference. The Politburo is unhappy that Soviet intelligence has suffered recent setbacks (they mention a few recent examples, eg the unmasking of the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs). The Politburo has decided they must strike a decisive counter-blow against Western Intelligence. One by one, they go through the NATO countries, assessing their intelligence services, until they come to England.

Here there is some shameless jingoism as Fleming has Soviet Intelligence marvelling at how the English secret service punches so much above its weight, with operatives who are paid a pittance and get no special privileges.

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

Very reassuring. And comments which link Bond effortlessly back to the Public School adventurism of Kipling, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

So they agree to mount a high-profile attack on English Intelligence. But targeting who? Its head (M)? The public has never heard of him, he is secretive and well-protected, so it wouldn’t have much propaganda value. Well, what about his agent called Bond? Yes, he caused them a lot of trouble in the Le Chiffre affair, and breaking up the Mr Big network in America, and foiling the Drax plan. Yes. They will assassinate Bond to demoralise and humiliate Western intelligence.

The Head of the MGB calls in the head of SMERSH’s Directorate II (Operations and Executions) who turns out to be Rosa Klebb, a dumpy, frog-like woman (so memorably played by Lotte Lenya in the movie) and briefs her. We see her consulting with World Chess Champion and SMERSH strategist, Kronsteen (Head of the Planning Section of SMERSH, p.77), who is introduced to us in a taut scene at the climax of a major international chess game.

Then there is the scene where Klebb calls in Comrade Corporal Romanova, the stunningly beautiful and naive MGB operative who they are going to set up as the ‘honey trap’ for the well-known womaniser, Bond. In a gruesome twist, after Klebb has terrified the rather simple Romanova into submission, and instructed her for her mission, Klebb pops out of the room and reappears in ‘something more comfortable’, namely a see-through nighty, and lies on a couch, dimming the lights, expecting to seduce Romanova. Who obediently turns off the mina light, but then runs out the door and down the corridor.

In the final chapter of Part One, we see Klebb restored to full uniform and complete control, sparring with Kronsteen in SMERSH headquarters as they put the finishing touches to their plan. They choose Turkey as the location, since it is so close to the East, Bulgaria in particular. The girl will lure Bond with the promise of one of the Russians’ top secret Spektor coding machines. Grant will be despatched to carry out the assassination. They will have cameramen and writers ready to capture Bond’s humiliation and death, content they can then distribute via communist-controlled media (especially in France).

Part two – The Execution (chapters 11 – 28)

Bond is bored. It’s a year since his last assignment (Diamonds Are Forever).  It’s August in London, hot and muggy and half the office is on holiday. And, we learn, his romance with Tiffany Case has collapsed – she fell in love with an American Marine and went back to the States, leaving Bond to brood.

This allows Fleming to show us Bond at his most domestic, waking naked in bed, doing his morning exercises and, above all, having breakfast! It consists of: two large cups of very strong black coffee, no sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex coffee-maker; a single egg, boiled for three and a third minutes, served in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring at the top. It must be a fresh, speckled egg from the French Marans hens owned by a friend of his housekeeper, May’s, in the country. Two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter, and three jars of jam: Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade, Norwegian Heather honey from Fortnum’s. The coffee pot and the silver on the tray are Queen Anne. The china is the same dark blue and gold as the egg cup. (p.127)

Could anything be cosier?

The housekeeper who attends on him at the pull of the bell rope, the fussy breakfast, the morning paper just so – this snug and cosy portrait of moneyed bachelordom takes us back to the Edwardian age or before, to the reassuring Baker Street rooms of Holmes and Watson and their ever-loyal housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

M briefs Bond: Head of the Turkey station, Darko Kerim, has received the strangest approach from ‘the other side’. One Corporal Tatiana Romanova of the Russian Security Service made an appointment to meet him on the Bosphorus ferry and explained that she has fallen in love with Bond on the basis of his photos alone and wants to defect with a brand-new top-secret Spektor machine – but only on condition that Bond in person receives her. It’s so crazy it might actually be true, and so Bond packs his bags and takes a flight to Istanbul.

Flying to Istanbul

Just like previous plane journeys (from Florida to Jamaica in Live, across the Atlantic, then into Las Vegas in Diamonds) so Fleming gives a very detailed account of the whole procedure, the make of plane, the sound of the jets, the view out the window etc. And, just as in Live, the plane hits turbulence and Bond is genuinely afraid – his hands gripping the arm rests, his palms wet with fear (p.150).

Darko Kerim

After checking into an uncharacteristically seedy hotel in Istanbul, Bond is taken to meet the head of Station T, Darko Kerim, who he immediately warms to.

It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel, debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face. (p.160)

Kerim briefs him on the girl, the offer of the Spektor machine, and the general situation in Turkey. The ‘other side’ are up to something, but he can’t put his finger on what. Kerim tells him about his life, raised one of 15 children in a harem of women kept by the biggest strongest fisherman on the Black Sea. A spell as a circus strong man, when his father was contacted and paid by the English Head of Station T to report on Russian comings and goings. Darko was taken on the payroll and, with his extensive family and connections, ended up its head. Bond warms to him and his simple, unashamed enjoyment of life in primal, Balkan passions.

Spying on the Russians

Kerim takes Bond up a secret passageway, a huge water pipe built by the Byzantines, filled with thousands of rats and bats, along to beneath the Russian Embassy. Here his people have fixed up a submarine periscope which allows them to see into the main meeting room of the Russian Embassy though not, alas, to hear anything. Bond watches some obviously senior Soviets meeting and then the arrival of Tatiana Romanova, a tall, elegant, obviously ballet-trained blonde girl, who looks strikingly like Greta Garbo. The men look at her oddly, as if she is a prostitute. We know this is because they all know the plan, for her to lure Bond into a ‘honeypot’ trap, with her body. But Bond doesn’t know this; he thinks she is concealing the fact that she wants to defect and so is puzzled by the mingled lasciviousness and contempt he sees in the Russians’ faces.

Catfight at the gypsies’

That night Darko’s Rolls Royce collects Bond from his hotel and they motor to the outskirts of Istanbul, to a dingy open air cafe by a big walled orchard. This is the base of the gypsies who work for Darko. Bond is introduced as a friend to the leader, Vavra, given pride of place at the head of the table and forced to eat along with the others part of their feast, a very hot stew, to be eaten by hand, with bread to mop up and raki to wash down.

Turns out they’ve arrived at a bad moment: two young women have declared they’re in love with Vavra’s son, and will kill their rival. The son has been sent to the hills and now, after the group feast, bolts are drawn back and Bond gets to watch along with the others a ferocious, vicious catfight between two gypsy women, Zora and Vida, who start off only wearing rags, and soon tear these off to emerge naked, sweat gleaming on their breasts and rumps. Fleming knows how to write good pulp fiction.

Shootout at the gypsies’

And as if to prove it, right in the middle of the fight there’s a bang as a group pf Bulgarian assassins blow up the perimeter wall of the gypsies’ orchard and come streaming in, guns blazing. The women and children retreat into the trees while the men spring into action, Bond among them, saving Darko’s life at least twice, shooting dead several attackers in the massive fight, until a figure by the wall, their leader Krilencu, blows and whistle and calls a retreat. They hop onto the scooters they arrived on and are gone into the darkness.

The gypsies tend to their wounded, the women return. Darko thanks Bond who sweeps aside his gratitude and wants to know why they were attacked. The gypsies are torturing one of the surviving attackers, who said they had orders to kill Darko but very specifically leave Bond alone. He has the feeling he is a pawn in a bigger game. They make their thanks and apologies to Vavra and leave but not before the proud, stern-faced gypsy says that, by killing so well, he can have final decision about which one of the wildcat women lives and which one dies. Sickened by the slaughter, Bond insists they both survive, throwing in as primitive reasoning, that Vavra will need them to breed new sons for the tribe. Vavra is visibly displeased. Bond couldn’t care less.

The assassination of Krilencu

Immediately following the gypsy shooutout, Darko has Bond accompany him in his chauffeur-driven Rolls to another part of Istanbul, where they know they’ll find Krilencu at the apartment of his mistress. He’ll send in some of his sons masquerading as police and flush Krilencu out the secret escape hatch which he doesn’t know that Darko knows about. With added pulp macabre-ness, it is a vertical trap door in the side of a hoarding used for advertisements. As Darko positions himself and assembles his lightweight rifle, Bond tries to make sense of the events of the evening. At a signal Darko’s sons go into the building; a minute later the trapdoor in the wall opens and a figure drops to the sidewalk, crouches, turns to run and… Darko shoots him dead with one bullet. They pack the rifle away, and Darko drops Bond back at his hotel where, characteristically, he has a long shower to wash off the blood and horror of the day.

Tatiana Romanova

It is only as he approaches the bed that he realises someone is in it and hears a girlish giggle. It is the Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova, wearing only a black velvet choker. Fleming knows his S&M accessories. What is interesting in this scene – as in the one where Rosa Klebb briefed her – is Fleming’s attempts to see things through Tatiana’s eyes: we are privy to her thoughts as she struggles to follow her simple instructions (seduce Bond and persuade him to take the Orient Express back to London), with the ironic knowledge that she is only being used as a pawn to get Bond into a situation where he can be murdered by Red Grant.

It’s not exactly James Joyce or Virginia Woolf; but it’s the mere fact that Fleming’s trying to reproduce the girl’s consciousness (as he did, to some extent, with Tiffany Case in Diamonds) that is interesting.

While she tries to remember her lines, he tries to focus on the plausibility of her story and the feasibility of her plan to a) flee with the Spektor machine this very evening and b) flee aboard the Orient Express. The reader knows full well it is a trap; it’s pretty thick of Bond not to realise it, but then there would be no story.

Bond gets into bed with her, clasping her breast with its hard nipple, slipping his hand down over her tummy and watching her eyes flutter under the closed eyelids. The next morning Bond wonders whether he was too rough with her, bringing out the latent S&M feel of his sensualism. (There is a striking moment a few pages later, where he leans down to Tatiana in bed, seizes her by the hair and pulls her head fiercely back before kissing her ‘long and cruelly’ on the mouth, p.199). Meanwhile, as they move and writhe, Russian MGB operatives are filming it all on cine cameras pointing down through the two way mirror in this, the ‘honeymoon’, suite.

I am still liking Umberto Eco’s point about Fleming writing to the endoxa or received opinions of his readers. And thus Fleming goes the extra mile to make the men filming Bond make love not just clinical operatives, but dirty voyeuristic perverts, noting how:

the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces into their cheap collars. (p.186)

The Orient Express

It is the evening of the next day. We learn that Bond made love to Tatiana again, that morning, before she went off to work at the Embassy. Now he is in the Istanbul railway station waiting for her by the Orient Express, as she requested. Exactly as it begins to move she calls out from a window and he leaps aboard. Here a) he again tries to figure out whether Tatiana is telling the truth and b) we see inside Tatiana’s mind as she continues to parrot the lies she was instructed in by her SMERSH masters.

Kerim is on the train, waiting outside their sleeper compartment and they share a cigarette while Kerim points out three SMERSH agents are aboard the train. He says he’ll look after them, not killing them, but getting them thrown off. By bribing the conductor, he gets two thrown off the train but not the evil-looking ‘Herr Benz’. Kerim and Bond have further talks about the girl and pondering what’s really going on, the conversation which expands on the various types of ‘game’ they are playing, or which the narrative engages in (see note below).

Bond toys with getting off the train, with the girl and the Spektor machine but decides – dilettantishly, in Kerim’s view – to ‘play the game out to the end’. He is woken in the early hours by an alarmed conductor and taken to Kerim’s compartment. There is his friend, stabbed to death by ‘Benz’, but in his death throes, himself managing to clasp to his own body and stab his assassin. The two men’s bodies are interlocked in a gruesome death embrace.

At Thessaloniki, one of Kerim’s son’s greets them only to be told the horrible truth. There is an 8 hour waitover, so the son takes them to his flat, invites them to eat and drink the provisions laid on for them, while he makes sundry phone calls, and Bond looks out the window, smoking, full of remorse at getting his new-found friend into this plight and then killed, and still wondering whether to abandon the train.

He doesn’t and as they get back on the train at the crowded station he sees an obvious Englishman making for the train among the thronging crowds. It must be the ‘back-up’ M had suggested sending to help out, when Bond spoke to him on the phone from Kerim’s son’s apartment.

