Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis (1981)

Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong. (Amis in his preface)

Amis

Kingsley Amis was a grumpy old bugger. This judgement is based not only on reading his articles and reviews when he was still alive (he died in 1995), but having read and reviewed all twenty of his novels for this blog.

Amis was deliberately middle-brow and flexible. He wrote a James Bond novel (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), a lot of light poetry, reviews and articles, as well as several odd science fiction novels.

In fact he was a science fiction hound, a real addict, and tells us that he leaped at the chance to deliver a series of lectures on the subject at Princeton University in 1959. These were then published as a book purporting to review the history and state of science fiction as it had led up to the state of the genre in 1960, garishly titled New Maps of Hell.

Twenty years after New Maps of Hell, in 1981, Amis was asked to make a selection of favourite science fiction short stories and to write an introduction. Hence this book.

Amis’s introduction

With typical glumness, Amis reckons science fiction has had its glory days and is in decline. He judges this decline to have started at more or less the moment he delivered those lectures, back at the start of the 1960s. He describes how, in the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction belonged to ‘an embattled few’ – hard-core fans who read everything they could get their hands on, despite the sniggers of their parents or teachers. A bit like the ‘hot jazz’ which he and his buddy Philip Larkin liked listening to, while their mothers and girlfriends told them they really ought to be listening to Haydn.

But all this changed in the 1960s. Up till then Amis and other fans had called it SF. During the 60s it became rebranded as ‘sci-fi’, symptomatic of the way it got infected with all the other radical experiments of the decade.

Suddenly there was ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ ‘sci-fi’, as there was free poetry, rock music, women’s lib and hosts of other innovations which Mr Grumpy objects to. The first two university courses on science fiction were opened in 1961, and Amis thinks that as soon as you start teaching literature or film, you kill its originality.

Only twelve years separate the hilariously kitsch Forbidden Planet (1956) from the slick and sophisticated 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968, and which Amis found repellently self-indulgent) but they inhabit different cultural universes.

The New Wave

The young writers with their trendy experimental approaches to science fiction who came in with the 1960s, became known as the New Wave. Fans argue to this day about when New Wave started, but most agree a tipping point was when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine in 1964, and Moorcock, along with J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, were the prime movers of British New Wave. All three moved away from ‘hard’ science fiction stories about space ships and robots and aliens, showing more interest in literary effects and psychology, often in a very garish late-60s, tricksy sort of way.

Planetary exploration

Another problem which the SF writers of the 1960s faced was that a lot of science fiction came true. In the 1960s men actually started rocketing into space and in 1969 walked on the moon, thus killing all kinds of fantasies with their dull discovery that space was empty and bathed in fatal radiation, while the moon is just a dusty rock. So no fantastic civilisations and weird Selenites after all. In the story Sister Planet in this collection, Poul Anderson imagines Venus to consist of one huge, planet-wide ocean teeming with intelligent life, where men can stride around requiring only respirators to breathe. But when information started to come back from the Mariner series of probes, the first of which flew by in 1962, and the Venera 7 probe which actually landed on the surface in 1970, Venus turned out to be a waterless rock where the atmospheric pressure on the surface is 92 times that of earth, and the temperature is 462 C.

Fiction becomes fact

Meanwhile, in terms of terrestrial gadgets and inventions – the kind of mind-liberating technological innovations which festoon H.G. Wells’s fantastic prophecies – well, jet planes came in, along with intercontinental travel and it turned out to be glamorous but in a, well, yawn, touristy kind of way. Everyone got coloured televisions, but these weren’t used for announcements by the World State or amazing educational programmes; they were used to sell soap powder and bubble gum. Satellites were launched and people were amazed by the first live global broadcasts, but none of this led mankind onto some higher level of culture and civilisation, as so many thousands of sci-fi stories had predicted. Now we have digital communication with anyone on the planet, but the biggest content area on the internet is pornography, closely followed by cats who look like Hitler.

To sum up: a lot of what had seemed like exciting technical predictions in the 1940s had turned into commonplaces by the 1960s. As Amis pithily puts it, ‘Terra incognita was turning into real estate.’

So you can see why the New Wave wanted to take a new approach and look for the weird and alien here on earth, particularly Ballard. By the mid-70s the New Wave was itself declared to be over (about the same time that post-war Serialism in classical music breathed its last gasp), at the same time that a lot of the political and cultural impedimenta of the post-war years ran out of steam. As I view it, this led to a decade of doldrums (the 1970s), and then the appearance, during the 1980s, of bright new commercial styles, Post-modernism in art and literature and architecture, the importation of Magical Realism in fiction, and a new era of sci-fi blockbusters in cinema, the rise of computer aided animation which has transformed the look and feel of films, and to an explosion of all kinds of genres and cross-fertilisations in writing.

Specific examples

But to Amis back in 1980, he says science fiction suffers from ‘gross commercialism’, and uses the Terra incognita argument to explain why many even of the New Wave writers had dried up or gone into alternative forms – Arthur C. Clarke ceasing to write novels, Aldiss writing histories of the genre, and Ballard turning out never to have really been a sci-fi writer, more a writer about modern psychosis who started out by using sci-fi tropes, before moving on.

All this goes to explain why the stories Amis selected for this collection are all from the 1950s (1948 to 1962, to be exact) – from the decade when sci-fi writers had racked up a tradition of sorts to build on, had achieved a mature treatment of recognised tropes – but before those tropes were burned out from over-use and the 1960s ruined everything with its silly experimentalism. You can strongly disagree with this view, but at least it’s a clear defined view, put forward with evidence and arguments.

The short stories

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper (1948) (American)

It is 1809. A series of letters from officials in Imperial Austria tell the tale of Benjamin Bathurst, who claims to be a British government envoy who, we slowly realise, has somehow got transported from out 1809 to a parallel history in which the Americans lost the war of independence, there was no French Revolution, no Napoleon, no wars raging across Europe, and so Herr Bathurst is regarded as a lunatic.

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham (1950) (Pseudonym used for his sf by American astronomer Robert Shirley Richardson)

Physicists Stoddard and Arnold discover that radiation above a certain frequency is no longer being detected. Radio stations are becoming unavailable. They measure the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons as happening absurdly nearby. Suddenly they think of Friedmann and his theory of the Xi Effect, namely that space isn’t continuous but made up of ‘clots’, clots which can be disrupted by bigger-scale events. Stoddard and Arnold and then everyone else learns that the world and the solar system are shrinking. Since everything is staying in proportion relative to everything else you’d have thought that wouldn’t be a problem except that the one thing which can’t shrink is electro-magnetic radiation. In other words, the world is getting too small for light to travel in it. One by one all the colours disappear, and then everyone is left in universal blackness.

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher (1951) (American)

After a nuclear apocalypse a ‘monk’ is sent by ‘the pope’ to find the body of a supposed saint in the hills outside San Francisco.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953) (American)

Genuinely upsetting story in which a child with telepathy and unlimited powers is born and, while still young, either destroys the world or transports his small town into some void wherein the remaining inhabitants must think nothing but positive thoughts – repeating to themselves ‘it is a good world’ for fear that the little monster – Anthony – will detect negative thoughts and turn them into something unspeakable.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) (English)

A computer company supplies its latest model to a Tibetan lamasery whose abbot tells the chief exec that they will use it to work through every permutation of names for God. They have a belief that, once all the names of God have been expressed, the need for a planet and humanity will cease and the universe will move on to the next stage.

Months later, the two bored technicians tasked with overseeing the installation and running of the machine are relieved to be making their way to the little Tibetan airport to return Stateside when the computer reaches the end of its run and… the world comes to an end.

Specialist by Robert Sheckley (1953) (American)

Interesting description of a galactic spaceship made up of living parts which all perform specialist functions e.g. Walls, Eye, Tracker, Feeder. When their ‘Pusher’ dies in an accident they trawl nearby planetary systems for a new one and, of course, come to earth, where they kidnap a guy who is out camping under the stars, and induct him into the galactic code of co-operation.

Student Body by F. L. Wallace (1953) (American)

Colonists arrive on a new planet where the Chief Exec is keen to get biologist Dano Marin to manage infestations of mice and rats which attack the crops and stores. Slowly Marin realises they are dealing with a species which can mutate at need, almost instantly, in order to survive and which will always manage to evolve into shapes which can elude them. Worse, he realises it will have stowed away on the earlier reconnaisance ships and have made its way back to earth.

The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1954) (pen-name of American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Deep space travel reveals vicious entities which attack man’s ships, which get nicknamed ‘dragons’. The only way to kill them is with light bombs which disintegrate their bodies, but it all happens so fast that only the handful of humans who have telepathic powers can manage to be plugged into the ‘pin sets’ which detect the dragons; and the whole effort went up a notch when it was discovered that some cats can be in telepathic unison with the humans, and have even faster reflexes.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl (1955) (American)

Maybe the best story, relatively long and persuasive i.e. you get totally drawn into it.

Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare of an explosion, then goes about his humdrum life in the small town American town of Tylerton, dominated by its state-of-the-art chemical works which is run mostly by the recorded brainwaves of technicians. A new guy in the office shops tries to hustle him a new brand of cigarettes. Later a lorry stops in the street and blares out ads for Feckles Fridges. A flustered man named Swanson accosts him on the street then runs away.

Then he wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare, and goes about his day. New cigarettes, lorry ads, flustered Swanson. That night the fuse blows and, rooting around in the cellar, he discovers that behind the brick walls is metal. And under the floor. The reader begins to wonder if he is in some kind of alien prison. He is down there when overcome by sleep.

Next morning he wakes up remembering everything from the day before except that… his wife thinks it is June 15, the radio says it is June 15, the newspaper says it is June 15. On the street Swanson finds him and, discovering that Burckhardt is confused, takes him through shops and into a cinema, all the time telling him that ‘they’ will be after him. they exit the auditorium, Swanson takes him through corridors, into the manager’s office, then opens a closet door into… a vast steel tunnel stretching in both directions.

Swanson thinks it must be Martians? Is it aliens? Or the Chinese who everyone in the 1950s were so terrified of? Read it yourself.

A Work of Art by James Blish (1956) (American)

Richard Strauss is brought back to life 200 years in the future. He immediately wants to carry on composing and Blish gives a very good analysis of the composer’s music, its characteristics, what he looks for in a libretto and so on and the whole process of composing a new opera.

But at its premiere, the applause is not for the composer, but for Dr Kris, the mind sculptor who has, in fact, used all the traits of the composer to create him and impose him on the mind of a perfectly ordinary unmusical man, Jerom Bosch. At a click of Kris’s fingers, Bosch will revert to his normal workaday self.

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) (American)

A rare thing, a first person narrator. In a perfect society of the future (after ‘the Interregnum’) he has been born a brute and a sadist, capable of killing and injuring and defacing while all around him are placid and calm and sensitive. We see, from his point of view, how intolerable and anguished his existence is, forced to live among ‘the dulls’.

Sister Planet by Poul Anderson (1959) (American)

This is a long, involving and bitingly pessimistic story. A small colony of scientists is established on a platform floating on Venus’s endless stormy ocean. They have made contact with ‘cetoids’, dolphin-like creatures and some kind of exchange goes on i.e. the humans leave paintings, sound recordings and so on which the cetoids take off in their mouths, and the cetoids return with various objects, including rare and precious ‘firestones’. These are so precious that ferrying them back to earth and selling them has so far funded the scientific research.