The over-dressed Englishman introduces himself as Norman Nash but we know it is Red Grant, the SMERSH assassin. He knows the correct passwords and has Service paraphernalia, but everything about him is fake and wrong. Bond wonders if he’s actually mad. He makes himself useful, is introduced to Tatiana, joins them for dinner, all as if acting a part, clumsily (which he, of course is).

At dinner he slips a sleeping draught into Tatiania’s wine, then, as she passes out, helps Bond get her back to the sleeper compartment. He says he’ll stay and keep first watch and Bond lies back on the lower bunk to sleep. In the middle of the night Grant kicks him awake with a new tone of authority in his voice. He announces he is a SMERSH agent, tasked with killing him. They’ll make it look like he murdered Tatiana, because she was blackmailing him with the tapes of them having sex, to take her to England – then killed himself. Left wing journalists in France will give the story front page coverage, causing maximum embarrassment to his Service and country. Also the Spektor device is booby-trapped to kill Service scientists. Quite a tidy little package, eh, old man. All the time Bond has been desperately cooking up a plan, asking to be allowed to smoke a cigarette then concealing the cigarette case inside the cover of his (Eric Ambler) paperback so that – when the climactic moment comes, just as the train enters the Simplon Tunnel, Bond moves the book and case over his heart just as Grant fires.

He falls to the floor of the compartment as if shot, close to the case he’s carried all over Europe, complete with a few fancy tricks supplied by Q Department, including razor sharp knives which can be extracted from its base. He waits till Grant has both feet on the bunk above him, and is preparing to shoot the sleeping Tatiania, when Bond suddenly corkscrews upwards, plunging the dagger deep into Grant’s groin then pushing more. But Grant in his death throes falls, grabs Bond’s ankles and starts pulling him off the bunk preparatory to strangling him. Desperately Bond scrabbles for Grant’s gun, turns it towards him and fires the gun five times. There is a horrible gurgling noise then Grant’s body collapses to the floor.

After some time to recover, Bond sets about tidying up the compartment using his sheets to soak up the blood which covers it like an abattoir. He finally wakes Tatiania in time for Dijon, where they finally leave the train, after four nightmare-ish days putting his feet on blessedly solid unmoving ground.

Coda

Grant had mentioned  his rendezvous with the mastermind of the conspiracy, Rosa Klebb, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the next day. Instead – having contacted his friend Mathis from the French Deuxième Bureau to a) look after Tatiana b) despatch the booby-trapped Spektor case to London – Bond keeps the appointment.

Klebb is disguised as a wizened old crone, clacking away at her knitting in a luxury suite. She keeps up the pretence while Bond declares who he is. Her hand goes to a bell pull and only some instinct makes Bond leap sideways out of the chair as a hidden gun shoots holes in the chair. And then she is on him with the knitting needles which, Bond realises, have poisoned tips. He kicks one out of her hands then grabs a luxury Empire-era chair and corrals her body in it pushing it back up against the wall. At which point Mathis enters with two assistants carrying a large laundry basket. Klebb will be drugged and flown to England and interrogated. But just as Bond slackens the chair to let the men get to her she lashes out with the poisoned tip of her shoe and stabs Bond in the calf. The poison works in seconds, Bond going numb and cold from the legs up, before crashing unconscious onto the rich, red, carpeted floor.


Good food

Bond/Fleming loves his food and conveys his enjoyment and relish very vividly.

  • In his hotel in Istanbul, looking out over one of the most famous views in the world: thick creamy yoghurt in a blue china bowl, ripe, ready-peeled green figs and jet black Turkish coffee (p.157).
  • With Kerim in the market: sardines en papillote and raki (p.136), followed by kebab tasting of smoked bacon fat and onions along with Kavaklidere, a rich coarse Balkan red wine (p.180). Bond, for once, is not impressed.
  • At the gypsy camp Bond eats along with everyone else a greasy ragout with bread and raki. Peasant food.

The Turks

Bond is surprisingly dismissive of the Turkish people.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibiliants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. They were bright, angry, cruel eyes that had only lately come down from the mountains. Bond thought he knew the history of those eyes. they were eyes that had been trained for centuries to watch over sheep and decipher small movements on far horizons. They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant’s fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn’t take to them. (p.153)

He has Darko, son of a Turkish fisherman and an English mother, be very dismissive of his fellow Turks in a whole stream of comments condemning their dirtiness and their poor, peasant cuisine. As soon as his hoteliers discover Bond is a guest of Effendi Kerim they pack his things and move him into the best room in the place – the so-called ‘Honeymoon suite’ – bending low and apologising. Bond is sickened by their grovelling subservience (p.171). The more he sees of the generality of Turks, the more he thinks of them as ‘this country of furtive, stunted little men’ (p.173).

Later, as he accompanies Darko to the alley where they will assassinate Krilencu, Bond is overcome by repulsion at Istanbul.

From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were the only population. His instinct told him, as it has told other travellers, that Istanbul was a town he would be glad to get out of alive. (p.220)

Even as they prepare to catch the Orient Express out of town, Fleming has time to say how much he dislikes the main Istanbul railway station.

The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. (p.241)

Finally, as the Orient Express enters italy with the promise of France ahead, Bond is hugely relieved to be ‘among friendly people, away from the furtive lands’ (p.283).

Everyone and their cat can accuse Fleming of sexism, racism and the other -isms, nothing easier. Odd that you don’t often read about the pretty solid anti-Turkism which runs throughout this book.

Naked

Bond routinely is naked, highlighting his sensuous self-awareness. He gets out of bed naked (p.123); on returning from the trip through the sewers to spy on the Russians Bond returns to his hotel, has a hot bath and a cold shower and sits naked sipping a vodka and tonic and enjoying sunset over the Bosphorus (p.193); at the end of the adventurous night with the gypsies Bond returns to the hotel room and enjoys the feel of the night breeze on his naked body (p.229).

Gadgets

The movies make ‘Q’ into a character, a grump old grey-haired inventor who provides Bond with nifty gadgets. In the books there is no ‘Q’, there is a Q branch which manages technical matters, for example they supervie the skin graft on Bond’s right hand which takes place between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die. This is the first book where they provide anything like a gadget, namely a hand-carried attaché case which contains: two flat rows of 25 bullets packed between lining and case; in each side a flat throwing knife made by Wilkinson; a hidden compartment in the handle which, at the press of a button, would deliver a cyanide pill into Bond’s hand; containing a thick tube of Palmolive shaving cream which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta hand-gun; and a belt of 50 gold sovereigns slipped into the upper lining (p.145).

Play the game

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

According to tradition, the Public School ethos taught its pupils to ‘play up, play up, and play the game.’ As we all know, the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in central Asia in the last decades of the 19th century was known as The Great Game. It was the background to Rudyard Kipling’s most successful novel, Kim set in India. And throughout the Great War and then all the Imperial conflicts of the 1920s, 30s and the second war, upper class Brits were taught to ‘play the game’, the archetypal Imperial game, of course, being cricket.

It comes as no great surprise, then, to report the importance of ‘the game’, of ‘game playing’, in the Bond books. It could hardly be more obvious when the first novel in the series entirely rotates around a complicated card game, which requires the author to explain its rules in great detail along with the odds and how to gamble on it. Similarly, Moonraker‘s first part is devoted to a long and detailed exposition of a game of bridge which Bond rigs to win and humiliate his opponent, Hugo Drax. Similarly, Live and Let Die features a short but powerful scene at a gambling table in Las Vegas which again requires the author giving a detailed explanation of the game and its rules.

So it is blindingly obvious that games are central to the Bond novels. And it is only a small step up to notice that Bond conceives of each assignment as a ‘game’. When the downmarket hotel he’s checked into unexpectedly bump him up to the best room in the place, Bond reflects they might be deferring to his acquaintance with Darko Kerim. Or maybe there’s something more behind it.

Bond decided not to care if there was. The game, whatever it was, had to be played out. If the change of rooms had been the opening gambit, so much the better. The game had to begin somewhere. (p.173)

And so, 70 pages later, once Tatiana has persuaded him to take her aboard the Orient Express but Bond is trying to assess whether she’s telling the truth or not,

Bond calmly admitted to himself that he had an insane desire to play the game out and see what it was all about. (p.258)

It is this devil-may-care whimsicality, this seeing the whole Cold War struggle as a kind of extended game of cricket, which sets the British apart from the Americans or the Russians, making them sometimes – in the spy novels of Le Carré or Deighton – seem laughable and absurdly amateurish; but in the Jingoistic lineage of John Buchan or James Bond, it is what gives our playboy heroes their effortless superiority.

He reflected briefly on the way the Russians ran their centres – with all the money and equipment in the world, while the Secret Service put against them a handful of adventurers, underpaid men, like this one, with his second-hand Rolls and his children to help him. (p.198)

The game-playing rhetoric becomes a little more interesting in chapter 23 in an extended conversation with Kerim. Kerim points out the way M and Bond are both alike in being gamblers; they are taking a risk on the girl and her story and are interested to find out what the game is about. Kerim contrasts their English adventurism with the Russian game, chess, which the Russians play with ruthless professionalism:

These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for. They are foreseen and countered. (p.271)

This of course reminds us of the scenes in Part One featuring Kronsteen, Russian world champion chess player who is also head of planning for SMERSH, and who we see planning with Rosa Klebb every detail of the conspiracy to murder Bond. Bond says: ‘All I ask is to go on with the game until we find out.’ But Kerim counters with his own position. ‘I was not brought up “to be a sport”‘, he says sarcastically about the well-known English addiction to playing with a straight bat etc.

‘This is not a game to me. This is business.’ (p.273)

And we have seen how well-organised Kerim’s operation, and how it extends to sons and nephews; it really is a business. Now he makes a further analogy. Bond is playing the game as if it was a game of billiards. He has hit the white ball with perfect accuracy at the red which will, with complete inevitability, go into the pocket. But what if an airplace crashes on the billiard hall or a gas main blows it up. All the rules of billiards continue to be true, but they are destroyed by the broader context. Thus Bond’s silly game playing – his childish wish to play things out and see what happens – is trumped by the complexity of the real world – by the infinite multiplicity of other games which overlap, impinge on and trump the small, neat, logical one Bond thinks he’s playing.


Bond biographical details

Each book tells us a little more. Bond is six feet tall (p.159). We learn that Bond’s flat is not just off the King’s Road, it is in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road (p.123). His Scottish housekeeper, May, can never bring herself to say ‘sir’, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to the end of her sentences. The only newspaper Bond reads is The Times. (p.124)

The early section has the MGB officials reading out Bond’s full file, which includes the facts that he commenced work with the Service in 1938 and was awarded the CMG in 1953 (p.68).

In Diamonds Bond told Tiffany he was in effect ‘married’ to his boss, M. Here, he sits in M’s office and looks across ‘at the tranquil, lined sailor’s face that he loved, honoured and obeyed’ (p.134).

Interestingly, on the flight to Istanbul Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios, often thought of as the best of Eric Ambler’s pre-war thrillers (p.144 and p.302) and which is set, or at least starts off, in Turkey.

We learn that the Service debriefs enemy agents at a secluded house nicknamed ‘the Cage’, near Guildford (p.269).


Credit

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming was published in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1957

The Bond novels

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

Moonraker by Ian Fleming (1955)

Moonraker is divided into 25 chapters, themselves grouped into three fast-moving parts:

  1. Monday (chapters 1 – 7)
  2. Tuesday-Wednesday (chapters 8-17)
  3. Thursday-Friday (chapters 18-25)

The tight time-frame and the solely English locations (London, the Drax rocket firing complex on the Kent coast, and the roads between) make this feel like a very domestic adventure. Fleming’s Othello.

Sir Hugo Drax

Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Mr Big in Live and Let Die, now Hugo Drax – in each novel Bond is up against an evil criminal mastermind. More interestingly, each one traces their origins to the Second World War: Le Chiffre was an unnamed inmate of Dachau Displaced Persons camp at the end of the war; Mr Big served with US Special Forces during the war; Drax was one among many men injured in the blowing-up of an Allied hospital by German commandos in 1945. Amnesiac, he responded to the name Hugo Drax when shown it, and has officially used that name since.

So, all three are baddies with made-up names. And like the other two, Drax is also physically big, with exceptionally broad shoulders, big hands, a prognathous jaw with protruding teeth, and one eye larger than the other as a result of imperfect plastic surgery after the wartime bomb. Like the others, physically intimidating, and mishapenly ugly. ‘A bullying, boorish, loud-mouthed vulgarian’ (p.32)

Drax’s rise has been phenomenal. In just five years he made himself a multi-millionaire by cornering the market in various rare metals and commodities. Then returned to London in 1950 and began leading a high-profile playboy lifestyle, combining clubs, cards, horses, gambling, with charitable donations to hospitals, orphanages etc. Not a week went by without him appearing in the tabloids and he has become the People’s Darling, ‘Hugger’ Drax. In his most recent coup, he wrote to the new Queen (crowned in 1953) directly, offering the funding to design and build an atomic-powered missile which would secure Britain’s defences. Now, a year later, it is built and ready to be tested, the so-called ‘Moonraker’ rocket.

Part 1. Monday

But M plays cards with Drax at his very exclusive London club, Blades, and has noticed that Drax cheats at bridge. Would Bond mind coming along today, Monday, night, to have a first class dinner then make a pair to play Drax and his partner, Meyer, to confirm whether he is cheating, and maybe somehow warn him off. ‘We don’t want a scene, old boy; just to persuade him to be sensible.’

So we are treated to a luxurious description of Bond a) showering and preparing for a smart night out b) driving in his Bentley to Blades in St James’s c) joining M for dinner, and then i) Bond’s impression of meeting Drax in the flesh – described as a big, hairy, powerful, intimidating, bantering monster ii) of Bond watching Drax play bridge and realising how he is cheating – by dealing over his shiny silver cigarette case in whose reflection he momentarily sees each card he is dealing.

M explains the technique to the chairman of Blades, Lord Basildon, who is appalled at the scene and possible law suits which will follow any formal reprimand. Bond promises to save the day by beating Drax at his own game. Cue a sophisticated and amusing game of bridge, during which Bond pretends to get drunker and drunker before pulling his coup – namely using a sleight-of-hand to replace an entire deck of cards, just before it is due to be dealt, with one he has carefully prepared beforehand. This doctored set makes that Drax think he has an unbeatable hand lures him into gambling massive stakes, which Bond doubles and redoubles. (The novel includes a diagram of the four hands held by all the players and carefully explains how the deceit works.) Drax is humiliatingly defeated, left owing some £15,000 (p.57) – a colossal sum in 1955 – and furiously storms out of the club.

M and Basildon congratulate Bond who is exhilirated (and pleased to be suddenly fabulously rich) but eventually comes down off his benzedrine high, heading home to pass out.

Part 2. Tuesday-Wednesday

The next morning Bond has barely sloped into the office at the regulation hour of 10am (!) before M calls him upstairs. During their game last night, there was trouble at the Drax rocket complex near Dover. At the pub the workers are allowed to frequent, one of them drew a pistol, accused the Ministry of Supply’s security man at the complex – Major Tallon – of seducing his girlfriend, shot him dead, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

M has pulled a lot of strings to have Bond himself recommended as the replacement security man at the complex. The reader just has to swallow the massive improbability:

a) that Bond could be deployed even though MI6 have no jurisdiction within the UK and so, apparently, deploying Bond internally had to be signed off in person by the Prime Minister (p.100)
b) that Special Branch or MI5 would accept this
c) that Drax himself, humiliated beyond belief in front of London society just a few hours previously, would accept his humiliator into his operation as a key member of personnel

Bond is briefed by Assistant Commissioner Vallant of Scotland Yard on what happened in the pub, along with profiles of the murdered security man and the murderer/suicide, as well as a profile of Vallant’s operative at the base, a woman agent called Gala Brand, a Special Branch officer working undercover as Drax’s personal assistant. This is followed by a crash course on rocket engineering from Professor Train, ‘one of the greatest experts on guided missiles in the world’ (p.71), all gyroscopes, telemetry and Kepler ellipses.

So Bond motors down to the complex on the Kent coast, meets Drax and both of them agree to forget about the previous night while Drax gives him (and the reader) an extended tour of the facilities. We meet the 50 or so all-German rocket specialists, note along with Bond that they all have shaven heads but sport individual and odd moustaches (p.88) We meet Drax’s chief scientist, Dr Walter, along with his creepy ADC, Willy Krebs (p.79) – caricatures of a mad scientist and Peter Lorre, standing next to the red-haired ogre-ish figure of Drax.

And we meet the beautiful (and bosomy) Gala Brand, all tight lips and professionalism (p.81). The reader wonders how long that will last. Then we stand in the rocket silo looking at the immense fifty-yard-tall sleek silver Moonraker rocket, the rocket which will ensure ‘peace in our time’ by providing Britain with a perfect defence system.

In the early hours Bond breaks into the filing cabinet in the dead Major Tallon’s rooms and discovers security files on all 50 of the complex’s staff. a) They are all German b) they all have perfect records, far too clean and impeccable. He also finds an Admiralty map of the sea around Dover, with lines pressed into it converging on a point not very far offshore, and Tallon’s binoculars on the window ledge. Did Tallon climb up on the roof to get a sight of something unexplained offshore? What?

Next morning Drax suggests Bond and Gala go along the shoreline to check the exhaust vents for security. (The Moonraker rocket has been assembled in an underground silo built next to the white cliffs a little north of Dover. The idea is that, when it takes off, the flame from the rockets will thrust down into the silo, and be vented sideways through exhaust holes built into the side of the cliffs.) Bond and Gala take what is in effect a holiday stroll along the pebbles and sand at the foot of the cliffs, with the tide out, on a lovely sunny May day. So much so that Bond persuades her to strip off to her underwear (p.116) and they go skinny-dipping in the sea (God, it must have been freeeezing cold!).

He cheekily surges up out of the water to put his arms round her and kiss her, much to her mixed feelings, before scooting off to scan the defences from seaward, thinking seriously about security, and then finding a lobster in a shallow pool, which he shows her. Eventually they end up, salty and happy, lying against the foot of the cliffs. Which is when there is a detonation and a huge slab of the top of the cliffs come plummeting down on top of them. When Bond regains consciousness he is lying on top of Gala – who he had moved quickly to cover and protect with his own body – badly cut and bruised but still alive, and just about able to move his right arm, everything else pinned under fallen rock. With this he eventually makes a breathing space and then an escape hole and, after some time, scoops and burrows and tunnels their way free. They were saved by being so close to the cliff bottom. The really big blocks of chalk which would have squashed them flat fell further out; they were just pinned by smaller rubble.

Dazed, cut and bleeding and bruised, they both throw up, then bathe in the sea, struggle back into the clothes they’d left further down the beach, back up paths to the cliff-top and motor to a nearby pub where they freshen up and eat. Later that night, when they arrive back at the complex, flash their security passes, park the Bentley, then enter the main house in the complex, they find Drax, Krebs and Walter merrily laughing and drinking over dinner. There is a cartoon moment of astonishment as they walk in, all three baddies pausing with forks half way to their mouths. Then Drax is on his feet and full of concern. Amazingly, there is still doubt in Bond’s mind about whether they are trying to kill him, but he goes to bed (after a long bath and self-treatment with antiseptics for the cuts) realising that Drax’s table was only set for three. They weren’t expecting them. Drax tried to kill them. But why? He is the nation’s saviour, a patriotic hero. He is clearly utterly devoted to the Moonraker project. And Bond is on his side. So what possible threat can he be?

Part 3. Thursday-Friday

The threat becomes shockingly clear the next day when Drax drives up to London with Gala and Krebs; he has to make a final presentation to Government Ministers before the launch on Friday. All this time Gala has been instructed to take a daily record of the firing figures, ranges and aims, to pass on to Drax. She has become aware that soon after she does this, Krebs goes into a private meeting with Drax and discusses a completely different set of figures. On the car journey up to London, Gala in the passenger seat casually plumps her overcoat down next to Drax, and waits for the right moment to pick his pocket of the notebook which he is never without. She then makes a girly plea to stop at the nearest pub so she can have a pee. In the ladies’ room she reads Drax’s notebook and the horrible truth dawns.

All the trajectories and figures have been altered by 90 degrees, making the target zone for the Moonraker’s first flight from Dover, not the wide open wastes of the North Sea, but…. London! In a flash she realises the entire Moonraker is a dastardly enemy plan to bomb London and with a nose not full of measuring instruments but… an atomic bomb! In a horrible vision she sees London reduced to an atomic waste and herself just one of many million blackened charred potato crisps which used to be human beings (p.137).

Back in the car she tries to slip the notebook back into Drax’s pocket but is caught by Krebs, who has been watching from the back seat. He shows Drax what she has been doing. Well, well, well. They knock her unconscious and drive on to London. Here they park at Drax’s flat in Ebury Street, just west of Buckingham Palace. When Gala regains consciousness it is in a room full of radio transmitters and generators. She realises with horror that this is the homing signal the Moonraker will be aimed at. An atomic bomb going off here, in the heart of London, the casualties will be in the millions! Drax is out meeting British officials which gives Krebs the opportunity to interrogate her, then unbutton her blouse and torture her in undescribed but typically sadistic Fleming style.

Meanwhile, Bond has also motored back to London to report to M, and then await Gala for dinner in Regents Street. When she doesn’t appear, he rings Vallance who says she has also failed to appear for her meeting with him. Worried, Bond motors over to Blades, to find Drax’s Mercedes parked outside. Soon Drax gets into it and Bond tails him back to the house in Ebury Street, parks, walks round the corner in time to see the two men carrying an unconscious-looking body into the Mercedes. So he jumps back into the Bentley and there begins a car chase from Ebury Street, London, to Dover, down empty night-time A roads. Fleming lets rip with his fondness for fast cars and the sheer pleasure of driving very fast. Both cars seem to hit 90 miles an hour; weren’t there speed limits in those days?

Outside Maidstone, a fast sports car – an Alfa-Romeo supercharged straight-eight – comes up outside Bond with his lights off as a kind of joke. Bond watches the prankster drive by him and pull the same trick on Drax. Only Krebs has realised that they are being followed and told Drax, and when a fast car with bright lights appears just by them, Drax rams it off the road where it goes flying and spinning and Bond watches the driver – no seatbelt or other protection – hurtled spread-eagled to his death (p.149). Now Bond (rather late in the day, you might think) is confirmed in his enmity. He is dealing with a killer.

Bond is still in hot pursuit as Drax comes up behind one of Bowaters’ huge eight-wheeled AEC Diesel carriers carrying 14 tons of rolled newsprint. In a daring stunt Drax pulls up alongside it while his creature, Krebs, jumps onto the back and uses a knife to cut through the restraining ropes. Enormous rolls of paper as huge and hard as boulders roll off the back and fill the A road just as Bond turns the corner. Crash. Drax drives back to recover Bond’s body, thrown clear, bloodied but unconscious. (His Bentley comes in for nearly as much punishment as Bond, having been written off in Casino Royale and now again, here.)

They chuck Bond in the back with the girl and drive on to the complex, where Krebs takes them at gunpoint into Drax’s office. Here they are both tied securely to chairs with copper wire. (Bond was tied to a chair and tortured in Casino Royale, then tied to a chair and tortured – had his little finger deliberately broken – in Live and Let Die.) Now Krebs lights a blowtorch and comes to sit very close to Gala, as Drax begins his interrogation. Wisely, Bond tells him everything and a disappointed Krebs puts the blowtorch back on the table.

In chapter 22 Drax does what all cartoon baddies want to do, which is explain his complete life story and motivation to Bond. Yes, he is a German, a fanatical Nazi. He and his team had planted a bomb at the Allied hospital in captured British Army uniforms when he was strafed by an aircraft from his own side, picked up and taken to the hospital for treatment which promptly blew up. In the rubble he agreed his identity was this ‘Hugo Drax’ and allowed himself to be healed and processed by the Allies just as the war ended. Returning to England he murdered a Jew and used his money to start trading in rare commodities abroad. After making a fortune he returned to England and deluded the poor, stupid, snobbish British into believing he was a world-beating patriot. Then came the idea of building a rocket to destroy London; he was helped by Allies who were employing German scientists in West Germany, and building the missile was fairly easy. But – he reveals – the nuclear warhead was supplied by the Russians who delivered it by submarine to the complex’s channel jetty. This is what Tallon saw, which is why he had to be eliminated.