In among their practical duties, the half dozen or so scientists on the outstation chat about how overcrowded and polluted and violent earth is becoming. The main figure among them, Nat Hawthorne is particularly sensitive and close to the cetoids. One day he is astonished when the most friendly of them, who he’s named Oscar, nudges at his feet (on the pontoon which stretches out from the base, where they distribute goodies to the cetoids and receive the jewels in return, level with the ocean and often slopped over by waves) indicating he wants to give him a ride.

Hawthorne puts on breathing apparatus and Oscar takes him deep under the sea to show him a vast coral cathedral which appears to have been shaped, or grown, by the cetoids. there is no doubt that they are ‘intelligent’.

Back in the crew quarters of the colony, he is about to tell everyone about his encounter, when the quiet, intense Dutch scientist Wim Dykstra bursts in to make a major announcement. He has been analysing Venus’s core and has realised that it is on the unstable edge of making a quantum leap upwards in size. If it did that, it would project magma up through the sea creating continents and the presence of rocks would absorb carbon dioxide from the (currently toxic) atmosphere. In other words it could be ‘terraformed’, made fit for human inhabitation – an overflow for what has become a poisoned earth.

it is then that Hawthorne tells the roomful of colonists about his discovery, that the cetoids are undeniably intelligent and creative. At which point there is an earnest discussion about man’s right to colonise new planets, even at the expense of the natives – all of which made me think of contemporary, 2018, discussions about colonialism and racial oppression etc. Reluctantly Dykstra agrees to suppress his work in order to let the cetoids live.

But Hawthorne is gripped by a kind of panic fear. Sooner or later more scientists will come to Venus. They will repeat his experiments. Sooner or later humans will realise they can transform Venus for their own use. Tortured by this knowledge, Hawthorne blows up and sinks the research station, flees in a mini submarine and, when the cetoids come to investigate, slaughters them with a laser machine gun. Then submerges to go and blow up their beautiful coral cathedrals. Before calling the ferry ship which is in orbit down to pick him up. He will claim the cetoids blew up the centre despite his attempts to stop them.

His aim is to demonstrate to earth that Venus is a violent environment which cannot be colonised. And to show the cetoids that humans are murdering barbarians who cannot be trusted.

To save the cetoids – he has to destroy them and their cultural achievements.

The Voices of Time by J. G. Ballard (1960) (English)

A classic expression of Ballard’s interest in entropy and decline. Among the empty swimming pools of some desert American town, scientists go about their work in alienated isolation from each other. A plague of narcolepsy has attacked humanity. More and more people are falling asleep never to waken, the central figure, Powers, keeps a diary of the way he, too, is falling asleep earlier and earlier, his days are getting shorter and shorter. In what time he has left he conducts obscure experiments on plants and animals which seem to mutate at an accelerated rate if exposed to near fatal doses of radiation. He has a typically distant, autistic ‘relationship’ with a patient whose brain he operated on and who now is collecting the last works of art, books and so on by famous artists, writers and such. And has discovered that astronomical research centres have come across series of numbers being sent from apparently different locations around the universe, all of which are running down, like countdowns.

The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov (1961) (American)

A short and characteristically tricksy Asimov story. It is the end of the war against the Denebians. Everyone credits victory to the vast supercomputer, the Multivac, which processed all the information and provided pinpoint accurate decisions about the war.

Executive Director of the Solar Federation, Lamar Swift, has gathered the key men in the team who ran Multivac to celebrate, namely Henderson and Jablonksy. But as both hold their champagne glasses, one by one they reveal that the data they received was never good enough, the sources around the solar system and beyond were too scattered, information came in too slowly… and that the head of the team processing it never trusted them, and so falsified many of the figures.

But instead of being shocked, Swift smile and says, he thought as much. He made all the key decisions which won the war by using a much older technology. And he takes out a coin, flips it with his thumb, covers it as it lands in his palms, and asks: ‘Gentlemen – heads or tails?’

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) (American)

A short glib story set in 2018 when everyone is equal because everyone is handicapped by the Handicapper General. Fast athletic people are weighed down by weights. Tall people forced to stoop. Beautiful people wear face masks. Clever people have earpieces fitted which emit piercing noises every 30 seconds. Thus everyone is reduced to the same level, and is equal. Anyone tampering with any of this equality equipment is arrested and imprisoned.

George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, was born unusually tall and handsome. He was immediately locked up. The trigger for this short story is George and Hazel settling down to watch TV (George’s thought processes continually interrupted by the screeches in his ear, to prevent him being too clever) and hearing on the news that their son has escaped from prison.

Then he bursts into the TV studio and throws off his restraints, the handicap harness which weighs him down, the rubber mask which makes him ugly – to reveal that he is a tall god. He declares to the watching audience that he is the Emperor, who must be obeyed.

He had interrupted a live broadcast of a ballet and now he asks who among the ballerinas wants to be his wife. One comes forward, throws off her face mask and feet cripplers to reveal that she is beautiful and elegant. Together they start dancing a beautiful ballet of freedom.

At which point the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and machine guns both of them dead. The TV goes black. Loud sounds burst in George’s ear. He goes to get a beer from the fridge. Loud sounds interrupt him on the way back. By the time he’s back on the sofa he has a sense that something sad happened on the TV but neither he nor his wife can remember what.

The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) (American)

Trader John Garth is happy living alone on Wesker’s World, dealing with the slow but logical alien inhabitants, the Wesker amphibians, who have learned to speak English.

One day a fellow trader stops by (his spaceship causing hundreds of square metres of devastation) to drop off a priest. Garth tries to prevent him landing, then is very rude to him. To his horror, the slow logical Wesker creatures are awestruck by the priest and the stories he has to tell about God their father and how they are saved. Garth is a typical trader, rough and ready, a hard drinker, but he has been honest with the Wesker creatures and told them as much about the universe and earth as he thought wise.

One day Garth is called along to a meeting the Weskers are having with the priest. In their slow logical way they have come to the conclusion that the priest needs to prove his religion. The Bible – which he has given them to study – brims over with examples of miracles which God was happy to perform to prove his existence. Surely he will perform at least one miracle to convert an entire new planet and save an entire species.

Suddenly Garth sees where this is heading and leaps up to try and bundle the priest out of the meeting hall but he is himself overwhelmed by the Wesker creatures and tied up, from which powerless state he has to watch the creatures overcome the priest and very methodically nail him up to a cross, just like the pictures in the Bible he had given them, the Weskers expecting him to be resurrected.

But of course he isn’t. Days later, still tied up and in a pitch black lumber room, Garth finds the most sympathetic of the Weskers undoing his ropes and telling him to flee in his space ship. Having failed with the priest the Weskers have decided to experiment with him next.

The Wesker asks: ‘He will rise again won’t he?’ ‘No,’ replies Wesker. ‘Then we will not be saved and not be made pure?’ asks the Wesker. ‘You were pure’, Garth sadly replies. ‘You were pure, but now…’ ‘We are murderers,’ replies the Wesker.

Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss (1963) (English)

This is the most poetic of the stories, Aldiss deliberately using onomatopeia and rhyme in his prose, as well as rich verbal pictures, to convey a dreamlike scenario.

In the far distant future the Moon has left the earth and earth and Venus orbit each other. Humans have long ago left the planet which is now populated by a mix of of animals and ”Impures’, intelligent creatures created by human experimenters on Venus.

Dandi Lashadusa is a giant sloth who traipses round the desert world seeking out musicolumns, insubstantial pillars into which the last people converted themselves, and which become audible music when life forms come close enough to them.

She is guided and advised by a mentor who she is telepathically in touch with, who is slowly revealed to be a dolphin living in a coral cell.


Almost all the stories – 14 out of 17 – are by Americans, the other three by Brits i.e. all very anglophone i.e. wasn’t there any Russian, French, German etc sci-fi during the period? Even in translation?

That’s probably something which came in to rejuvenate the genre after Amis’s day, particularly stories from Russia and the Eastern bloc.

The pros and cons of science fiction

Is Amis right when he says: ‘Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong’? Well, on the evidence here, Yes. The Xi Effect, Sister Planet, The Streets of Ashkelon, Student Body and, especially It’s a Good Life, which I found very disturbing – they are extremely negative and pessimistic. But then gloomy Amis chose them. Is the genre as a whole pessimistic? Well… I’d make a case that most of literature is pessimistic. I’m looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald books next to Flaubert’s on my shelves. Not many happy endings there.

Maybe you could argue that there is a kind of ‘global conceit’ about science fiction. In ‘ordinary’ novels one or two people may die; in a science fiction story it is likely to be a whole world, as the world comes to an end in the Clarke story, or man corrupts an entire species as in the Harry Harrison.

Science fiction may be more apocalyptically pessimistic than other types of fiction. This is one of its appeals to the adolescent mind – the sheer sense of scale and the world-ending nihilism. But is at the same time one of the reasons it used to be looked down on. As a flight from the trickier complexities of real human relations in the here and now, the kind of thing supposedly tackled by ‘proper’ fiction.

But all this is to overlook the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspect of science fiction, the teenage sense of exuberance and escape and release conveyed by some of the stories. The sense of the genuinely fantastical and imaginative, that life is stranger and richer and weirder than non-sci-fi readers can ever realise.

A feeling conveniently expressed in one of the stories here:

As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendent was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. (The Xi Effect, p.65)


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 – The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

Theatre by Somerset Maugham (1937)

Her dressing-room was like the cabin of a ship. The world seemed a long way off, and she relished her seclusion. She felt an enchanting freedom. She dozed a little, she read a little, or lying on the comfortable sofa she let her thoughts wander. She reflected on the part she was playing and the favourite parts she had played in the past. (Chapter 13)

My view of the world, art and literature rests on history and biology. There were some 3 billion humans alive when I was born in the 1960s, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999 and we reached seven billion in March 2012. By the time I die 20 years hence there will be around 9 billion. The shortage of resources (starting with land and water) the environmental degradation (deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification) and global warming (if it is indeed true) mean that my children will grow up in a world of weeds, dead seas and vast multicultural slums.

Reading Somerset Maugham is to be transported far, far away from this pressing reality, to a world populated by only a few thousand people, the people who count – upper-class, white, English people who’ve been to the right schools and are members of the cabinet, the civil service, the colonial service, along with, maybe, a handful of writers and artists thrown in.

It is a small, cosy world of gentleman’s clubs in Pall Mall, replicated in miniature throughout Britain’s colonies in the East where pukka chaps administer provinces the size of Wales equipped only with a walking stick and a stiff upper lip. Beyond it lie the entire working class of Great Britain – useful as occasional Cockney walk-on parts – and beyond them the vast teeming populations of India, Malaya or any other colonial country where the author sets his scene, ‘natives’ who provide anonymous and exotic backdrops, with the exception of a handful of loyal and dutiful servants.

Even within this very circumscribed circle of jolly decent chaps and chapesses, Maugham rarely loiters for long. His métier is the penetrating snapshot. He establishes a setting – the club, the dinner party – with deceptive simplicity, then one or other of the guests produces an anecdote of astonishing brutality or immorality, before everything winds up with reassuring brandy and cigars.

Even his two most famous novels, The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, are really built up from much shorter, potentially discrete stories. The most powerful thing in Moon, Strickland’s affair with his best friend’s wife, could quite easily stand alone as a 30-page story. Similarly, the narrator’s central love affair with Rosie in Cakes and Ale could exist without any of the apparatus of her being married to a famous old writer, let alone the further paraphernalia of Alroy Kear writing his biography of the writer which ostensibly gives the novel its structure.

Theatre

Theatre shares many of these characteristics:

  1. It is a description of the English theatre in Edwardian and then post-Great War days, the theatre being (in my own experience of it and everything I’ve read and seen about it) itself a small and ‘precious’ world which the actors and everyone involved in likes to think of as an exclusive coterie.
  2. Despite quite a few walk-on parts, it is really only concerned with three characters – the middle-aged actress Julia Lambert, her charming and devoted husband Michael, and her careless young lover, Tom.
  3. It is very artfully constructed from individual scenes. It has a very consciously built flavour. Instead of the flowing narrative which the novel is capable of, it is divided into discrete and precise scenes. Maybe it started life as a play. On the surface it is a social comedy with some raw passions occasionally thrown in; but not very far beneath the surface you can see the joins and the framework of its artful assembly, and that, too, is part of the pleasure.

And it is a funny book. Very funny. You can almost hear Maugham chuckling as he produces scene after amusing scene, spins out his comic dialogues and devises his ironic climaxes.

The blurb

The blurb describes the plot thus:

Julia Lambert is in her prime, the greatest actress in England. Off stage, however, she is bored with her handsome husband, coquettish and undisciplined. She is at first flattered and amused by the attentions of a shy and eager young fan, but before long Julia is amazed to find herself falling wildly, dangerously, in love.

Which gives you the names of the characters and the bare bones of the plot, but doesn’t even hint at the sophisticated pleasures on offer.

The plot

The book opens with the middle-aged and very successful married couple – superstar actress Julia Lambert and handsome actor-manager Michael Gosselyn – chatting in the comfort of the their swanky West End house. A non-descript young accountant is in the living room where he has been tasked with going over the books of the couple’s successful London-based theatre company.

Part one – A long flashback

Julia wanders up to Michael’s bedroom and idly opens the old boxes of mementos which are stored there. As in a movie, the screen ripples and we are transported back to the earliest days of their careers, meeting as budding actors still in their teens in the provincial theatre of ‘Middlepool’. Here we learn that Michael is stunningly beautiful, Greek god-like beautiful, but has no passion; he looks great in costume drama but can’t produce much variety of feeling; whereas Julia has tremendous command of herself and the ability to project a wide range of feeling without, in fact, feeling very much herself.

They fall in love, mostly meaning that Julia is besotted with Michael and he acquiesces in her adoration. We follow in detail their fates in various productions, and the dawning realisation that Julia is the real acting star. Michael’s good-humouredly accepts the fact and begins to develop the idea that the couple should go into business together and buy their own theatre.

Michael is picked for a part which involves going to the States for a year. Here his lack of real talent becomes clear, with terrible reviews, but he makes a packet of money. Julia, still in England, develops a growing band of fans including a patient old man, Charles Tamerley, and an ageing lesbian, Dolly de Vries. All these developments occur under the sharp-tongued but benign gaze of the manager of the ‘Middlepool’ theatre company, the lovable Jimmie Langton.

It also happens on the verge of the Great War. Michael’s father is a pukka military man and so when the First World War breaks out, strings are pulled to get Michael made an officer, and he is soon attached to the general staff. He has a cracking war, brisk and efficient for a succession of generals at Staff HQ, while never being in any danger himself. He regularly returns to London to pep up Julia, who continues to perform in the many plays staged during the war to keep up spirits. It was boom years for the theatre, apparently.

They have a baby, Roger, and wait awhile to have sex again. One day, in Michael’s embraces, Julia realises that she is no longer in love with him. He no longer smells young. She is repulsed. Marital relations are not resumed, but  this turns out to suit Michael. He is an incredibly posh and proper, polite and decent gentleman, and never liked all that messy business anyway.

So now they are actively looking for backers to help them buy a theatre and set up their own company. There is some comedy about the way that decent, dim Michael doesn’t realise that the rich widow, Dolly de Vries, has a lesbian crush on Julia. Once Julia has carefully explained it, they both realise they can exploit the situation to get the additional funding out of her. Dolly is taken into partnership and they buy, refurbish, and rename a theatre, the Siddons Theatre, after the famous 18th century actress.

Many years pass in which Michael handles the financing and management of the theatre perfectly, and Julia becomes the most famous and accomplished actress in England.

This long flashback, in many of its details quite a lot too good, too simple and too fortunate to be true, is nonetheless very entertaining. The character of the old manager Jimmie Langton is particularly enjoyable, as are the many occasions on which Michael demonstrates that he is a jolly decent, ambitious but scrupulously fair and honest chap. Mention should go to Evie, Julia’s long-suffering and all-seeing dresser, a typical walk-on Cockney part.

Part two – Back to the present: the Tom Fennell plotline

Julia stops reminiscing and returns to the present. End of scene.

In what is effectively Act Two of the book she is rung up the next day by the accountant who was working on the books in scene one. He invites her for tea at his flat in Tavistock Square. On a whim she goes. It is dingy and squalid. To her amazement he ravishes her. Before she knows it she is on the sofa being made love to. Half an hour later, dressed again, bright-eyed and flushed, she stumbles out into the square and catches a taxi back to her swanky West End home.

There then commences the long and, eventually, tiresome story of Julia’s helpless besotted love for young Tom Fennell, the articled clerk with a firm of accountants who we met doing their accounts on the opening page. Tom is slight and nowhere near as handsome as Michael, but young and bright-eyed. Before long Julia suspects his motivation is not love for her but ambition to meet the swanky people she knows, to move in High Society, to ‘get on’. And also because he likes sex.

Julia was shrewd, and she knew very well that Tom was not in love with her. To have an affair with her flattered his vanity. He was a highly-sexed young man and enjoyed sexual exercise. From hints, from stories that she had dragged out of him, she discovered that since he was seventeen he had had a great many women. He loved the act rather than the person. He looked upon it as the greatest lark in the world. (Chapter 14)

Julia buys him lavish presents and begins to accompany him to night clubs where they dance. Michael knows they are friends and, in his innocence, is happy to see a young man get a boost from his lovely wife. In fact Tom has saved Michael quite a bit of money by being sharp with his accounts, which is what matters to a businessman like Michael, and so he’s happy to acquiesce in Julia’s suggestion that they rent out to Tom a spare apartment in a block they’ve recently bought and refurbished.

The next scene is set at the house in Taplow which Michael and Julia rent for the summer. Julia invites Tom to stay for a fortnight, hoping to catch some private time with him lazing on the river or in their bedroom.

But the couple had also invited their rather distant son, Roger, now aged 17 and in his last year at Eton (natch). To Julia’s chagrin, and then anger, young Tom sheds his adult pretensions, reverts to behaving like a teenage boy, and quickly becomes firm friends with Roger. Every day they are off punting or playing tennis or gadding round the countryside in the nippy little roadster which Julia bought Roger for his birthday.

At several points the pair of young lads come home very late and Julia hears them tramping around the landing and bathrooms of the house. Given the track record of surprises in Maugham’s short stories, I was fully expecting Julia to overhear them having sex – which would have produced the most almighty scene between Julia and Tom.

In fact I’ve been reading Selina Hastings’ brilliant biography of Maugham and have been astonished at the sexual promiscuity of Maugham and others in his homosexual circle. In particular, the biography describes in great detail the dependent relationship between Maugham and his gay partner-cum-secretary, Gerald Haxton, a wild roaring boy, a compulsive gambler and charming alcoholic, who not only had sex with Maugham whenever required but pimped for him, bringing back handsome sailors from Marseilles when they were on the Riviera or willing boys on their journeys to exotic places. In return Maugham lavished affection and luxury presents on him, his heart in thrall to the handsome young man whose bad behaviour, tantrums and resentment at being a ‘kept man’ he had to routinely endure.

Which is why, when Julia’s relationship with Tom begins to turn sour, it is hard not to catch echoes of the Maugham-Haxton relationship, and to wonder whether Julia’s feelings can plausibly be attributed to a a woman who has kept herself chaste and faithful through a twenty year-long marriage – or are really the very plausible mixed feelings of an older homosexual for his dashing but hurtful and unfaithful young lover.

Anyway, Tom behaves badly in all kinds of ways and every few pages we have passages of Julia alone, in tears, struggling to control her hurt feelings and wondering why she still loves him.

Tom more or less ignores her during the Taplow weekend. At its conclusion she, with deliberate scorn, gets the butler to give him an envelope containing the money he’ll need to tip the house’s servants. Back in London a letter is delivered by hand containing the money, and also a package containing all the gifts she has lavished on him (cuff links, gold cigarette case etc). He is rejecting her. It is over. But she rings Tom up and, during a tearful phone call, he says how much he hates being ‘a kept boy’. Julia hates him right up to the minute he speaks and then her heart melts. This kind of break-up and tearful reconciliation happens numerous times.

Roger has come to London and spends more time with Tom. One night he comes home and matter-of-factly tells Julia that Tom has just helped him lose his virginity, arranging a night out with two chorus girls, then back to Tom’s where he said ‘Take your pick’.

Julia doesn’t know which to be more upset by, her beloved baby becoming a man, and in such a sordid manner, or the realisation that Tom had slept with both these chorus girls, and in all likelihood many others too.

To add insult to injury, Tom then arranges an introduction for Roger’s seducer, Joan Denver, to visit Julia at the theatre and ask if she can be an understudy in a play. She is stumpy, snub-nosed and ungainly. Not bloody likely, thinks Julia.

Tom tries to persuade her to take on another young aspiring actress he knows (which Julia realises by now is code for ‘has slept with’), a certain Avice Crichton. Julia goes see her perform and is appalled by her bad acting and brassy manner. Angry at Tom (as usual) she agrees to give her Avice a small part, with the sole intention of having her publicly fail and so humiliate her ‘lover’.

Stung to new heights of tearful, heart-wrung fury, Julia puts all her feelings about the wretched affair into her latest performance. This leads to a funny scene. Julia is under the impression she is giving the performance of a lifetime. However, Michael comes backstage to break the news that she was awful. In fact has been awful for the past four days (ever since she was upset by the Crichton incident).

This gives Julia a flash of insight. She realises that she is a great artist and realises that letting her feelings pour out, unimpeded and undisciplined, via the impassioned character in the play is ruinous. She is at her best when she is controlled and calculating in her effects. Great acting isn’t about self-expression, but about the disciplined deployment of effects.

On the back of all this, Michael suggests to Julia that she is run-down and she acquiesces in his suggestion that she go and stay with her ageing mother and aunt (French, as it happens) in St Malo in Brittany.

This episode makes a very pleasant eight or so page interlude in the main plot, with Maugham giving us travel writer type descriptions of the grey stone villages of Brittany. We are by now on about page 185 of the 230-page-long book – but I for one was impatient for the narrative to hurry on to its climax – be it delightfully comic or devastatingly bleak (as his short stories so often are).

In the calm of Brittany she reflects on her life and in particular how unfair she has been to people, especially her long-suffering and wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley. She returns to London determined to give him what he wants i.e. sex with her. Her elaborate preparations for this grand self-sacrifice, and then her performance of A Lady Waiting To Be Plucked when he arrives to take her to dinner, are hilarious.

Except that Charles doesn’t want to do any Plucking. He freezes as she is in the middle of her seductive best – Julia realises she has made a dreadful mistake – and is hard pressed to escape with her dignity just about intact. It is a very comic scene.