And now he is poised on the edge of triumph and huge revenge for the Reich and his fallen Fatherland. Bond goads him into a fury and Drax beats him almost unconscious before leaving, announcing that this office and they will be incinerated tomorrow (Friday) when the Moonraker is launched. Bond provoked him because he wanted him to forget about his cigarette lighter. In a precarious feat, Bond inches his chair over to the table, pumps the blowtorch handle with his teeth, then picks up the lighter with his teeth, rasps the flint and ignites the blowtorch. Not without burning his nose and forehead. Again using his teeth he directs it at the copper wire restraining Gala’s hands, unavoidably burning her, too (p.166). But once she is free, she releases them both and they have a shower in the bathroom adjoining Drax’s office.

What now? Bond can see no other way than that he should somehow ignite the fuel in the rocket and blow it up. And himself. But Gala has a better plan. She has been taking down the gyro readings and map bearings for a year. Why not switch the gyro bearings on the Moonraker back to make it actually fly towards its intended destination in the middle of the North Sea?

Agreed. But first they must hide from Drax’s goons. They make a fake rope and dangle it down one of the escape chutes, but then climb up into one of the 50 or so air vents. (The exact layout of the missile silo and adjoining office is quite hard to visualise). Hours later Drax, Walter and Krebs appear to make the final corrections to the missile and suddenly notice Bond and Gala’s absence.

Much shouting and ordering of search parties, then Drax tells his men to use the steam pump to scour each of the vents. Gala and Bond brace themselves, covering as much of their skin as possible, using shirts and clothing, and they hear it getting closer and closer until a burst of scalding steam floods them for a few agonising seconds, then moves on to the next vent, leaving their bodies tingling in agony and blisters beginning to form all over their skin (p.174).

Soon the men have gone because the time for the historic launch is coming and Drax must go to meet government officials. A huge crowd of adoring public has turned out and the BBC are broadcasting live. Bond and Gala slip back down the concrete exhaust vent (further cutting themselves on exposed steel rods). Now comes the heroic part. Bond climbs up the gantry to the nose cone of the rocket and redirects its gyros and technical gismos so it will not target London but fly into the North Sea. He re-attaches all the wires, reseals the nose cone -shinnies down – patience, patience – then joins Gala in Drax’s stainless steel, sealed office. Here they lock all the doors and themselves in the shower and turn the water on and block their ears with soap against the blast, but the narrative very excitingly gives us the countdown from Ten, while Bond and Gala try to control their fear and panic. Then there is the loudest explosion ever, a devastating roar, the shower water turns burning hot, the world shakes and they pass out.

Moments later they regain consciousness on the floor – they are still alive! – and then scrabble for the radio. It is via the radio – in best rattling yarn style – that they hear the BBC announcer describe the lift-off of the Moonraker and its rapid disappearance into the clear blue sky. To everyone’s surprise a submarine has surfaced by the jetty and is taking the German workers on board, presumably to take them to the target sight (we know it is the Russian submarine come to take away the Germans) and Drax – after a violent and vengeful speech which confuses the BBC man, also takes the lift to the jetty and boards the submarine.

Cut to another BBC announcer near the test site who describes a) the approach of the submarine, whose presence has got the Royal Navy puzzled, it seems to be steaming directly into the target area (we know this is because Drax thinks this is the safest place to be); and b) then describes the instantaneous arrival of the Moonraker missile and a colossal explosion at the test site, causing the beginning of a mushroom cloud and an enormous tidal wave which rushes towards him, ‘Oh my God!’ and – … the transmission is cut off (p.181).

Epilogue

Chapter 25 cuts to Bond, heavily bandaged, using a cane and in great pain, back in M’s office where this whole affair began so innocently just 5 days earlier. The Russian sub carrying the Germans and Drax was vaporised. But so were several Royal Navy ships, and the BBC announcer’s vessel, and the coastal defences of Holland were breached. M explains there will be the mother of all cover-ups, and we and Bond listen as he works through the improbable details. Then M takes a phone call in his office and Bond listens while he says Yes sir, No sir, Thank you very much sir etc. It is, of course, the Prime Minister phoning in person to thank him and convey his thanks to Bond.

M then tells Bond he and Gala are to get out of the country for at least a month, so they’re not linked to the calamity and help the Press put two and two together. Down on the eighth floor, in his office, is the present of a new Beretta pistol and the keys to a brand new 1953 Bentley Mark VI. Bond tells the test driver to have it delivered to the Dover docks where he’ll collect it. His next appointment is to meet Gala in St James’s Park. He is already imagining in detail the romantic trip he’ll take with her from Calais down to the Loire and then heading south, exploring beautiful little French villages during the day and each others’ bodies at night.

However, she turns up at the rendezvous (opposite the island in St James’s Park) with her fiancé. They’re getting married tomorrow. Bond forces a smile, congratulates her, shakes her hand. Then walks away with no smile in his cold grey-blue eyes.


Thoughts

The first two novels had pulp elements but there was lots in them which felt authentic, had grit and traction – the epic game of baccarat, swimming off the coast of France, Vesper’s tragic dilemma; the New York skyscape, the clubs of Harlem, the scenery of Jamaica, the underwater odyssey out to Surprise Isle.

From start to finish Moonraker feels more preposterous than its predecessors. The whole one-man-builds-a-ballistic-missile-for-a-grateful-nation storyline doesn’t persuade. The entire scientific staff made up of Germans with silly moustaches is, well, silly. The ogre Drax, with his henchman Warner and the repellent creature Krebs are – as Fleming himself acknowledges – caricatures. The schoolboy mentality comes out in an overt comment Bond makes to Gala as they discuss his plan to ignite the rocket in the silo, thus saving London but himself being blown to smithereens.

‘The boy stood on the burning deck. I’ve wanted to copy him since I was five.’ Bond (p.169)

The combination of absurdly over-the-top stakes (London being obliterated; the Prime Minister giving personal permission and then personal thanks to our hero), along with shiny rockets and secret bases, has more in common with the cartoon tone of the movies, which are on a uniformly dumbed-down, adolescent level, than the sometimes more penetrating texts. It feels like the gateway to stupid.

Almost the only part of the novel which had, I thought, any real feeling, were the last few pages in which Bond sketched out a realistic motoring tour of rural France, and then had his fantasies crushed by the announcement of Gala’s marriage. These had a genuine note of bitterness.


Bond’s biography

Bond’s office is on the 8th floor of the Secret Service building overlooking Regents Park. He has a beautiful secretary, ‘Lil’ (Loelia Ponsonby) a County and Kensington gel. (We learn that her biological clock is ticking and she needs to decide whether to take a Service husband, whether to quit altogether to marry someone in a sensible job, or – as seems to be happening – to stay on, becoming a spinster, ‘married to the job’).

We get a physical overview of Bond in chapter 4:

And what would a casual observer think of him, ‘Commander James Bond, GMG, RNVSR’, also ‘something at the Ministry of Defence’, the rather saturnine young man in his middle thirties sitting opposite the Admiral? Something a bit cold and dangerous in that face. Looks pretty fit. May have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work. Tough-looking customer. (p.28)

Later on Fleming takes us inside the mind of Gala Brand as she muses about the arrogant young Secret Service man who’s just arrived at the base. She notes the comma of black hair falling over the right eye, and compares him to the popular entertainer Hoagy Carmichael (p.100), but with a cruel mouth and cold eyes.

We learn that only three men in the Service have earned the double 00 prefix to their Service numbers (‘the only three men in the Service whose duties included assassination’):

  • 008 (‘Bill’), just escaped from the Eastern bloc
  • o11, missing in Singapore

For the first time we hear about the elderly Scottish housekeeper, May, who looks after Bond’s small but comfortable flat off King’s Road, Chelsea (p.10). He tells us that agents are taken off field work at age 45, and that he has 8 years left to go, making Bond 37 years old.

When M invites him to his club, Blades, we learn that his full title is Admiral Sir M- M-, and that his first name is Miles (p.35).

Bond’s food

For lunch in the MI6 canteen Bond has a grilled sole, a large mixed salad with his own dressing laced with mustard, some Brie cheese and toast and half a carafe of white Bordeaux (p.22).

The dinner at Blades is a set piece: Bond has smoked salmon, lamb cutlets with peas and new potatoes, asparagus with Béarnaise sauce, and a slice of pineapple for dessert; M has caviar, devilled kidney and bacon, peas and new potatoes, with strawberries in kirsch for dessert (p.37). The waiter suggests a marrow bone as a special treat. Bond shows M his habit of scattering a little black pepper on the ice-cold vodka to sink to the bottom any impure residues (p.39)

Breakfast at a diner in Dover – scrambled eggs, bacon and plenty of coffee (p.96).

Recovering from being half-buried by chalk under the Dover cliffs, Bond and Gala go to the Granville hotel for a bath and freshen up, before drinking brandies-and-sodas followed by delicious fried soles and Welsh rarebit and coffee (p.124). The recommended dinner for after you’ve been buried in a landfall.


Credit

Moonraker by Ian Fleming was published in 1955 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1989 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1955

The Bond novels

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

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)

My feeling that the characters and institutions in this novel are almost surreally perfect, that all the soldiers, police, Special Branch, secret agents, intelligence operatives, forensic scientists, nuclear advisers, Customs & Excise officials perform their duty with exemplary efficiency, like the Photoshopped figures in a government recruitment poster – was crystallised when our hero catches the 9.25 train from St Pancras to Sheffield and it not only leaves on time but stops at each station stop along the way bang on time. Not in the real world, not in the Britain I live in, and not in the Britain of the 1980s, it wouldn’t have.

As I noted in my review of The Devil’s Alternative, Forsyth’s novels are supremely confident in tackling high-level, diplomatic and geopolitical subjects and stuffed full of a high-end journalist’s obsession with organisational and administrative detail. But the way all the officials behave impeccably, the police, army, agents are all epitomes, exemplars and models of their type, gives the whole story a plastic, unreal feel. So many of the humans mentioned in the plot are wafer-thin, Action Man figurines who perform their function in the clockwork plot like automata.

Short plot summary

Set in what was then the future – 1987 – the Russians hatch a plan, Operation Aurora, to discredit the current Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and secure the election of a Labour government. The plan is based on the premise – described in great detail (pp.60-74 and pp.94-104) – that the Labour Party has been penetrated at all levels by hard-core Marxist-Leninists who, once the Party is elected, will promptly overthrow the Labour leader and institute a communist government. This government will immediately withdraw from NATO, the EEC, expel all American troops along with their Cruise missiles, and declare unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this will weaken the Western world so that the Russians can, er, will be able to, er… well, that much isn’t defined. It is just stated that the above policies will ‘fatally weaken’ the West and so are devoutly to be wished for by Moscow.

As to the specifics of the plan, the KGB send their best man, Valeri Petrofsky, to adopt the ‘legend’ (ie clean identity) of James Ross and rent an inconspicuous house in Ipswich. 10 couriers will be sent via different routes to meet him at various locations around England. Each will deliver (unknown to themselves) the components of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb. The eleventh man, Vassiliev, will be a weapons expert who assembles the device. Then Petrofsky will detonate it at a US air base in Suffolk, devastating the base and local area. Moscow will publish warnings it has sent the US about the recklessness of using small and unstable nukes, along with technical information designed to blame the Americans’ recklessness for the ‘accident’.

It is this disastrous ‘accident’ which will prompt revulsion against the pro-American, pro-nuke Mrs Thatcher and cause a last-minute swing in the electorate in favour of Labour with its strong anti-nuclear policy, leading to the election of a Labour government and to the communist coup described above. When Mrs Thatcher (for she is named in the novel) announces a snap election for June 1987, the plan kicks into action and the clock starts ticking…

1. Kim Philby Rather amazingly, the real-life character of Kim Philby plays a large part in the first half of the book. We meet him miserable and disillusioned in his Moscow flat, married with young kids but still a respected member of the KGB establishment. To his surprise he is called to a meeting with the old and sick General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who requests a detailed summary of the political situation in Britain. Philby’s report is included in the text, all 25 pages of it, which gives a thorough and fantastical account of the extent to which the British Labour Party and the Trades Unions have been infiltrated at every level by hard-core revolutionary communists. This is the seed of the daring plan which the novel describes.