Part three – Avice Crichton

Julia returns home from the Brittany holiday, just as Michael begins rehearsals for the new play which will open the season this coming September. Avice, as she had promised Tom, has a minor part in it, but with an important ten-minute scene. During rehearsals it quickly becomes clear that Avice is wooden and lumpy. Michael wants to sack her, but Julia insists Avice remains a) because if she were fired, then Avice would tell Tom it was Julia’s fault, jealousy etc; b) Julia wants Avice to fail as publicly and embarrassingly as possible, in order to punish Tom.

Cannily, she suggests to Michael that Avice is in awe of him, as director, and that he take her to dinner and try to coax her into a better performance.

My mind was agog with possibilities: will Michael fall in love with Avice, reducing Julia to genuine despair? Will Avice’s acting be transformed by Michael’s guidance so that she acts Julia off the stage and the older woman realises her time is up? What will happen?

Before we can find out, there’s a puzzling chapter where Julia has dinner with her son, Roger, now 18 and back from his summer in Austria before he goes on to Cambridge.

Julia is disconcerted when Roger launches a sustained attack of her character, saying there is nothing whatsoever real about her, she is a tissue of quotations and mannerisms, he dreams of opening the door of a room she’s just gone into and finding it empty.

Roger was brought up in a fantasy land of endless performance, so now he wants Reality, though God knows where he’ll find it… Julia isn’t upset by this so much as puzzled, as she always has been, by a son who lacks her husband’s good looks or her own vitality. Oh well…

Maugham spends so much time and effort on this chapter I wondered whether, right at the end, something melodramatic and soap opera-ish would happen, like Roger killing himself or running off to Africa. But nothing whatever happens with him. He goes off to university to find himself as promised…

And in the event, the first night of the new season is a triumph. Julia acts everyone off the stage. Maugham gives a highly entertaining and instructive explanation of the full panoply of tricks Julia uses to crush and destroy Avice, stealing every scene from her with canny stage ‘business’, by adopting better positioning on stage, by using every trick in the book to upstage her.

The play receives nine curtain calls, after which Michael sweeps into Julia’s dressing room to congratulate her and to scold her for upstaging Avice who, he admits, they’ll have to get rid of.

Tom pops up briefly to admit that, well, yes, actually Avice is rubbish, sorry about that but thank you so much for letting her be in the play and all the help and support you gave her. Julia purrs and smiles but she realises she now couldn’t care less about Tom or Avice. She has completely got over her little ‘adventure’. Then a throng of well-wishers burst in with champagne.

When things have finally quietened down Julia decides she’ll skip the Grand Party being hosted for her by the eternally faithful Dolly the lesbian. Instead, she gets Evie, her long-suffering cockney dresser, to help her slip out the side door, avoid the fans, dressed down in a dull brown coat, grab a taxi and head off to a quiet little side-table at the Berkeley Hotel. Here she a) treats herself to a celebration dinner of steak with fried onions and potatoes, and a tankard of beer – something she has denied herself for the past ten years in the name of keeping slim, and b) stares out over the crowds of young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, drinking, smoking, eating and dancing in the restaurant’s main area, as she ponders on ‘the theatre’.

Real life is the fake, she thinks, real life with its messiness and ugliness. How silly of her son to seek it out. Acting takes the sordid mess of ‘life’ and transforms it into art and symbol, into rounded narratives with depth and meaning. She is free of her passion for that wretched little man. She has an elegant and successful husband who adores her. She has just had one of the great professional triumphs of her life. She has crushed a pathetic little rival like a beetle under her shoe. She has never been so happy. She has never felt so free!

Entertainment

The book is very entertaining on numerous levels, but I found it marvellous and relaxing as a window into a world of genteel manners and decorum which is now utterly lost. We are not only introduced into the circles of the rich and the very rich, via Julia and Michael’s parties, but amusingly watch Julia learn to mimic and play them to perfection.

In fact Julia is not only a ‘character’ in the story, she is a wonderful comic device, in at least two obvious ways:

1. Throughout the book we are given her real thoughts in brackets, placed next to her actual words and deeds, so that we can enjoy the ironic juxtaposition of her harsh inner criticisms of people even as she acts gracefully and politely to them. This reaches a peak of perfection in her later encounters with Dolly de Vries who, alarmed by reports that Julia is gadding round town with a young lover, first of all tells Michael – who promptly tells Julia, in his innocent way believing there is no harm in it. Or in her polite reception of the ambitious little chorus girls Tom pushes her way who, in her heart of hearts, she loathes:

‘You won’t forget me, Miss Lambert?’ said Joan.
‘No, dear, I promise you I won’t. It’s been so nice to see you. You have a very sweet personality. You’ll find your way out, won’t you? Good-bye.’
‘A fat chance she’s got of ever setting foot in this theatre,’ said Julia to herself when she was gone. ‘Dirty little bitch to seduce my son.’ (Chapter 20)

2. And secondly, Julia is almost always acting, performing whatever is appropriate to the scene and setting and people she finds herself with, even her own husband. It is richly comic the way the narrator describes her putting on performances throughout so-called ‘normal’ life, even her performance of a grand lady of the theatre not putting on a performance.

This sense of continual artificiality is not far removed from the world of camp. What I mean is that the story, taken at face value, is a ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’ tale of a middle-aged lady’s passionate love affair for an ‘impetuous young man’. But Maugham deliberately undermines the seriousness of his own narrative with ironic reminders that almost the entire thing is rich in histrionic performance by the main characters. Even when she’s at her most distraught, a part of Julia’s mind is noting her own mannerisms and tucking them away for possible use in a performance some day.

Here she is inwardly seething at Tom for ignoring her in favour of her son, Roger.

Tom and Roger came back to eat an enormous tea and then played tennis till the light failed. After dinner they played dominoes. Julia gave a beautiful performance of a still-young mother fondly watching her son and his boy friend. (Chapter 14)

When she first meets Michael’s stuffy old parents:

She felt instinctively that she must conceal the actress, and without effort, without deliberation, merely because she felt it would please, she played the part of the simple, modest, ingenuous girl who had lived a quiet country life. (Chapter 4)

When she attends a party filled with silly chorus girls, Julia knows just the right note to strike:

The Dexters’ party was theatrical. Grace Hardwill, Archie’s wife, played in musical comedy, and there was a bevy of pretty girls who danced in the piece in which she was then appearing. Julia acted
with great naturalness the part of a leading lady who put on no frills. She was charming to the young ladies, with their waved platinum hair, who earned three pounds a week in the chorus. A good many
of the guests had brought Kodaks and she submitted with affability to being photographed. She applauded enthusiastically when Grace Hardwill sang her famous song to the accompaniment of the composer. She laughed as heartily as anyone when the comic woman did an imitation of her in one of her best-known parts… (Chapter 14)

This is the dominant impression of the book – Maugham guying his own character and milking for comic entertainment the grande dame of the theatre is almost never, actually, ‘herself’.

Another comic running thread running throughout the book is the way Julia strings along her aged, wealthy devotee, Charles Tamerley, by staging a variety of ‘scenes’ for him, including the Distraught But Faithful Woman or The Woman Shaken By Emotion for her Lover. All this leads up to the climactic comedic scene where Julia offers him her Virginal Body, and is comically disconcerted to discover that he is not only not interested, but appalled.

This arch self-consciousness is the book’s most distinguishing feature and every scene which features it is deliciously entertaining.

Historical notes

When Charles doesn’t respond to Julia making herself abundantly available to him, she wonders whether he is a) impotent or b) homosexual.

Julia reflectively lit a cigarette. She asked herself if Charles had used his devotion to her as a cover to distract attention from his real inclinations. But she shook her head. If he had been homosexual she would surely have had some hint of it; after all, in society since the war they talked of practically nothing else.

Was homosexuality really that much of a common topic of discussion in the Twenties and Thirties? Is Maugham being satirical? Or was it very much the topic of discussion in his own, very much homosexual circles?

‘Getting off’ This is the expression we used as teenagers in the 1970s to describe have a fumble with a member of the opposite sex. I was surprised to see it being used by posh people in the 1930s.

Julia: ‘What I want to say is, if I really set my mind on getting off with a man, d’you think I could?’
Evie: ‘Knowing what men are, I wouldn’t be surprised. Who d’you want to get off with now?

Sex appeal Also a surprisingly common phrase by the mid-1930s.

‘Sex appeal,’ Julia murmured to herself… ‘It’s not as if I had no sex appeal… It’s ridiculous to suppose that I could have got to my position if I hadn’t got sex appeal. What do people come to see an actress for? Because they want to go to bed with her. Do you mean to tell me that I could fill a theatre for three months with a rotten play if I hadn’t got sex appeal? What is sex appeal anyway?’

Adaptations

Unsurprisingly, this novel about the stage was itself adapted for the stage, and has been made into no fewer than three movie adaptations, the latest as recent as 2004.


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Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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.

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The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released, with disastrous results – while Belinda drives with the unconscious Esmond back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe (2009)

Sharpe was 81 when this book was published and had, according to the dedication, survived a serious illness which nearly killed him in 2006. We’re lucky to have the book at all.

Although not one of his best, The Gropes trundles along at a kind of guaranteed basic level of comedy without ever reaching the heights of maniac hysteria which the two South African novels, for example, ahieve in their first chapters. But it is genially amusing.

The Wileys

The book is in two parts, set in two locations. In boring suburban Croydon live timid bank manager Horace Wiley and his sentimental wife Vera. It is a funny idea that Vera lives her life entirely through the prism of the romantic novels she has consumed since childhood, seeing in her mind’s eye dashing heroes with their blouses slashed open to the waist revealing manly chests, while their black locks blow in the wind which is also whipping up the storm-tossed waves of the sea, and so on and so on.

The way Vera forces timid, knock-kneed, big-eared Horace to drive all the way to Beachy Head and propose to her is funny, as is the way he gabbles out his speech and then grasps her to his heaving bosom (i.e grabs hold of her) because he is terrified of being blown over the cliff edge and Vera is, whatever she thinks of herself, very solidly built and a good object to cling onto in a gale at the top of a cliff.

They have a son, Esmond (named after the hero in one of Vera’s simpering romances), who is the spitting image of his dad and who grows into an unprepossessing youth whose habit is lurking in unexpected corners. He looks so exactly like his father that Horace becomes more and more upset at looking at his own mirror image every day and when Esmond takes up the drum, Horace finally snaps, getting drunk one evening and going to attack Esmond with the nearest thing to hand, a carving knife, before tripping over and then bursting into tears. His puzzled wife and son put him to bed.

The Ponsons

Vera calls her brother over to help. Albert Ponson is known in his part of Essex as an extremely dodgy second-hand car dealer, with a reputation for violence. Still, even Albert is horrified when he goes up to Horace’s bedroom and listens to the mild-mannered bank manager raving about chopping up his son and dissolving the body in a vat of acid. In fact, this is a ploy by Horace to achieve precisely what then follows: Albert offers to take the boy off Vera’s hands for a bit till Horace calms down.

The reluctant Esmond is piled into Albert’s swish Aston Martin and driven back to the Ponson bungalow in rural Essex. Sharpe gives a funny description of how it is stuffed from top to bottom with the latest gadgets – plasma TV, microwaves, designer kitchen, swimming pool with jacuzzi – and a slightly more unsettling description of how it is only surrounded by this army of kitchenware that Albert’s wife, Belinda, can manage to keep her sanity, in the wide flat boring landscape of Essex.

Apart from his criminal friends, Belinda knows that Albert is routinely unfaithful to her and she’s been wondering whether young Esmond would make a suitable toyboy lover. With this in mind she not only shows him the jacuzzi moments after he’s arrived, dazed and confused at the new house, but strips off and gets into it, scaring the boy – as timid, knock-kneed and shy as his father – witless.

So when he and Belinda return to the bungalow’s shagpile living room half an hour later, Esmond is grateful to accept a whisky from Albert, even though he’s never drunk spirits before in his life. And then another. And another. When Belinda walks back into the room after preparing dinner it is to find Esmond lying unconscious in his own vomit and Albert only barely capable of talking. That does it. He’s a pig and a bully for getting the boy into this state and she has had enough.

Belinda packs her bags, lugs the unconscious Esmond into the Aston Martin, then locks all the bungalow’s internal and external doors, sets all the alarms, and drives off, leaving her unconscious husband forever. When Albert regains dim consciousness later that night, with an appalling hangover, he finds all the doors and (bullet-proof) windows are locked so is forced to pee into the ornamental pot plant in the corner. Then he starts banging and hammering for release. And eventually uses the handgun he keeps in a drawer to shoot off the lock of the door into the garage. It’s about now that the concerned neighbours call the police, alarmed by the sound of shots.

The police

The police are exactly the same kind of dependably burly, straightforward, easily confused coppers who have populated all Sharpe’s novels – in fact are a vital ingredient in all of them – since Wilt. They are thrilled to be called to the bungalow, since they’ve been looking for an excuse to lock up Albert Ponson for some time.

When Albert yells through the garage door that everything’s locked from the outside and he can’t get out, they reassure him that they’ll get a nearby digger truck to hook a chain over the top of the garage door and wrench it open. ‘Don’t do that,’ he yells, ‘because…’ but – too late! As the digger pulls the garage door open the whole side of the house falls onto it and the house collapses in a pile of rubble, leaving a dazed and dust-covered Albert surrounded by sparking electric wires and spouting broken water pipes. His beautiful house!

The police are always, in Sharpe, not agents of law and order but the opposite – stirrers up of confusoin, misunderstanding and anarchy.

Horace does a bunk

At the same time, and interspersed with Albert’s adventures, Horace the bank manager has decided he’s had enough. He too packs his bags and slips out the back door of his nice semi in Croydon, to elude his distraught wife. He goes to his own bank, rummages through the deposit boxes and steals the passport of a customer who looks vaguely like him. After a few nights in an anonymous London hotel, he pays for a berth on a tramp steamer to Latvia where he thinks his wife will never track him down and he can start a new life, thousands of miles away from her endless yacking about Regency heroes and heroines in tight bodices.

This is all easy to do because Vera is contacted by the police in Essex who tell her about her brother’s plight. Thinking her beautiful son is trapped in the house with Albert she drives across the country to be there.

The Gropes of Grope Hall

But Esmond is miles away. Belinda has abandoned her marriage and life in Essex in order to return to her ancestral home, Grope Hall, stuck away in thousands of acres of inhospitable Northumberland moorland. Because, it turns out, she is herself one of the Grope family, the legendary lords of the manors of this remote fastness. In fact the ‘lords’ of the manor have been female ever since a timid Viking, around 900 AD, feeling seasick after the long voyage from Denmark, was assaulted by the ugliest woman in the Saxon village his mates were looting, one Ursula Grope, and carried off back to her village.

That founding abduction of a feeble man by a strong woman set the tone for a dynasty which is a true matriarchy, where power has been handed down from mother to daughter, and where men have been abducted, used for their sperm to fertilise the Grope women, then kept on as chattels and servants.

For a thousand years the Grope women have ruled the roost, through political and industrial revolutions and Belinda, wondering why she ever left for the boring flatlands of Essex, is back with the latest in a long line of kidnapped men, poor Esmond Wiley.

Parallel storylines

In the second half of the novel these storylines proceed in parallel, in brisk comic chapters dominated by frenzied dialogue:

  • Horace Wiley leaves the tramp steamer at Holland and catches trains to Germany, picking up spare passports and identity papers wherever he goes, sometimes catching local buses, sometimes walking remote tracks, south into Italy and then across into France, all the time driven by a (frankly not very believable) desire to evade his ghastly wife. He ends up blundering more by luck than judgement into Catalonia in northern Spain where he comes to rest in a hotel with a fine view of the beach and the thousands of scantily-clad young women who spend the day sunbathing on it. He buys a pair of binoculars and devotes his days to letching at their nubile bodies then, one night, is accosted in the bar by a middle-aged woman, Elsie, who, improbably has been watching him watching her. She boldly invites herself up to his hotel room, quickly strips and gives Horace the first sexual experience he’s had since the act of love which conceived Esmond, seventeen years earlier. Hooked, intoxicated, they eat a big lunch, then retire for more championship sex but just as he is getting into bed for yet another session, Horace drops dead of a heart attack. Panic stricken, Elsie rummages through Horace’s belongings, tidies up the room as best she can and bolts back to her room.
  • Meanwhile, Esmond has come into his own at Grope Hall. Far away from his fussing mother and hate-filled dad, taken under the wing of Old Samuel the groundsman, Esmond turns out to be a natural at all kinds of practical tasks to do with running the farm, looking after the pigs and even the two enormous bulls, bought years ago, to stop any nosy parkers intruding. Belinda decides that she too (like Horace) needs to elaborately cover her tracks and asks Old Samuel to think of a way of disposing of Albert’s car, the one she drove up north in and, to Esmond’s delight, Old Samuel conceives the idea of driving it into one of the many abandoned coal shafts (source of Grope Hall’s wealth in the Industrial Revolution) and then blowing up the mine with dynamite, which fulfils a lifetime of weedy Esmond’s fantasies of violence and destruction.

Taken together these two plotlines reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

The strength is their absurdity, the lengths to which Sharpe can ravel out lunatic conclusions for initially fairly plausible beginnings.

The weakness is that neither really comes to the explosive climax which characterised his earlier books: In the old days Horace Wiley wouldn’t just have dropped dead of a heart attack, he would have been caught in the middle of some kinky bondage position and his girlfriend would have been hand-cuffed to him, as the wardrobe fell over and the hotel staff smashed the door down – something like that. Whereas in this muted version, Horace just drops dead and Elise sneaks off without even discovering that he has a huge sum in cash stashed in his bags. Here, as on many other occasions, it feels like Sharpe is missing a trick to create the kind of mayhem he used to revel in.

Similarly, as soon as I read the word ‘dynamite’ I imagined that Old Samuel might blow up not just a mine shaft but the whole network of disused mines under Grope Hall, ideally at just the moment the entire Grope Family (of mainly women) was assembled in the main hall, at the climax of a great feast to celebrate the return of long-lost Belinda from the wastes of Essex, etc.

But no. The dynamite causes a little explosion which is just enough to cover the stolen car and then he and Esmond block the entrance with barbed wire and a warning sign. Er, that’s it. Compared to the mayhem of Sharpe’s earlier novels, very disappointing.

  • The blundering police blunder on for quite a while, blaming Albert for murdering his missing wife and nephew, and call in a brace of psychiatrists who have no trouble declaring Vera – now hysterical at the unexplained disappearance of her beloved son and husband – clinically insane. One of the dim coppers mistakenly things he overhears the words ‘al-Qaeda’ and so, for a while, there’s the promise that Albert will somehow get involved or be blamed for acts of Islamic terrorism. But this promising idea is never really developed, and he is just subjected to long, wearing interrogations which have none of the comic energy of, say, the battles of wits between the canny Henry Wilt and the hapless Inspector Flint from the first Wilt novel.

Conclusions

The book dawdles towards the marriage of Belinda and Esmond.

Esmond has grown in stature through working the land and making a genuine friendship with Old Samuel and he goes through with the small wedding ceremony to Belinda despite misgivings about making his new wife a bigamist.

Meanwhile Old Samuel digs up the ancient brass plaque in the church and discovers a big bag of gold sovereigns beneath it and gives it to Esmond – who promptly declares they must both share it.

And when Esmond finally nerves himself to make the big speech to Belinda which he’s been preparing for weeks – saying that he rejects the ancient matriarchal traditions of Grope Hall and that he, Esmond, will refuse to be slipped sleeping pills and treated like a skivvy – she agrees! Belinda agrees that the old traditions are barbaric. They are both equals. If they have a baby girl, so be it. If it’s a boy, fine. Let them live equally and happily ever after.

And so, without anything blowing up or burning down, without the police, army, bomb disposal or the air force being at all involved in a massive firefight and the reckless devastation of the entire neighbourhood i.e. without any of the characteristics of a classic Tom Sharpe climax – the novel ends on a quiet sensible note of domestic happiness. Which makes it by far the weirdest ending of any of Tom Sharpe’s novels.


Credit

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2009. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.

Cornwall

He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.

Firefight

Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).

Conclusion

Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.


God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


Credit

The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis (1995)

‘She told me she saw something in one of the papers about somebody called something Scott-Thompson writing something about JRP Fane…’ (p.96)

Not particularly successful, forty-something literary journalist, Gordon Scott-Thompson, pitches the idea of writing a ‘critical biography’ of 68-year-old, very posh and very out-of-date novelist Jimmie Fane, to his reluctant publisher.

There follows a series of lunches and dinners with Jimmie and his pukka mates (Tommie, Bobbie), at his house, at nice restaurants, at Jimmie’s club (Grays), and entanglements with old friends and lovers of the great man, which Gordon experiences with varying levels of Amisian alienation and bewilderment.

Characteristically for an Amis ‘hero’, Gordon also struggles to maintain a relationship with his live-out lover Louise, and to manage the attentions of Jimmie’s (fourth) wife, Joanna, after she sets out – successfully – to seduce him.

Complications are introduced in the form of an ancient lover of Jimmie’s – Madge Walker – who he jilted way back during the war and is now living in genteel poverty with her deaf, ex-Navy husband; and in a prolonged visit to the phenomenally posh Duke of Dunwich in his country house at Hungerstream, which is chock-full of Lucky Jim-style comic embarrassments.

This long country house sequence is very funny. There’s no real necessity for it in the plot. It’s simply one of the many country weekends Jimmie is constantly angling to get himself invited to, and his wife, Joanna, simply happens to suggest to Gordon that he comes along – and why not bring his girlfriend, Louise.

In the event Gordon travels there by train, sees a bunch of other, genuinely posh guests at Hungerstream station who all ignore him, a chauffeur-driven car takes them all to the enormous house and then a whole series of comic episodes ensue: from first meeting the dodgy Duke himself, to the ordeal of a formal dinner during which Gordon gets catastrophically drunk, to embarrassing scenes with Louise and with Jimmie’s wife, Joanna, who sets out to seduce him.

This long sequence fits the theme of the novel, which is the English class system, but mostly it is an opportunity for Amis to relentlessly takes the piss out of the English upper classes, their braying inability to speak properly, their permanent drunkenness, their outrageous rudeness – which all around them tolerate and put up with because all around them are themselves such awful social climbers and snobs.

That said, at the heart of the section is a long and curiously touching scene where Jimmie the writer takes Gordon his biographer for a wintry morning walk in the countryside and confesses a teenage attachment to Tennyson and In Memoriam which for so long inspired him to write his own (unpublishably bad) poetry.