2. The burglary The first hundred pages or so interweave elements of this plot with the straightforward narrative of a south London burglar, Jim Rawlings, who breaks into the home of upper-class George Berenson to steal his wife’s legendary diamonds. He also nicks an attache case to put his swag in but is surprised to discover it contains a cache of Top Secret documents. Being an honest crook, guvnor, he posts the documents back to the police, who pass them on to MI5.

3. Special agent John Preston Enter four-square, ex-Paratrooper, now the upright and thorough MI5 agent, John Preston. He and the authorities only have the documents posted to them, showing there’s been a leak but with no evidence who stole them. Preston undertakes a meticulous, and meticulously described by Forsyth, investigation which eventually narrows it down to Berenson. The process by which this is done is fascinating, a master class in Forsyth’s astonishing grasp of bureaucratic and administrative detail.

4. South Africa Preston then tails Berenson and discovers his ‘control’ is an agent in the South African embassy, one Jan Marais. In a long, immensely detailed and extraordinary tour de force of investigation, Preston flies to South Africa, where he is loaned a senior officer to help him out and take him round. This officer, Viljoen, is at first sceptical but Preston demonstrates the superiority of the British secret services by piecing together the extraordinary story of Jan Marais’s life and his career during the second world war to prove that he is in fact a Soviet spy. The South Africans are appalled, grateful and impressed. Back in Britain Berenson is horrified at his own stupidity and treachery; contrary to his intentions he has been passing key documents to the very Soviets he purports to despise. Forsyth has several pungent passages on the narcissism and stupidity of such imbeciles who set themselves against the wisdom of the authorities.

5. Agency rivalries All this ‘action’ – ie Preston’s adventures – is cleverly interwoven not only with developments in Moscow, as Philby’s plan is assessed and adopted, but with detailed descriptions of a power struggle at the top of British security where MI5’s sickly boss Sir Bernard Hemmings is being manouevred out the door by his number two, Brian Harcourt-Smith. Harcourt-Smith hates Preston and suppresses a report he presented right at the start of the book about the left-wing penetration of the Labour Party. The way he did this made me think, for most of the book, that he, Harcourt-Smith, must be a deeper ‘mole’ or agent for the Soviets… Meanwhile, as the evidence mounts that the Sovs are mounting some kind of major operation, the head of MI6, Sir Nigel Irvine, poaches Preston from MI5 where he’s been sidelined, and gives him authority to pursue the investigation as he sees fit.

6. Thrill of the chase The last 150 pages of the novel are structurally similar to Day of The Jackal in the way it becomes a chase: with Honest John slowly piecing together the horrific plan and desperately trying to track down the Russian agent while, in alternating scenes, we follow in detail the preparations, travel, rendezvous of each courier with Evil Valeri. Thus the tension is very effectively ratcheted up and up…

Implausibility

BUT – The plot is fundamentally laughable. The more you think about it, it seems ludicrously paranoid. Sure the Militant Tendency had infiltrated many local Labour parties during the early 1980s, but Neil Kinnock effectively faced them down, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984-85), which began about the time this novel was published, highlighted the superficial power but ultimate weakness of the entire British Trade Union movement, ending in complete defeat and helping Mrs Thatcher to her record third election victory in 1987.

In the scenario of this book, the nuclear ‘accident’ was to swing the electorate at the last moment against Mrs Thatcher and in favour of Labour; and within days of being elected Neil Kinnock would be overthrown in a Party coup and replaced by – …. who exactly? Tony Benn? Really? A few moments’ reflection suggest that, in the light of a nuclear explosion, the electorate would probably be scared and afraid and flee to the party of Law and Order. In fact, such an event would have played to all Mrs Thatcher’s strengths, the resolution she showed during the Falklands War (April-June 1982), her bravery after the Brighton Bombing (12 October 1984).

Even as a political fantasy, the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Elements

The Wikipedia article on ‘airport novels’ doesn’t specify exactly when they were invented or when it evolved into a distinct genre, but it does mention that an airport novel must be:

  • long
  • absorbing
  • exciting and thrilling
  • superficial, containing no depth of characterisation, no profound meaning, no message
  • since the airplane passenger has no works of reference about, it must include its own background information
  • and be forgettable

Long

The Fourth Protocol is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, at 526 pages in the Corgi paperback edition. In fact it feels like several novels crammed into one: a first half which starts with the burglary, segues into identifying the ‘mole’ in the service, before taking John Preston to South Africa to perform his brilliant detective work. This takes hundreds of pages but, fascinating and rewardingly complex though it is, the first half feels only tangentially related to the nuclear plot in the second half.

Absorbing / providing its own background information

Forsyth was a high end journalist before he was a novelist and good gracious it shows. Nothing is mentioned without at least half a page of explanation and description. Every gun, piece of equipment – cameras, microphones, burglar alarms and so on – are lovingly described, along with their complete spec and functionality. How to create a small nuclear weapon is described in minute detail over seven pages, a description which became so intricate I could have done with a diagram (pp.440-447).

But it’s the administrative functions of bureaucracies which really fire Forsyth. We are told at great length about MI5:

The British Security Service, better known as MI5, does not live in one single building. Discreetly, but inconveniently, it is split up into four office blocks. The Headquarters are in Charles Street, and no longer at the old HQ, Leconfield House, so habitually mentioned in the newspapers.

The next biggest block is in Gordon Street, known simply as ‘Gordon’, and nothing else just as the head office is known as ‘Charles’. the other two premises are in Cork Street (known as ‘Cork’) and a humble annexe in Marlborough Street, again known simply by the street name.

The department is divided into six branches scattered throughout the buildings. Again, discreetly but confusingly, some of the branches have sections in different buildings. In order to avoid an inordinate use of shoe leather, all are linked by extremely secure telephone lines, with a flawless system for identification of the credentials of the caller.

‘A’ branch handles in its various sections Policy, Technical Support, Property Establishment, Registry, Data Processing, the office of the Legal Adviser and the Watcher Service. The last named is the home of that idiosyncratic group of men and (some) women, of all ages and types, street wise and ingenious, who can mount the finest personal surveillance teams in the world. Even ‘hostiles’ have had to concede that on their own ground MI5’s watchers are just about unbeatable… (p.42)

And so on for another three highly detailed, flag-waving pages. Want to know about the Joint Intelligence Committee?

The full JIC is a rather large committee. Apart from half a dozen ministries and several agencies, the three armed forces and the two intelligence services, it would also include the London-based representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America’s CIA… (pp.112-113)

The KGB? Specifically, the KGB’s operations in Japan? Yes, we have that in stock:

The First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for all overseas activities, is divided into Directorates, Special Departments and Ordinary Departments. Ordinary KGB agents under diplomatic cover come from one of the ‘territorial’ departments – the Seventh Department happens to cover Japan. These staffers are called PR Line when on posting abroad and they do the run-of-the-mill trawling for information, making of useful contacts, reading of technical publications, etc. (pp.151-152)

In the exciting finale the SAS are called in to storm the house where Petrofsky is hiding out with the bomb. Since I know that no nuclear device went off in 1987, and that Mrs Thatcher won that year’s election and – more importantly – that Brave John Preston never loses a case – I was never in doubt that Bad Russian Petrofsky would be foiled. Nor is Forsyth.

Instead, strangely coldly, factually, there is page after page about the SAS’s structure and organisation, all the things which make it unique etc.

The fighting arm of the SAS is based on a module of four. Four men make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a squadron. They rotate through the various SAS commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Jungle Training and Special projects, apart from the continuing NATO tasks and the maintenance of one squadron on standby at Hereford. (p.484)

More, far more time, effort and text is spent on this encyclopedia-style content about the SAS and its thorough and careful preparations than on the storming of the house which is over in a brisk, no-nonsense two pages (pp.505-507): one chap shot but not wounded thanks to latest Kevlar body armour; wicked Russkie eliminated; nuke recovered intact, Suh!

Buildings

The text follows the different characters as they travel round quite a bit, to Moscow and various parts of the USSR, all over South Africa to uncover the Jan Marais plotline, back and forth across London and the Home Counties, then journeys up to Derbyshire and, finally, car and motorbike trips criss-crossing East Anglia.

In every place the characters visit we are told not just the building they go to, but the exact layout of that building, sometimes (as with the KGB or MI6 headquarters) pages and pages linking the administrative structure of the organisation with the buildings, annexes, wings occupied by each section. I kept thinking the text was crying out for those Sunday Times, Insight article-type illustrations and schematic diagrams of buildings’ layout, with those little human figures added to give scale.

That’s often how the novel feels – a fascinating tour through the key organisations and buildings involved in Cold War espionage and security, with small black silhouettes, the merest human outline possible, to tie them together.

High level plot

There’s a meta-plot, a higher-level narrative which underpins or overarches the on-the-ground pursuit of the agents. Operation Aurora is top secret and being carried out on the sole order of the ailing General Secretary of the USSR but there is rivalry between Generals in the highest ranks of the KGB. And in Britain, the rivalry between MI6 and its boss Sir Nigel Irvine and MI5 with its ailing leader Sir Bernard Hemmings and its ambitious number two Brian Harcourt-Smith, are the background to Irvine poaching the omnicapable Preston to solve the case.

But at the very end of the book Irvine informs Preston that the whole Operation was deliberately ‘blown’ by a senior figure on the Russian side (one General Karpov). Part of Preston’s investigation had been to follow an agent flagged up by passport control at Heathrow. Preston and his team of ‘watchers’ trailed him to a house in Chesterfield, which the watchers stake out for over a week, on a hunch it contains important information or equipment and Preston’s gamble pays off when key baddy, Petrofsky, eventually arrives. It is this slender thread which allows Preston to tail Petrofsky back to his house in Ipswich and foil the entire plot.

But now Irvine informs him that the sending of the agent, Winkler, was a deliberate gesture by KGB supremo Karpov to ensure that the plot failed, that an atomic bomb was not detonated in Britain, that the Labour Party did not win the election.

The quid pro quo was that our side – Sir Nigel – ordered Petrofsky to be not just captured, but liquidated. And indeed, in the climax of the SAS raid, he was only badly wounded when, to Preston’s horror, the SAS captain steps forward and shoots him in the head. Now Preston discovers that was part of the ‘deal’. KGB scupper their own plot; we ensure their best agent isn’t interrogated, ‘blown’, and spread all over the newspapers.

In the final pages we see Irvine meet Karpov at a safe house in Geneva and exchange documents, Irvine satisfied that the plot was aborted, Karpov with the documentary proof of the Operation’s existence which he will take back to the USSR and use to undermine his rivals, maybe even topple the General Secretary himself, certainly gain promotion, and win debts and favours from the British.

It is almost as if espionage is a dirty, cynical business.

Forgettable and out of date

But as with all the immense detail of organisational structure, the buildings and their layouts, you close the book and instantly forget it. Like any airport novel it is totally absorbing as you read and instantly erased once you arrive at your destination.

Added to which, every element of the story is 30 years out of date. There is no longer a KGB, are MI5 and MI6 still based at the same locations and structured into the same Departments? More to the point, there is no longer a USSR nor a Cold War. And real history turned out to be much more fascinating than this fiction. The Miners Strike was a more concrete demonstration of class war than anything Forsyth could cook up, much deeper, much longer, much more bitter and harrowing – and the arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR much more complex and tragic than any fiction.

Forsyth’s novel, like most others of the time, is based on the frozen timelessness of a Cold War it was assumed would go on for generations. Instead, five short years later it was over, the Berlin Wall was coming down and a few years later the USSR passed into history.

The appeal of Forsyth’s novels must largely rest on their documentary thoroughness (it certainly doesn’t depend on their psychological insight or depth of character, of which there is next to none). Which means they are as vulnerable as the newspapers where he learned his trade. Who wants yesterday’s papers? Let alone newspapers from 30 years ago, written in (what now seems like) crippling ignorance of what was about to happen.

Like John Buchan or Eric Ambler’s novels, Forsyth’s speak of a world which has fast receded into the past, which will soon be of historical and antiquarian interest only.

Upper class

Forsyth is incredibly posh. You can almost hear his plummy tones as you read. All the British characters went to public school ie the heads of MI5, MI6, Special Branch etc. I laughed out loud when, in the first half, the head of MI6 reveals that he not only knows the suspected mole, he went to the same school as him! The mole was his fag and cleaned his shoes. Of course he was.