It is also during this long country house interlude that Joanna explains to Gordon that Jimmie is planning to return to his second wife – Lady Rowena – who’s come into some money – and so to ditch her, Joanna.

Which is why she began her affair with him – Gordon. Gordon’s not sure how he feels about this but tells her he loves her, just in case. Lucky Jim-style, Gordon drinks himself insensible at the big evening meal at Hungerstream and so misses some kind of showdown which takes place between Joanna and Jimmie. All the cast members return to London next day in various stages of hungoverness and high dudgeon.

Quite separate from all this is a sub-plot in which Gordon wangles some money out of Joanna to pass on to Madge Walker, Jimmie’s former lover, now fallen on hard times, to help support her bed-bound former Navy captain husband. But soon enough the novel hurtles towards its denouements. In the end:

  1. Jimmie gets cold feet about returning to wife number two, after she actually shows up at the Duke of Dunwich’s, thereby forcibly reminding him how ghastly she is. So he abandons his plan, explaining his thinking calmly enough to Joanna.
  2. So Joanna in turn dumps Gordon and returns to the old bugger – ‘I love you darling but… let’s never talk about it again.’ Gordon takes it badly. Now he has lost both his women, Joanna and Louise, and stays up watching crap TV in his rubbish flat drinking himself insensible on whisky.
  3. Gordon’s publisher doesn’t surprise him very much by telling him that he’s been taken over by some vast conglomerate who’ve taken a look at the books and are cutting down on anything which isn’t a copper-bottomed bestseller – starting with weedy lit crit books like Gordon’s. He, the publisher, is himself being made redundant soon. Sign of the times, old boy.
  4. And Louise, the girlfriend he dumped to have the affair with Joanna, but who Joanna asked him to nonetheless take along to the Duke of Dunwich’s as ‘cover’ for their affair. She takes the Duke’s fancy and the novel ends a month or so later with Gordon attending their outrageously posh wedding.

This is Amis’s last published novel. Its immediate predecessor, You Can’t Have Both, was lengthy and divided into just four long parts or ‘acts’. This made it a little challenging for the reader to orientate herself within what presented themselves as long continuous floods of prose.

By contrast The Biographer’s Moustache is divided into 30 short chapters. This has the effect of making each chapter address one ‘scene’ only, and encourages them to be more clipped and focused. As a result, the book is both easier to read and gives a stronger impression of pace and focus.

The style

Vague That said, Amis’s style is as weird as ever. It revels in vagueness and inconsequentiality with none of the characters ever thinking or saying anything plain or logical. To pick up an Amis novel is to enter a maze of equivocation and diffusion, with the anti-hero – Gordon, in this one – likely to be stuck in an ‘everyday condition of puzzlement and unsatisfied curiosity’ (p.97), amid a wreck of bewildering and unpredictable other characters. Our man rarely understand what’s going on, what other people are doing or thinking, or what he’s meant to do next.

The use of ‘or’ A big symptom of this attitude is Amis’s addiction to giving multiple variant interpretations of even the simplest activities, and linking them with the word ‘or’. Hardly anything is said or happens which isn’t given at least two possible interpretations:

  • The number was or seemed to be permanently engaged. (p.105)
  • When he left her after the rissole lunch she had talked without pause till they were on the doorstep, then said something hurried and unemphatic that he remembered or had interpreted as a directive to get in touch or keep in touch with her… (p.98)

There are so many usages of ‘or’ that you could sub-categorise them. Some of them are dismissive, conveying an irritable, short-tempered attitude in the author or character:

  • Jimmie explained to Gordon as they sat in an otherwise empty corner of the lounge, or whatever it might have been called. (p.68)
  • ‘He’s in Cambridge, having lunch with the Master or the Warden of somewhere…’ (p.73)

At moments like this the narrator (or characters – the same tone is interchangeable between them) seems to be saying ‘Listen, I’m just in too much of a bloody hurry to bother with the details, alright?’

At that moment she got out of the green chair and strolled towards a window or a picture or a bookcase… (p.75)

A different type of ‘or’ occurs when the narrator seems to be trying to capture subtle differences in human behaviour, where the narrator is recording characters’ equivocation or uncertainty about their own motives.

  • This too he did, or started to. (p.103)
  • Perhaps he was in love, or was going to be. (p.179)

These give the appearance of a keen scholar of human motivation striving to find just the right definition or phrase in the way ‘the novel’ is traditionally meant to:

  • He must have been responding without knowing it, or more likely without admitting it to himself. (p.74)

So is the proliferation of ‘or’ sentences – and there are three or four on every page – the sign of a clever investigation of human nature – or just an irritating mannerism?

  • In fact he arrived at the building a few seconds before the agreed hour, just when a neurotically precise or something-like-that person would have got there. (p.107)
  • In one way or perhaps in more than one he had welcomed this. (p.118)

Whatever the precise intention of individual deployments of the word ‘or’, the overall impact of them is to weaken and undermine the main statement.

More than one in a sentence creates a diminuendo effect: the more there are the more they make the power or certainty of a statement deflate like a punctured balloon. Like a lot of Amis’s mannerisms it can be funny or serious or irritating or all three at once; one thing is sure, this stylistic tic occurs numerous times on every page and is a dominant feature of his style.

  • Joanna’s voice slackened. She had the look of somebody who has said more than enough, or perhaps less than enough… (p.127)
  • She gave a long sigh, as if resigning something or the hope of something. (p.152)

Some of that Being in a state of permanent bewilderment means that Mr Confused and Puzzled is at a loss for how to handle, think about or cope with other people. When they talk to him he perceives it as being talked at and gives the impression of just sitting nodding waiting for ‘it’ to end. He – and the other characters, since all the characters share the narrator’s frame of mind and turn of phrase – use a set of frequently repeated phrases to convey this sense of having to sit through the unbearable twaddle other people are spouting: having to endure bits of ‘stuff’ or ‘that lot’ of piffle or ‘more of the same’, or ‘this section’ of whatever they’re on about, as though it’s all incomprehensible.

  • Gordon could not think of any useful reply to make to this last lot… (p.139)
  • This phase was soon ended… (p.165)
  • Cooper arrived with the tea in time to hear this last bit. (p.256)

Quite regularly the protagonist thinks he’s being assailed with a foreign language or just gobbledygook. Even regular conversation feels like a burden he has to sit through, miming appropriate expressions of happiness or understanding or interest as best he can.

Dialogue To some extent Amis’s dialogue – and there’s lots of it – makes an admirable effort to capture real people’s hesitations and evasions, repetitions and stumbles. The downside is that nobody in Amis ever seems able to get to the point, if indeed there is a point. Amis’s dialogue must be the vaguest and most obtuse of any published author.

  • ‘Of course I’m not sure that’s what he said. People aren’t, you don’t, people can’t expect to be sure of what he said any time, can they?’ (p.173)
  • ‘On consideration, something I don’t go in for much these days, I should say that the best part of me, or the least bad part of me, or the least bad part of what there is of me, or was of me… is in verse form.’ (p.178)

His characters don’t discuss something to establish its nature and come to logical decisions; their conversations are masterpieces of mutual incomprehension, games of obfuscation which the narrator or protagonist observes with bemused detachment.

  • Gordon had no chance of either improving or throwing doubt on this reading of motives in what followed. (p.189)
  • Gordon was conscious of having put his point with something less than unimprovable clarity and force. Jimmie shared this general view, or affected to. (p.265)

Abandon all hope of crisp, pithy, pointed dialogue. Relax and enjoy this world of confusion, uncertainty, vagueness and misunderstanding.

The absent protagonist The net effect of all these peculiarities is that quite often the hero seems to be only barely present in his own life.

  • He soon found himself quite unable to decide whether he had started an affair or received the equivalent of a very friendly pat on the head. (p.76)
  • ‘You aren’t one of those characters?’ he found he had said. (p.191)
  • To visit a part [of the house] he had at least seen before gave him a feeling, however illusory, of being in touch with events, even perhaps of having some influence over them. (p.197)

Mostly the effect is played for laughs but sometimes can be quite unnerving and is so consistent across the whole book that this feeling of detachment from other people even himself – of watching everything from a bubble – is one of the book’s strongest flavours.

Acting Sometimes the sense of detachment is so intense you almost think you’re in the mind of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who can’t read or puzzle out other people at all. And if you can’t read other people – if you are incapable of deducing their intentions even when they’re talking directly to you – then you have to guess what they’re on about from any available sources, maybe from how you’ve seen people behave in films or TV; and you yourself attempt to reply by adopting similar play-acting and mime, by imitating people of who do know how to respond, or at least look like they know how to respond.

Jimmie’s face took on an expression of overdone and also somehow proletarian dismay. Gordon was emboldened to drop into his efficient television-cockney. (p.83)

Adrift in a world of play-acting you come to think that everyone else is also acting a role, and this seeing other people as actors is a consistent aspect of Amis’s worldview and style.

  • He peered in the direction he had been going and saw Jimmie  just started on a very life-like imitation of a man unself-consciously opening the front door of his house and presently shutting it after him. (p.106)
  • Doing his best not to impersonate a schoolboy taken out for a special treat in a grown-up restaurant… (p.126)
  • Gordon sipped with pretended relish. (p.130)

Time The need to act instead of to directly experience the world, is related to Amis’s odd perception of Time. Time doesn’t flow in Amis’s novels, but is always broken up into sections, chunks, bits and pieces, and the protagonist experiences his life as an endless negotiation and navigation through ‘the next bit’ or the stuff which happens ‘quite soon afterwards’, through ‘the next section’, and so on, as if incapable of experiencing the flow of time without dividing it up into units which have to be managed and coped with.

  • Just before or just after saying that… (p.48)
  • The ensuing pause was quite brief, but it was long enough for several thoughts… (p.74)
  • By way of completing this section, Gordon laughed loudly… (p.91)
  • He said the last part as he left the bedroom… (p.170)
  • Eventually the whole party had gathered in the library… and that went on for some time without detectable damage to anyone present. (p.186)
  • … but then perhaps he had slept through that part. (p.196)
  • Later, more than at any time, but not only later, Gordon thought about the duke… (p.201)
  • When the time came, or when he could put it off no longer… (p.237)
  • Without anything that could be called a delay he was taken to a room… (p.243)
  • For the moment, in fact any moment, he would have to stand up to arriving in the place. (p.276)

His relationship to Time is so odd I wonder if some kind of paper or article could be written about it, which would refer to 20th century philosophies of Time as well as current psychological knowledge about the human perception of Time, in order to clarify the different tactics Amis adopts towards it, in order to investigate the problem of ‘duration’ and the fundamental challenge of understanding human experience.

Although mostly played for laughs, this problem with Time and experience seems to me to be the issue underlying all his novels.

Transparent The protagonist of You Can’t Have It Both, Robin Davies, gives the impression of being fairly canny and calculating right up to the end of the book, when he’s exposed as being childishly transparent – a hopelessly selfish womaniser, who his mum and dad and wife and girlfriends can all read like an open book.

Useless Similarly, in this one, Gordon is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to dealing with the suave Jimmie, his snobbish pals, his seducing wife, his sly publisher or his own capable girlfriend. You get the sense that everyone is ‘playing’ the hapless hero. In a funny moment, after their first kiss, Jimmie’s wife asks if he wants to proceed and, in that half moment, Gordon realises that he’s toppling into having an affair because he can’t think quickly enough of any way to politely say No. He is, like so many other Amis men, completely useless.

Funny Sometimes Amis escapes all his mannerisms to be just funny about the world we live in, sometimes very funny.

Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest. (p.70)

After a short while there presumably sounded some buzzer or kindred device inaudible to Gordon and all at once Lady Rowena withdrew her attention from him so totally that he felt like glancing down at himself to make sure he was still there. (p.190)

Moments like this are like spending hours trying to tune a radio and suddenly stumbling across a clear audible signal, or hacking your way through a jungle and suddenly stumbling into a clearing and strolling across it nice and easy.

But clarity of intention and phrasing like this is rare in Amis’s work. Most of the time we are subjected to the wandering divagations of the all-too-easily easily-distracted prose. Instead of writing the thing itself, Amis can’t stop himself writing nugatory elaborations on it, or something like it, or whatever. Almost as if he’s bored of writing and has to give sentences an unexpected twirl just to keep his interest alive.

The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. (p.56)

And sometimes the combination of all Amis’s odd mannerisms brings the prose perilously close to gibberish.

  • At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. (p.25)
  • Gordon was just opening his mouth to give another and firmer refusal when he caught the sound as of a heavy body falling somewhere upstairs, faint at this distance but no doubt substantial on the spot, not perhaps an unmistakable advertisement of the duke’s presence near at hand but not mistakable enough for Gordon, who forthwith told Jimmie to lead on. (p.171)

On every page Amis bends and distorts the language but not towards the crisp expressiveness of Americans like Martin Cruz Smith – not towards clarity or modernity – but clotting together an array of old-fashioned English phrases and idioms with what often seem to be experiments in seeing just how convoluted a sentence can be twisted before it breaks.

If you’re in a hurry to read for the plot, it can be very irritating but in this novel, because of its shorter chapters and more focused presentation of character and scene, I mostly found it stimulating and amusing.

Class

‘A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of the class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is…’
‘I know, it’s dead.’ (p.22)

I’m not generally interested in a book’s ‘themes’ since these are often so obvious and so obviously designed to be written about, analysed and discussed in book clubs or GCSE classes. But mention should be made of the way this novel very conspicuously ‘investigates’, ‘uses’, ‘explores’ etc the English class system.

Specifically, the hapless hero Gordon is continuously aware of being at a disadvantage whenever he’s with Jimmie or his nobby friends at the club or with his pukka wife in bed, let alone among the posh guests of the impossibly upper-class Duke of Dunwich.

On the surface this gives rise to:

a) actual experiences of upper class snobbery, as when Gordon is blanked at Hungerstream train station when the Duke’s other posh guests realise he’s nobody significant, or is insulted by Jimmie’s pals at the club, or is intimidated by the Duke’s butler or chauffeur
b) discussions of the class system with Jimmie himself, with Joanna, with Louise, with the publisher and so on, who all give their take on whether there still is a class system in England, how important it might be, and so on

We can say on the evidence of the text that Jimmie is quite open about being a social climber and loves being invited to the houses of the aristocracy and enjoys teasing Gordon about his middle-class origins – in a running joke he’s always trying to catch Gordon out in non-U pronunciations of words like ‘often’  and ’tissue’.

But Jimmie himself has an uneasy relationship with Bobbie and Tommie at the club who may be a little above him in social class – and is nowhere as lofty as the permanently drunk Duke of Dunwich – whereas his wife Joanna, although she has inherited money, isn’t as posh as Jimmie.

All this leaves Gordon’s girlfriend Louise as his ally in non-poshness, although he is outflanked by his publisher who takes up with a society lady during the course of the novel and so disconcerts Gordon with reports of his goings-on with the Fane family based on Society gossip. And so on.

Money is inextricably linked with all these definitions of position in society and with the pairings or bondings between males and females known as ‘marriage’. Joanna is aware that her family money was part of the reason Jimmie married her – and that fact that wife number two – Lady Rowena – has recently come into a lot of money is the main reason Jimmie seriously considers dumping Joanna and remarrying Rowena – until he actually meets her and remembers how ghastly she is.

So you could analyse the entire story in terms of the complex web of social class and money it creates, and declare it ‘a study of contemporary society and social customs’ etc, as if it was a piece of anthropological research.

Or do a structuralist or narratological interpretation which saw the characters as blocks or units whose overlappings and intersections create nexuses of energy and rest which make up the dynamic patterns across the text.

Or you could inject some morality into the analysis e.g. Gordon’s contempt for Jimmie is ‘right’ and justified by Jimmie’s incurable snobbery, or is itself flawed by his own ‘immoral’ behaviour in having an affair with Jimmy’s wife, etc.

But I prefer to stick to a more stylistic analysis of the actual words on the page, of the deformations or innovations or habits or oddities of language of which the text is actually made up. From this more limited point of view the emphasis on the theme of social class has two results:

  1. It taps into a rich tradition of English comic writers taking the mickey out of the English class system going back through Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse to Dickens, and back further to the earliest comic novels of Henry Fielding. Dim, drunk, huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ types are the stockest of stock characters in English comic writing.
  2. For Amis’s more particular purposes, being a class outsider is just another (time-honoured) way of achieving the aim of most of his novels, which is to present the hapless hero as hopelessly isolated, confused and discombobulated.

The main conclusion I’d draw from the presence of the ‘class theme’ is that Amis’s return to such a time-honoured comic topic results in a novel which is noticeably more straightforward and funny than a lot of its predecessors.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book. The focused story and the use of short chapters make this a more enjoyable read than its immediate predecessors. And whereas Robin Davies (protagonist of the previous book) really came over as a manipulative, selfish bastard, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste at the story’s conclusion, in this, Amis’s final novel, the central figure, Gordon, is more sinned against than sinning, more the kind of hapless nincompoop that Lucky Jim Dixon was in Amis’s first novel.

And, against all expectations, I found myself warming to Jimmie the snobbish old writer. The long excursion to Hungerstream, the vast country pile of the Duke of Dunwich, was a refreshing change of scene for an Amis novel, so many of which usually take place in rooms in north London houses where people get drunk or are miserably unfaithful to each other. The change of scene seemed to revive his writing, making it both more funny and more moving than in recent books.

For all Amis’s weirdnesses of style and worldview, or maybe because I’m so used to them now that I positively enjoy them, I really liked this book and look forward to rereading it sometime.


Credit

The Biographer’s Moustache by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis (1994)

‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear… (p.128)

Amis was born in 1922, so he started secondary school just as Herr Hitler took power in Germany (1933) and reached manhood during the Battle of Britain (1940). He grew up in a middle-class, South London household and went to the local grammar school.

Maybe writing his Memoirs (published in 1991) brought a lot of his teenage years back. Whatever the cause, You Can’t Have Both is, for most of its length, an easy-going third-person narrative about an Amis-like boy, then young man, named Robin Davies, which is surprisingly mellow and forgiving about his parents, his chums at school and Oxford, and about the hapless young ladies he clumsily tries to seduce.

The use of a throwaway everyday phrase for the title is characteristic (I Like It HereI Want It Now) and highly symptomatic of the casual, half-baked thought processes and style of the narrator and all the characters – they sort of, kind of, in a way, vaguely, maybe did something, or not – or something, at any rate.

From his earliest novels, Amis’s prose style, and the attitude it’s built on, have always struck me as oddly detached and alienated – a style which regards everyone around the narrator as creatures from another planet whose behaviour is unfathomably mysterious and unpredictable. There are glaring examples of his bewildered attitude on every page. That said, from time to time the prose reads like the work of someone who is actually trying to be funny, and fairly regularly – in among the strange attitude and clotted prose style – succeeds.

It’s divided into four chapters:

Chapter 1

Robin is 14 or 15, at Grammar school, good at Latin, with the usual small circle of school chums. He lives with his extravagantly normal dad, who insists on having manly heart-to-heart conversations and referring to him as ‘old boy’, as well as his mum, who likes to prepare the sitting room so they can have one of their ‘chats’. When neither of them are around the teenage Robin’s acts of assertiveness or rebellion are very much of their time (around 1936?) – plugging in and listening to the radiogram without his father’s permission; smoking a cigarette till it makes him feel sick and giddy; listening to Louis Armstrong at a friend’s house (reminding me of one of the few true-feeling scenes in The Crime of the Century, where the detective and the boy hero discuss just what it is that’s so exciting about Armstrong-era jazz).

Into this stiflingly boring world comes the 20-year-old son of one of his mum’s friends, Jeremy Carpenter, who is at Cambridge, knows about jazz and smoking and poetry, and is generally a god-like idol.

In the second half of this act, Robin is packed off to stay with his father’s relatives in Wales, who are made out to be yokel gargoyles. His one clumsy attempt to kiss his much older cousin, Dilys, who had led him on a bit, ends in disaster. But then, to Robin’s astonishment, Jeremy turns up in Wales, saying he was staying with friends in nearby Shropshire anyway. Jeremy takes him out for the day, treats him to a slap-up lunch with wine, then a drive out to a sunny hillside. Here it all comes to grief when Jeremy asks young Robin whether he has any experience of ‘the other’ i.e. of boys i.e of homosexuality. Robin blushes and says no, Jeremy quickly asserts that he hasn’t either, they repair to the car, and Jeremy drives him back to his Welsh relatives’ house, before reversing the car and disappearing. Robin trudges up the lane to the cottage blind with tears, his idol-worship smashed (one of the few times I can remember any Amis character revealing a weakness or expressing any emotion apart from bewilderment).

Chapter 2

Jump forward a few years to Robin now at Oxford studying classics. Expecting some local colour or  history? Forget it. We learn almost nothing about the university, his particular college, the wider city or the period it’s set in. Instead, the text claustrophobically focuses on Robin’s consuming need to seduce a fellow student, Barbara Bates. He eventually gets her into bed where – it’s difficult to make out through the evasions and euphemisms to which the 70 year-old Amis is still prey – but it seems he performs badly, or his post-coital attitude is maladroit, and so she ends up avoiding him.

No problem, though, because in the rooms of his best mate, Embleton, at another Oxford college, he meets young Nancy Bennett, just 17 and not at the university. She works at a record shop in the High Street and they go on a few dates before he is invited to meet her parents (her dad standing behind the bar in his lounge and delivering politely menacing threats). Then Nancy is invited to spend a weekend at his parents’ house, in London.

Here they take advantage of his parents being out unexpectedly long one day, to go to bed and have full intercourse. There follows an excruciatingly embarrassing scene, when the parents return, of his dad asking Robin on his honour whether anything untoward took place when they were out. Robin lies but Nancy goes bright red with shame and then the secret comes tumbling out.

The book describes in horrible detail the embarrassed way Robin’s dad, a decent bloke really, himself doesn’t really know what to do and, after consulting his wife, decides they must ask Nancy to leave. This causes upset for all the people concerned – Robin, his dad, his mum, and Nancy – effectively blamed and humiliated – which takes some time to simmer down.

Chapter 3

The timeline jumps again to After the War (1946?). Robin had been called up, managed to secure officer rank, won a medal and, in its final stages, was taken prisoner and saw the war out in a German POW camp. In this long third section there are two important storylines:

1. His father is diagnosed with cancer and the book describes Robin and his older brother George’s efforts to deal with it, to visit the visibly failing old man in hospital, and then to organise the cremation at a dreary suburban crematorium.