These are the people, this narrow clique of privately educated, inter-married and inter-related, upper class toffs, who claimed then – as now – to speak for ‘the nation’ of 60 million extremely diverse people, the 95% of the population which didn’t go to private school, are not part of the many overlapping sets and cliques and groups which comprise the Ruling Class, the Establishment. In fact there’s a paragraph describing just this:

Brian Harcourt-Smith was the product of a very minor private school and carried on his shoulder a sizeable and quite unnecessary chip. Beneath his polished veneer he had a considerable capacity for resentment. All his life he had resented the seemingly effortless ease which the men around him could bring to the business of life. He resented their endless and interwoven network of contacts and friendships, often forged long ago in schools, universities or fighting regiments, on which they could draw when they wished. It was called the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘magic circle’, and he resented most of all that he was not a member of it. (p.126)

Even the hero, Honest John Preston, the tough, professional Army man turned agent, of course went to private school and is now sending his son to exactly the same kind of school, where he will learn the same values: cricket, philistinism, bad food, snobbery.

In this context, the very early sections of the book are unconsciously funny. Forsyth chooses to have the mole in MI6 revealed via the accident of a break-in to his posh apartment in Belgravia. These opening 30 or so pages describe in customary detail the professional burglar casing the joint and then carrying out the job, complete with minute descriptions of how he neutralises the alarm system, picks the lock, and exactly how he blows the safe. Slick, technically informed professionalism is what we expect of absolutely every character in a Forsyth novel. But as this one is a south London crook Forsyth feels he has to explain to his readers a number of facts about south London and its criminal classes. I particularly enjoyed him explaining what a ‘manor’ is, ie the territory in which a crook operates, what a ‘face’ is, ie a criminal known to the authorities, and so on. I laughed when he daintily explained that a ‘slag’ is the term of art for a hard man, a ‘heavy’.

He expects his audience to know all about Whites and Brooks and the Army and Navy (exclusive clubs for the upper classes) but to have to be carefully informed about criminal argot or south London landmarks.

[Walking to the dining room at Brooks] they passed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Martin Flannery, coming the other way. Although they knew each other, Sir Martin saw at once that his colleague was ‘in conference’. The mandarins acknowledged each other’s presence with an imperceptible inclination of the head, sufficient for two scholars of Oxford. Backslapping is best left to foreigners. (p.510)

In fact Forsyth’s novels read as if written for the Sunday Times-reading classes, in between the Style and the Arts sections, the parts which advise you which Caribbean island to holiday on or which opera to go to. Sometimes I feel a bit too common to be reading them. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone without an old school tie is allowed to buy them.

Benefits of the old boy network

That said, Forsyth makes a point I don’t think I’ve seen expressed quite so clearly before, which is that the old boy network works and it works precisely because its network of contacts covers the entire political, security, police and Whitehall machine. Because Nigel was at school with Jeremy, it means that now they’re the heads of MI6 and the SAS, respectively, they can talk quickly, informally, and get things done:

That the procedure can work within minutes is due in part to the fact that it has been rehearsed and honed to a fine art over and over again; and partly to the fact that the British establishment, when required to move fast, contains enough interpersonal relationships to permit a great deal of procedure to be kept at verbal level, with the inevitable paperwork left to catch up later. British bureaucracy may appear slow and cumbersome to the British but it is greased lightning compared with its European and American counterparts. (p.483)

He then goes on into characteristically Forsythian detail, explaining how: the Chief Constable of Suffolk, informed of the terrorist threat, contacts Sir Hubert Villiers in Whitehall, who briefs  his Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, who informs the Prime Minister, who gives approval to deploy the SAS, which is relayed to Sire Peregrine Jones at Defence, who knew about it anyway because he’s already had a little chat with Sir Martin, so that within sixty minutes of the first contact between the head of Suffolk constabulary and Home Office, the Director of Military Operations is talking on a scrambled line to the commanding officer of the SAS at Hereford. Phew. There is no doubting the depth of Forsyth’s research and knowledge. But it is possible to question the way he deploys it.

Condescending attitude

Given the profile of the author implied by his text with its worship of the British police and intelligence services, its rabid suspicion of the Labour Party, its smooth familiarity with the clubs and banter of Britain’s elite, it is no great surprise to read the witheringly condescending opinions of anyone left-wing which sprinkle the text. The anti-nuclear protesters and marchers who play a minor role in the novel (they hold up the Baddy as he drives back to his safe house with the nuke in his boot) prompt a few snooty put-downs.

The Tornadoes had gone back to Scotland but in their place the peace of the rustic neighbourhood had been shattered by protestors, mainly female and possessed of the strangest personal habits, who had infested the fields and set up shanty camps on patches of common ground…. [Behind the leaders of the march] came the column of pacifists, pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists, anti-Soviet Trotskyites, lecturers and Labour activists, with an admixture of unemployed, punks, gays and bearded ecologists… Up the two sides of the road were scattered the resident female protestors, most sporting placards and banners, some in anoraks and crewcuts, who held hands with their younger lady friends or clapped the approaching marchers… (pp.462-463)

Bet none of them went to a decent school, eh?

The title

The Fourth Protocol is one of the (fictional) secret appendices to a 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the USSR and USA. It specifies that neither side may deliver nuclear devices by sneaky underhand methods eg in suitcases. They have to be dropped from planes and on the end of inter-continental ballistic missiles. Thus, the plot consists of Preston and his MI6 boss slowly realising the Russians are breaking the Fourth Protocol. Which is just not cricket, is it?


The movie

It was swiftly made into a movie, directed by John Mackenzie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s much better shot than the film adaptation of Gorky Park, much nicer to look at.

There are no women in the book (except for John Preston’s ex-wife, who has run off with a millionaire and we never meet, and the scared wife of the innocent middle-aged neighbour whose house the authorities commandeer to keep a watch on what they suspect is a Soviet ‘drop’ house in Chesterfield. She’s good at making tea, exactly as a middle-aged, non-public school Englishwoman ought to be.)

But a Hollywood movie must have sex in it, so they first invent a neighbour, who works at the air base and has a horny wife who makes a pass at Petrofsky/Brosnan. And then the bomb maker, Vassiliev, turns out not to be the cold, calculating agent of the novel but the gorgeous Joanna Cassidy. They assemble the bomb together and then the camera closes up on the sweat dripping down her cleavage. When Pierce moves in to snog her she says, ‘I thought you’d get to that,’ and so must every single person who’s ever seen the film have felt the same heavy clang of inevitability. There is a vivid sequence of them having sex before – just as inevitably – he kills her. What a thankless role for this beautiful actress.

Indeed, there is a lot of callous killing in the movie, much more than in the book. The tone is set in the opening scene where, after a long car journey to a remote dacha in the snowy Russian countryside, Philby, who has come all this way to meet the General, is instead shot in the face by his subordinate. It is crude and shocking and doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, in the original, for we need Philby to write the very long analysis of the Labour Party which is the premise of the whole thing.

Here, his being shot in the face lacks any of the intelligence or subtlety and, of course, none of the amazing wealth of background information, which is the dominant characteristic of the book. In the final scenes of the novel, when he learns about the Russian double-cross which underpins the plot, Preston mulls over the complexity of his trade and in the postscript is seen happily leaving intelligence to go and work for a commercial security firm.

The movie, typically for this and so many other film adaptations of novels, ditches all the subtlety, reducing pages of thoughtfulness to the absolute minimum number of words, to have Michael Caine’s Preston confront Irvine and Karpov, and yell, ‘It’s about time they put you in a fucking museum’ – a trite and immature outburst nicely suited to the petulant teenagers most films are aimed at.

Glad it only cost me £1 in a charity shop.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Spy Line by Len Deighton (1990)

This is the second novel in the second trilogy about 40-something British intelligence agent, Bernard Samson. At the end of its predecessor he was on the run in Berlin, an arrest warrant issued by his own side for treason, presumably because he had been investigating (and publicising) a top secret slush fund which his wife – Fiona, who we saw defecting to the Russians in the first trilogy – helped set up and administer.

Summary

To cut a long story short, in this novel we find out that his wife is what he had come to suspect, a triple agent – working for British Intelligence for ten years, while all along pretending to be a KGB spy and sending the Russkies important information, then (at the climax of the first novel) pretending to be forced to flee after her own husband ‘outed’ her as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department – but secretly continuing to work for us from the senior position she is given in the KGB’s East Berlin office.

The Plot

Deighton is much more attracted to cosy domesticity than life on the edge. It’s a little disappointing that his ‘life on the run’ amounts to simply holing up in a dirty squat in a rundown part of Berlin for a week or two. There’s a colourfully seedy scene of Samson sitting drinking with Rudolf Kleindorf, ageing owner of a dance and strip club where old lags come to exchange gossip and information. And we accompany him back to his dirty, noisy squat. But we and Bernie have barely experienced the lowlife for more than a few pages before the head of Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, sends a man to fetch him to witness an interrogation. Oh. They knew where he is all along.

Rather puzzlingly, Samson goes along to watch this interrogation, the questioning of an East German operative. The only bit of interest being when he indicates a photo of Erich Stinnes (a KGB agent who featured largely in the first trilogy) and makes a throwaway reference to seeing him using a ‘white powder’. Drugs? More to the point, security is so lax that Samson overhears a remark which makes it clear this isn’t a defector but an ongoing agent who is about to be sent back to the East. Why did Frank invite him to watch this? Were a few snippets of information mentioned in the session somehow important? Who to?

Teacher

The Department employee who took him there – Teacher – drives him back to his own apartment to meet his wife and have lunch. Much more energy goes into describing the Teachers’ apartment and his wife, Clemmie’s, unhappiness at the coldness of Berlin and the rudeness of Berliners, than did painting Samson’s life in hiding. Domesticity and marital relations, soft furnishings and food are more persuasively described than jeopardy. (Later, we learn from one of the countless gossipy conversations Samson spends the book having, that Clemmie has run off with an American record producer who was passing through Berlin.)

His old mate Werner says, ‘This is silly, why don’t you come back and stay at Tante Lisl’s boarding house?’ and so Bernie moves back into his old room at the top of the building and sees for himself the ‘improvements’ Werner is making to the old place. And realises that Werner has fallen in love with Lisl’s rather stern niece, Ingrid, daughter of her sister Inge. (We learned a lot about the backstories of these two ladies in Deighton’s epic novel about Germany 1900 to 1945, Winter). Zena, Werner’s tough, young, self-centred wife, appears to have flown the coop.

Rehabilitation

Soon enough Head of Berlin Office Frank Harrington drops by and says London Central have made Samson an offer: sign all the official secrets stuff and resign: he can work out his notice in a menial job but retire on a full pension. They’ve never trusted you, Frank explains, since your wife was exposed as a KGB spy.

But Bernard refuses; resigning would admit some degree of guilt and collusion. ‘Well, go back anyway, the charges have been dropped,’ Frank says. Just like that. On the run, hiding out — oh you can go back now. It’s all very anti-climactic. No chases, no shootouts, no tension. Samson flies back to London, is reunited with his girlfriend, Gloria, and his kids, Sally and Billy, then goes back to the office where everyone treats him as if nothing had happened at all. Bit puzzling.

He’s called into the office of a previously unmentioned character, the Deputy Controller of Europe who turns out to be a tough, balding Australian, Gus Stowe. In the usual roundabout, tortuous way these conversations take place, Bernard realises he’s being sent on a hush-hush mission to Vienna, code name Fledermaus.

Stamps in Salzberg

He flies to Vienna and then on to Salzburg where, amid all the Mozart kitsch, he meets his contact, Otto Hoffmann, who turns out to be a stamp collector attending a big five-day philatelic auction. There is a lot – an awful lot – of detail about stamp collecting. (There is a lot of detail about stamps sent from Zeppelins before the war, which may or may not be a reference to the involvement of the Winter family with zeppelins, as described in Winter.) Bernard is given money and told to bid for one particular lot, an envelope with rare stamps on it.

In the actual auction, Samson is surprised when someone else bids getting on for double the price he was instructed to offer and wins the envelope. Samson tracks down the American collector who made the successful bid, Bart Johnson, and they both go to the cashier where you pay and collect your item, only to find someone else claims to have paid more and made off with it. Johnson is furious. Samson tags along with him out of curiosity (what’s going on?) and they go back to the hotel where they’re both staying and make a date to meet for drinks and dinner. Bernard is back in his room freshening up when he hears a (small) explosion, runs along the hall and finds Johnson has been the victim of a particularly nasty type of bomb, planted in the hotel electric shaver. It has blown his hand and face off. As other guests come pouring in, Samson makes good his escape wondering (like the reader) what the hell is going on.

The man who had given him the instructions about bidding for the envelope had also given him instructions about who to take it to in Vienna, one Baron Staiger. Bernard flies to Vienna, takes a cab the scheduled apartment and walks up to meet Baron Staiger who turns out to be – no other than Otto Hoffmann.

In another of the surreal scenes which litter these novels, Staiger is holding a super-refined party for Vienna’s upper crust in which Bernard feels very out of place, and which climaxes with the arrival of the triumphant soprano from the nearby opera house. Only when the party is quite over does Staiger talk to Bernard and declares himself pretty relaxed about the loss of the envelope – because he has it right here in his pocket! He had heard the Americans were going to bid for it so he was the other, mystery, bidder on the phone who drove the price way beyond Bernard’s limit, and ducked in to claim it before Johnson made it to the claims desk.

Staiger opens the envelope and it contains Czech security passes for himself and Bernard. Why, the reader asks, was this ridiculous charade necessary, except to pad the novel out with colourful scenes in Salzburg, a surreal stamp collecting convention, and the utterly unnecessary murder of an American?

Into Czechoslovakia

Next day Staiger drives Bernard across the border into Czecholsovakia (lots of local description, lots of Deighton-esque history of the Sudetenland under the Nazis and then under Stalin) accompanied by a Czech security car and then up to a mountain cabin which is crawling with security men, guns and ferocious guard dogs, before depositing Bernard outside a farmhouse.

Bernard goes in to find his wife Fiona who proceeds to confirm all his suspicions: she is a triple agent, she is so sorry for all the deceit and worry but they couldn’t tell him, her life depended on him acting genuinely outraged (the KGB have been tailing and watching his reactions to her desertion), and now she is coming back, in just a few weeks she’ll be back in the UK: ‘Oh I do love you darling,’ ‘and I love you, darling’.

This is even more surreal than the stamp collecting convention. If she’s such a professional, if this is the climax of 10 years of planning, why oh why is she risking it all for a rushed sentimental meeting with her husband? In full sight of about twenty Czech security police who will report every centimetre to their KGB bosses? Isn’t the room bugged? Won’t they guess what she’s doing? Did this clandestine meeting really require all the rigmarole of the stamp collecting convention and bidding? Why doesn’t she simply complete her mission and arrive back in London safe and sound, without the exploding stamp collectors and high risk tryst?

Gratifying though it is to have Bernard’s (and our) suspicions confirmed, this whole scene blows an enormous hole in the novel’s credibility. The one thing she asks him to do is get back from her sister, Tessa, the expensive fur coat her father bought her. The reader immediately thinks it must contain some microfilm or equally precious artifact.

Part two

Staiger drives Bernie safely back to Vienna and he flies back to London, to the embrace off his girlfriend Gloria, and the children, but inside is in complete turmoil. He tells no one about seeing his wife.

Instead the next 30 pages or so describe Bernard and Gloria attending a carefully choreographed dinner party at his boss, Dicky Cruyer’s house, complete with detailed description of every course of the meal and Dicky’s difficulties ‘carving’ the enormous poached salmon which is the opening course. It’s in this chatty, gossipy, homely surrounding that, as so often, a number of the guests (who are all ‘in the business’) discuss recent events and broach new ventures. Thus Samson finds himself asked to help the CIA in the form of Posh Harry, the Hawaiian fixer we met in the first trilogy and who played a central role in the odd Californian excursion in Spy Hook.

Parties

No sooner is this dinner, complete with cigars and port for the men, more or less over than Gloria begs Samson to be allowed to go on to a party his brother-in-law George Kosinski (the used car salesman) and wife Tessa, are going to. Very swanky place in Pimlico and a swanky party hosted by a German prince, known to all and sundry as Joppi.

Later, driving Bernard home, his brother-in-law confides that he thinks Tessa is on drugs: did he notice the slightly hysterical atmosphere at the party? People were taking drugs upstairs. And did he notice the sinister guy with a beard fringing his chin? Tessa’s been getting friendly with him; George thinks he’s a dealer and is selling her the stuff.

Rolf Mauser

The next day Samson meets Rolf Mauser, yet another ageing survivor of the war, who tells him Kleindorf, the nightclub owner we met in the first chapter, is dead. He was smuggling drugs. The official cause of death is suicide by overdose but Mauser has information one of his dancers injected him with raw heroin. Mauser explains the raw heroin arrives in East Berlin, then is smuggled West to be refined, before being smuggled back again for sale.

So is the novel about drug smuggling between East and West Berlin?

Thurkettle

Samson goes for the boozy lunch with Posh Harry that was arranged at Dicky Cruyer’s party but, on returning, begins to be questioned and then interrogated by Harry’s boss, John Brody. Turns out Johnson, the American stamp enthusiast in Salzberg, was a CIA man tasked with bringing in another ex-Company man, one Thurkettle, a hardened murderer and hit man who has gone rogue. Almost certainly it was Thurkettle who murdered Johnson. The Americans are suspicious of Samson’s involvement. He realises the description of Thurkettle fits the man George thinks is peddling drugs to Tessa.

Silas Gaunt

Next Samson motors out to the Cotswolds, to the country house of long-retired old Silas Gaunt, who, like so many of the characters, knew his father. In a refreshing bit of plain speaking the ailing Gaunt – warned by his doctor he is at death’s door – confirms all Samson’s suspicions: Fiona is a triple agent; she was recruited at Oxford; only old Gaunt, the doddery DG and Samson know the truth. If they all died, Fiona would be trapped. Gaunt makes Samson witness him signing a long document which he says is a detailed account of Fiona’s case which will exonerate her.

Over the next few days Samson has to process this devastating information. So his wife is a heroic agent, good. But she hid it all from him for ten years, and deserted him and his children without a qualm. Did he ever really know her? Could he ever trust her again? What are his feelings for her and how does effect his feelings for young Gloria, who is making such an effort to be a good lover and surrogate mother to his two children?

A few days later his boss, Dicky Cruyer, orders Samson to accompany him on a trip to Berlin. Dicky is actually hoping to make it a dirty weekend with Tessa, and Samson is cross at being pulled in as some kind of accomplice, but the jaunt is justified by meetings with Frank. After the usual lengthy chat, reminiscence, drinks and cigars, Frank eventually comes out and tells Samson he is being instructed to drive a van which is going to pick up an agent from the other side, accompanied by the young desk officer Teacher who we met early in the novel. If there is a problem, Teacher has instructions to kill the agent rather than let him fall into the hands of the opposition.

The reader begins to have a bad feeling the agent will be Fiona and that something will go wrong and he will have to shoot her…

Finale

The novel does climax in a bloody mess. Werner, his old friend, organises a big fancy dress party for the opening of the new, repainted Tante Lisl guesthouse. 150 guests are fired up and dancing as a fierce thunderstorm breaks outside. In the middle of the noise, Teacher comes looking for Samson: he’s received the signal – they must go to the rendezvous. The only catch is Teacher has come to the party in a joke gorilla costume and no-one has a suit for him to change into; in fact, he almost comes to blows with Werner trying to nick one of the latter’s suits, and is eventually forced, very unhappily, to drive on this important mission wearing his gorilla costume. And, at the last minute, Tessa, in a flighty yellow dress and stoned out of her mind, insists on climbing into the back of the van and no-one can persuade her out.

Shootout

Teacher, Samson and Tessa drive slowly in the transit van in the thundering rain along the West-heading Autobahn looking out for a parked car. Eventually they see lights and a darkened car parked by a load of giant earth-moving machines in an area roped off for repairs. It is pitch black and pouring down with rain. Teacher gets out and is moving towards the car when lights go on, there are shots, Teacher hits the car a few times before being himself shot down. Tessa comes floating out the back of the van and waltzes towards the German car when she is shot twice with a shotgun which tears her apart, blood pouring over her dress. Another woman’s voice shrieks, it is Fiona. In the drenching rain and darkness and confusion Samson has made it up onto the tracks of a giant digger and uses its raised shovel to steady his aim as he shoots and kills the two East German men. One of them is Erich Stinnes; Samson shoots him in the neck and watches a great spurt of blood shoot up against the motorway lights.

But there was a third man, now hidden, who had used a silencer. Samson stands stock still in the pouring rain waiting for something to happen. The man shouts over to Samson in an American voice. It is Thurkettle the assassin. Samson shouts to Fiona to move from the East German car to the van and start the engine. When she’s done so, he makes a run for the other van door. There are no shots. They’re being allowed to escape. They pull away from the scene of the shootout and Fiona drives through the rain and into West Germany in silence, her knuckles white against the wheel. In the rear view mirror they see a great gout of flame and hear an explosion: the East German car has been blown up along with all the evidence. Thurkettle has stage managed the whole thing…

Soldiers greet them at the checkpoint. Fiona is sedated, and they are loaded aboard a plane headed for America.

Aftermath

The novel ends with Samson and Fiona holed up in the luxury safe house-cum-prison on the California coast which we first saw in the previous novel. It is owned by millionairess Mrs O’Raffety, and the base where Bret Rensselaer is undergoing his long, painful rehabilitation after being shot at the climax of London Match. Turns out the whole thing – the Fiona defection – was his scheme and now it falls to him, as her case officer, to debriefing her. Days, weeks, and months go by. They are both trapped. Samson gloomily realises they might be there for years.

Samson learns the story being put about is that he has run off with Tessa. This explains their joint disappearance. Fiona slowly thaws out and talks to him. He tells her he thinks Tessa’s drug addiction was fostered as part of the plan. Tessa was lured to Berlin by a combination of Dicky and Thurkettle (who Samson is now certain he saw at Joppi’s party and who George warned him about), and encouraged to get into the van. Then she was deliberately murdered, so that her body would be found in the burnt-out car, and the enemy think it was Fiona.

Can the Department have done that? Murdered one sister to save the other? Bernard and Fiona huddle under blankets one cold Californian night looking out past the security fence into the darkness of the ocean with no hope.

This is a decisive shift in the tone of these novels. Whatever happens now, the murder of her sister will cast a long shadow over Fiona’s mental health, their marriage and numerous other characters. Will they ever be able to get back to England, their children and a normal married life? It seems impossible.


Atmosphere of old

I was too old for rough stuff: too old, too involved, too married, too soft. (p.37)
I was too old to get angry twice in one day. (p.219)

So many of the characters are old old old:

  • Tante Lisl and her sister Inge, into their 80s
  • Frank Harrington past retirement age in his middle 60s. ‘Frank was too old to be involved with Operations. Too old, too squeamish, too weary, too good-hearted.’ (p.271) ‘Frank was past retirement, soon he would be gone.’ (p.272)
  • John ‘Lange’ Koby in his seventies (p.44)
  • local fixer Kleindorf in his 70s
  • harsh old Wehrmacht officer Rolf Mauser in his 70s
  • Bart Johnson looks in his 60s
  • London CIA man John Brody, ‘He was old, a bald man with circular gold-rimmed glasses…’ (p.209)
  • Silas Gaunt, long since retired colleague of his father’s, ‘… was old and becoming more exasperating every time I saw him…’ (p.221) ‘… now he was old and he’d withdrawn into his own concerns with ageing, sickness and death.’ (p.224)
  • ‘Some people – including me – had said that Bret Rensselaer was too old ever to become a full-time Departmental employee again.’ (p.301)
  • ‘Mrs O’Raffety, the artistic old lady who owned the place…’ (p.303)

It is the central aspect of Samson’s character, indeed the main premise of the whole series, that Samson is the son of a man who was at the heart of British Intelligence in Berlin immediately after the war, and grew up among his father’s friends and colleagues, who provide the novel with its sense of breadth and historical depth.

But it inevitably means that, by the later 1980s, a lot of these characters are due to die off and with them will go the emotional background, the memories of his Berlin childhood and everything which makes Bernard Samson such a unique character.

Soon – very soon – Silas and Whitelands and all they meant would have vanished from my life. My mother was old and sick. Soon Lisl would be gone, and the hotel would be unrecognisable. When that happened I would no longer have any connections with the times that meant so much to me. (p.239)

Insofar as he is the nexus of all these relationships, a product of this history, Samson’s character – and the worldview of the novels which relies so heavily on the long shadow of world war two – has a limited shelf-life.


Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Air Bridge by Hammond Innes (1951)

The man was desperate. It showed in his eyes, in the way he talked. He hadn’t given up hope. I think that was what made the atmosphere so frightening. He wasn’t quite sane. A sane man would see that the thing was impossible. But he wouldn’t. He was still thinking in terms of getting those engines into the air. It was incredible – incredible and frightening. No man should be driven by such violent singleness of purpose. (p.105)

Air Bridge is set during the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from June 1948 to May 1949.

It is a first-person narrative by another of Innes’s ‘everybloke’ figures. Here it is Neil Fraser, who flew bombers during the War till he was shot down and captured and spent 18 months in a German prisoner of war camp. He escaped, stole a plane and flew back to Blighty, causing quite a stir at the time.

But, like so many wartime heroes, he finds himself unemployed after the War and drifts into a racket flying old planes illegally out of Blighty to France, to be traded on to Palestine. However, his most recent flight is intercepted before it takes off, he legs it, nicks a police car, dumps it and stumbles through woods to a proper airstrip, where he comes across a couple arguing in the old hangar, the man gives chase, they fight in the woods and the man knocks him out.

This opening is probably intended to be mysterious and gripping but I found it confusing. It does establish the narrator as a crook liable to arrest by the police (like numerous previous Innes heroes) and therefore vulnerable to blackmail.

When I learned this novel was about the Berlin Airlift I was excited because I like fictions which tackle historical subjects and, although there are countless novels about the War, there are not so many about the murky post-War period. However, Air Bridge has a relatively small set of characters and the story is intensely personal, not political or historical.

The plot 1 – Membury

Despite their unconventional introduction Fraser ends up becoming friendly with the puncher, Bill Saeton (pronounced Satan), who offers him a job helping to build new-specification diesel plane engines. The plan is to attach these to the plane in the hangar so it will be ready to join the Berlin Airlifts soon after Christmas 1948. However, it slowly emerges that:

  • Saeton looted the design for the new diesel engines from Germany at the end of the War; though he claims the looted design didn’t work and needed extensive adapting by…
  • His colleague Tubby Carter, a quiet honest man who gets on with his job of building the parts for the second engine. His wife, Diana, cooks for the boys while they work but, in a couple of tense scenes, it becomes clear she fancies Saeton like mad (forcing herself into his arms, telling him to rip her dress off etc) which eventually leads Tubby to send her away.
  • The Displaced person Else Langan, who’s living at the nearby manor house, turns out to be none other than the daughter of the German engineer who designed the new engines (before he was hauled off to Dachau for having a remote connection to the Hitler assassination plot). She has travelled across Europe and England to spy on the development of the engines and, if possible, to smuggle out their design to a German company, Rauch Motoren.

This first part of the novel focuses very much on the complex and tense relationships between this cast of five. The infidelity scenes are electric; there is also a series of scenes where Fraser tries to seduce Else, at a local dance, then on a walk through the woods. The frustration Fraser feels when these fail and the bitter, mixed feelings of the orphan daughter German emigrée, Else, are memorably captured.

Plot 2 – the crash

Part one climaxes when the three men take the old Tudor aircraft into the air using the two new engines they’ve built and she flies like a dream. However, in an ironic twist, as they return to the base they find the undercarriage won’t come down, no matter what they do. Saeton makes Fraser and Tubby bale out then crash lands the plane, just about surviving – but the plane is a write-off.

Tubby announces he is leaving. A contact has got him a job as flight officer on the Airlift. A day or two after leaving he phones the airfield to say he’s got Fraser a job, too. It is now that Saeton springs his ‘satanic’ plan. He tells Fraser: Go and sign up, fly Airlift planes. Then one time when you’re flying over the Soviet sector, pretend the plane is going to crash, get the crew to bail out, fly back here to Membury, we’ll swap the engines for our new diesel engines, then volunteer for the Airlift, then return with this plane, but I’ll change all the serial numbers, no-one will know it’s the old one, and we’ll get to publicise our new engine design, and on the back of that fame set up an international charter firm and become millionaires!

Fraser points out every possible flaw in the plan, starting with the iniquity of dumping innocent men out into the Soviet sector but Saeton turns nasty and threatens to turn Fraser in to the police. Does he fancy another stint in prison? This is where there’s some very characteristic Innes writing, describing the pure fear, the claustrophobia, the horror of imprisonment which the hero feels, which breaks him out in a cold panic sweat. No. Not that again.

‘You bastard!’ I screamed at him, suddenly finding my voice. I called him a lot of other names. I had got to my feet and I was trembling all over, the sweat breaking out in prickling patches across my scalp and trickling down my forehead. I was cold with fear and anger. And he just stood there, watching me, his shoulders hunched a little forward as though expecting me to charge him, a quiet confidential smile on his lips. (p.110)

And so, reluctantly, Fraser agrees to do it.

Plot 3 – the plane heist

Fraser travels to the airfield in Germany and is shown the ropes (all accurately described by Innes who went and researched the locations in person). He is allotted a couple of flight assistants but, to his horror, Tubby is his navigator. This makes the Heist scene very intense as, once they’re over the Soviet Zone, Fraser fiddles with the engines to cut them out, and persuades the other two to bale out. But Tubby, on the verge of joining them, comes back to the cockpit to give Fraser time to put on his own parachute – only to realise what Fraser’s up to and the two get into a fist fight which quickly escalates as Tubby grabs a wrench. In the heat of the moment Fraser punches Tubby who hits his head on the fuselage and then, to Fraser’s horror, slips unconscious out of the gaping open door in the side of the plane.

Fraser regains control of the plane and flies it back to Membury where there are some pretty heated scenes as Fraser and Saeton accuse each other of murdering Tubby. In angry silence they switch the engines on the Tudor, alter the serial numbers and make other changes. This takes a few days, time for Saeton to offer his services to the Airlift and get snapped up, so they both fly back to Germany.

Plot 4 – the final act

Saeton flies a guilt-stricken Fraser back to Germany and on to the exact location where Tubby’s body fell out. As luck would have it, it was near the abandoned airfield of Hollmind and Saeton lands there. They’ve barely begun searching for Tubby’s body before Saeton announces he’s flying to the Airlift airfield, Fraser can stay and search if he wants. Berlin is only 30 miles south-east, he can walk it. (In light of the intense security, the electrified barbed wire fences and border patrols which we associate with the Iron Curtain, it is fascinating to learn that at this early stage it was possible to walk across the various zones.)

So Fraser begins optimistically looking for Tubby but the snow is falling, it’s early January, and he quickly begins to suffer from the cold, exposure, hunger etc. Until he finds Tubby’s helmet – then shreds of parachute – so Tubby’s alive! Then Fraser stumbles onto a track through the woods and evidence of a cart having stopped for a while and the snow all mashed up. Maybe a peasant stopped and loaded Tubby onto his cart?

Fraser follows the track to an isolated farmhouse and there finds Tubby, badly injured (broken arm, fractured ribs) being looked after by a kindly German couple whose son, who fought in the Wehrmacht, has disappeared into Russia after the War. (This couple and the abandoned room of their son which they keep as a shrine to his memory, are just one of the many memorable vignettes in the novel.)

After himself being tended to and recovering, Fraser promises Tubby he’ll be back and makes his way partly on foot, partly hitch-hiking German lorries down to Berlin. Here he is able to walk through back streets from the Russian to the British sector. He arrives back at Wunstorf airfield almost delirious but determined to tell Diana, Tubby’s wife, that he’s alive.

Imagine his (and our) surprise when the airfield authorities tell him the Russians have confirmed they’ve found the plane wreckage and a body! Case closed. In his delirious exhausted state, the more Fraser rants about Saeton’s complicated scheme the less the authorities believe him, finally carting him off to hospital to be sedated.

Is the Russian report true? Is the body really Tubby’s? Did the Russians discover him hiding at the farm and murder him? Can Fraser persuade a distraught Diana that her husband is still alive? As Saeton walks into the mess triumphant with the success of his new engine, can Fraser persuade him to risk everything and fly him back to the abandoned airfield so they can rescue Tubby? Will Saeton be punished for his Machiavellian plots or convince everyone Fraser is delirious? Will Fraser’s part in the whole scam be uncovered? Will anybody believe him?

You’ll have to get hold of the book and find out for yourself.

Sex

Innes writes honestly and candidly about male sexual desire, its all-consumingness and its banality. The scene where Fraser and Tubby accidentally eavesdrop on the latter’s wife drunkenly propositioning Saeton is powerful and convincing, as is Saeton’s contemptuous rejection of her. As is Tubby’s quiet, dignified decision to send her away from Membury but to stay on himself, to keep working on the engines, his one true love.

In a different way, Fraser’s relationship with Else is so peculiar and erratic that it carries a kind of conviction. She partners him to a dance, but spurns him, then lets him kiss her out in the woods, but then gets angry at the memory of her father, dragged off by the Gestapo and the way Saeton is exploiting his designs. Hot, then cold, then hot again. Confusing, like life.

Reunited in Berlin there is a stirring scene in her poky little flat where he watches her washing in freezing cold water, admiring her body while she watches him watching her. Somehow he controls his raging desire.

Without thinking I had turned towards her and then the future and Tubby was driven out of my mind by the sight of Else leaning over the basin washing herself. She was naked to the waist, and her firm breasts looked big and warm in the soft lamplight. (p.216)

A decade later Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley almost ignored female anatomy. Eric Ambler is too detached and urbane to do this kind of thing. Graham Greene discusses sexual activities but always with disgust. Innes stands out from the thriller writers I’m reading for his familiar and relaxed attitude to sex: it isn’t repressed or concealed in his texts, but it is there in a very male, very 1950s, very chaste interest in boobs – the curve of her breasts is a recurrent aspect of the Contessa in this book’s predecessor, The Angry Mountain, and the hero noticing the large bust and pert nipples of the heroine were one of the striking features of The Killer Mine, striking because that kind of candour is generally absent from most of the other thrillers I’ve read from this period. Two years after Air Bridge Ian Fleming would publish Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books, with their graphic descriptions of the hero’s rather sadisticic sexual tastes.

Innes stands clear of all these rivals in the thriller space. His candour about women’s physical characteristics and his male character’s lust for them seems to me clean and honest and is, I think, linked with Innes’ vivid descriptions of healthy physical exercise, the enjoyment of skiing and sailing which dominates several of his other books. While the main concern of the novels is with characters being nasty to each other, there is nonetheless a thread of pure physical enjoyment running through them which lights up his texts.

Anyway sex, or a pulpy soft porn ambience, tends, as the novels progress, to shed or left behind in favour of the ‘real thing’, the understanding a man and a woman reach when they are thrown together by adversity and suddenly see themselves facing a joint future together. The novels almost all have this trajectory from superficial sensual attraction between the male and female leads, to a ‘deeper’ understanding and optimistic sense of a shared future.

The future

Many of Innes’ novels close with an explicit reference to the future being bright.

His heroes are often worried, haunted, hunted men. The extremities of the plot often serve to ‘cure’ them, and leave them with a clearer sense of who they are and what they want. (These aren’t profound books; but this journey towards greater psychological certainty stirs something profound in the reader.)

Through the exigencies of the melodramatic plot the hero reaches a new level of confidence, about himself and about the future. And it is always connected to the relationship with the nubile female in the story clicking into place, often after a litany of misunderstandings and arguments.

This ‘future’ always means a) escaping from the complexity of the current situation b) hand in hand with a young woman the situation has brought him together with.

I wanted to say, ‘Damn the bloody engines!’ I wanted to tell them that they’d already cost the lives of two men. And then I looked up and saw Else watching me. There was excitement – a sort of longing in her eyes. And then I knew what the future was. (p.253)

Related links

This is a great evocative cover by the celebrated popular illustrator Al Rossi, but it is an idealised version of the text. Fraser is not a hero, he’s a crook. The girl in the story is by no means an adoring dolly bird but a tough ex-Nazi. And there are no men in the shadows pursuing him. The story implied by this heroic cover looks arguably more interesting than the actual Innes novel.

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

PS – Paradise Lost

The obligatory mention of Paradise Lost comes on page 114 from Field, the navigator who flew in bombers over Germany during the War, and has been involved in the Berlin Airlift for four months – ‘Ever read Milton’s Paradise Lost? Well, that’s Germany.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

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