2. But by far the bigger amount of time is devoted to the fact that – on returning from hearing his father’s diagnosis – Robin has fierce life-affirming sex with Nancy (who, surprisingly, he’s still going out with, years and years after the initial embarrassments recorded in the previous chapter) but – oops – she gets pregnant, a disaster at a time when abortion was illegal and being an unmarried mother carried a crippling stigma.

These is a long sequence which describes their stuttering immature attempts to think through all the solutions, given Robin’s extreme reluctance to get married, her reluctance to become an unmarried mother, and the impossibility of getting an abortion.

Eventually, via their shady landlady, they are put in touch with an abortion clinic in Wales (always Wales in Amis’s books), Robin borrows the necessary £100 from his older brother, George, and he and Nancy catch a train down to Cardiff, there to stay at a boarding house which is part of the package.

The accretion of detail – albeit filtered through Amis’s tortured prose – slowly and effectively creates an air of suspense and expectation and muted horror, both Robin and Nancy behaving and talking ‘normally’ while their unconscious minds are obviously screaming. It all builds to the climactic scene where Robin takes her to the clinic, leaves her in the room where she is to prepare for the operation – then hears her burst into tears and goes back into the bedroom to find her flung on the bed and absolutely distraught. In more or less the only decent act of his life, Robin realises he is being a selfish bastard. He packs her stuff for her, whisks her away and, in the train waiting room at Cardiff, proposes to her. Wow. Quite a turnaround.

There is then a sub-plot where Nancy’s staid mother and father refuse to attend the hurried registry office wedding which Robin has organised within just a few days, until Robin’s own mother insists on going to a face-to-face meeting with them and, surprisingly, gets them to change their minds.

In parallel to all this are several scenes where Robin visits his brother George and is witness to the appalling hell of having a child – in his brother’s case his little girl, Marian – who screams and bawls and throws food everywhere and is generally a monster all day long. Some of this is very funny but mostly it confirms Robin in his horror of fatherhood, marriage, commitment – the whole shebang.

And so to the title of the book. As he discusses in one of the many long-winded and obtuse conversations which dominate the text, this one down the boozer with brother George, you can’t have both: you can’t have commitment and marriage – and at the same time remain a footloose bachelor, free to screw around. Why? Why can’t you have both? Because you have to bloody well grow up!

After his dad’s funeral Robin and his mother have one of their chats in which he is disconcerted to realise how transparent his character is to other people – how self-centred all around realise he is, how unreliable and shifty and duplicitous. God, is it really that obvious? He’s not even a shallow character. For all his endless calculating and his smart-arse pedantry about the Classics (his own private name for Xenophon’s Anabasis being How To Fuck Up A Good Story, ho ho p.212) – when it comes to relations with other people, he is barely human.

Chapter 4

A short, 15-page epilogue, in which our hero is revealed, nine or so years later, to have becomes a Reader in Classics at a Midland University and we think we are just going to be shown his boring after-life as a respectable middle-class, middle-aged paterfamilias. And certainly we see him motoring home at lunchtime to kiss his wife, the very same Nancy, and his two rambunctious daughters, Margaret and Matilda.

But there’s a sting in the tail. For quite quickly we realise that Robin, despite being respectably married, is still having extra-marital flings. In fact he’s off to one in London now, making up a cock-and-bull story about having to go do academic work or attend a conference. And so he takes the train to the Smoke, the tube to Fulham and checks into the quiet boarding house where he commits his deeds of darkness there to await… none other than the now rather stout Dilys, his cousin, older than him and who flirted with him in Wales when he was a pimply adolescent.

They have barely finished an aggressive act of congress before the phone rings in the rented room and, when Robin absent-mindedly picks it up, it is Nancy on the other end. She is downstairs. She has followed him. In fact she’s had him tailed by a private detective. She knows everything. Has done for months.

Robin creeps downstairs like a naughty schoolboy and there has to put up with a massive harangue about what a self-centred little shit he is, Nancy alternately shouting in his face or bursting into tears. She says she’ll take him back for one last chance but if anything like this happens again, she’ll leave him and take the girls and he’ll never see them again. Then she lands him a colossal punch in the face.

This might seem like a come-uppance, and almost like some kind of moral reckoning, but it isn’t. It feels exactly like the end of Take A Girl Like You from 26 years earlier, in which northern lass Jenny Bunn ends up marrying the caddish Patrick Standish despite knowing that he’ll never change; or like That Uncertain Feeling where we watch John Lewis lured into an adulterous affair which really, deeply hurts his loving wife, and so upsets the reader. Men who have the strength of character of a goldfish.

Similarly, the worldview behind this novel hasn’t shifted a jot in Amis’s 30-year-long career. If he thinks painting a warts-n-all, brutally self-flagellating portrait of this kind of man and this kind of character somehow redeems or justifies the behaviour, it doesn’t. Some readers have found the book moving, but I found the overall affect depressing and lowering. There is no joy to this compulsive coupling: just a brainless addiction, shallow deceptions and an aftertaste of ashes.


Amis’s sort of vague & diffuse style or something

It’s a real oddity that Amis wrote many essays and at least one book about English usage, and yet his own style is so contorted and obscure as to be sometimes almost unreadable.

His central tactic is to include in the narrative prose and dialogue the kind of throwaway, ‘whatever’ phrasing that many people use in everyday life (or used – the exact diction is, of course, very dated throughout). But in his hands it has become a mannerism with half a dozen specific elements or aspects, all contributing to make the characters and narrator sound infuriatingly vague, so casual in what they’re describing that it often becomes difficult to follow, so persistently offhand as to become wilfully obscure.

The tactics include:

The pointless qualification

Adding an extra clause at the end of a sentence, ‘or something’, to any previously firm statement, in order to make it feel weaker and vaguer.

  • ‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway.’ (p.145)
  • At other times, or even at the same time… (p.149)
  • He thought he’d make me like it by being around too much when I was a nipper, or not being around enough or something.’ (p.158)
  • He assured himself, with some truth, that in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon, (p.162)
  • Actually a different accent might have done his cause some good or at any rate less harm. (p.169)
  • The temple or secular chapel or whatever it was they entered… (p.204)
  • ‘What did you make of that extract or oration or whatever it was that your brother read out?’ (p.207)

Deliberate vagueness

Almost all the perceptions and thoughts which occur to any character are deliberately vague. There is a willed blurriness about what or who people or things are.

  • If anything the last bit was a faint surprise to Robin who had vaguely supposed…
  • Robin was mildly disconcerted by this approach, or lack of it…
  • And it is my business a bit, after all…
  • He’s always been one for speaking his mind, that’s to say some of his mind…
  • Oh he’ll be as nice as pie to you, or he’ll do his best to be…
  • Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear, that he spoke largely in jest…
  • They sort of have to fall back on being very fed up…
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway…’ (p.145)

The passive voice

I hadn’t previously noticed Amis’s use of the passive voice in oddly inappropriate settings. I’m sure it’s a new tactic in his campaign of undermining the English language’s ability to state facts and convey information.

  • The half-dozen little glassed-in cubicles, known to some as audition booths… (p.99)
  • He switched the wireless on and music from a brass band was to be heard. It was not a very agreeable noise… (p.119)
  • Food was visible, but dishing-up time went on being not yet. (p.168)
  • An indifferent recording of some archaic quasi-religious piece of music made itself heard for a minute or so… (p.204)
  • No actual detritus of food or make-up was to be seen… (p.232)
  • A solitary flash of gold was to be seen among his teeth. (p.239)
  • A man’s voice was soon to be heard… (p.242)

Amis’s laboured jokes

It’s meant to be a comic novel, but Amis was never simply funny in the way Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson or even David Lodge are funny. Right from the start there was always a substantial amount of knotty, difficult or ambiguous ‘real life’ in his books. Since his novels mostly tell of unappealing characters, from another era, conveyed in his peculiarly convoluted prose, these grapplings with serious issues or unpleasant experiences aren’t necessarily the good or enjoyable bits.

Sometimes his perceptions are just funny, no effort required.

She wore a dark garment that resembled, and perhaps in former days had actually been, a page’s tabard in some historical pageant. (p.89)

He, Robin, could on his own accord have wished for nothing better in its line than the absence of Mr and Mrs B from his wedding, except naturally for their absence from his life for a trial period of say fifty years. (p.273)

But sometimes his long-winded style makes you work considerably harder before you get to the punchline, at which point you ask, Well, was it worth it?

Robin’s bedroom, even when not given over to Nancy, boasted a gas-fire of curious three-dimensional design, with gnarled black burners instead of the more familiar straight white ones, a legacy of some previous owner of the house. It probably threw out no more heat at no greater cost than more conventional appliances, but its unusual horizontalised appearance made it not a thing to be trifled with, in other words not a thing to be used except at times of imminent glaciation. (p.130)

The punchline made me smile, but note the deliberate tone of vagueness and so-whattery – some previous owner, probably more heat. The narrator – well, Amis – just isn’t very interested in the world about him, except for girls and sex, a monomaniac compulsion which becomes very boring. As Robin himself confesses to brother George:

‘As long as I can remember I’ve thought about almost nothing but getting my end away…’ (p.147)

His older brother invites Robin and Nancy to accompany him and his girlfriend to the cinema. What an opportunity that could have been for adding in the detail of the films people went to see in the 1940s, with a snappy one-liner about Cagney or Bogart, a phrase encapsulating George or Robin’s character, a flash which would make the text come alive.

Instead George throws away the remark that the movie they’re planning to see is ‘some gangster thing’. A small example of the way none of the characters nor the narrator really notice or care very much about the world around them.

Amis’s acting

Everyone is acting and performing and hyper-aware of it, timing their performances of such business as laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, hesitating, putting on a show. These performances come in blocks and chunks; instead of a flow of time the reader gets disconnected excerpts, sections, bits of stuff, sequences of performance by one or other character.

  • After doing a certain amount of laughing about something or other…
  • The tea was made, with hot water standing by but no fanciful extras like slices of lemon. Robin managed not to grin at the very unwatchful way Nancy watched for consumer reaction to what she had prepared. To be on the safe side he limited his show of approval to minor noises and faces. (p.146)
  • He tried to get reliability and and unplumbed experience into the way he tilted his head forward and over to one side. (p.178)
  • This section lasted only a short time. (p.239)
  • Silence and pretended shame seemed called for… (p.219)
  • [George got] to his feet with caricatured haste. ‘Right on cue. I’ll have to go and do some welcoming home.’ (p.221)
  • [Marian attacked her tea] in the spirit of someone registering appetite in a silent film. (p.223) (p.231)
  • ‘Beck,’ he announced, stooped over Nancy’s hand and vigorously shook Robin’s, then did some more chuckling and went on with a good imitation of ferocity. (p.238)
  • When he answered he tried not to overdo his appreciation of the justice of her diagnosis. (p.259)
  • There followed a sort of silent film couple of moments in which Mr Bennett laid his hand on his wife’s arm and she went through a hurried series of reactions, from a start or jump of sheer physical surprise through mild indignation to acceptance and gratitude. When this reached completion, he said to Robin’s mother… (p.274)
  • Jeremy showed himself in good form as entertainer, as old friend, as affectionate and attentive son but not too much of either. (p.288)
  • He had tried bewilderment shading into muddled protest just now and had cut no ice at all. (p.301)

Sometimes these descriptions of the characters’ permanent acting for each other is funny.

‘Oh yes, Mum, you did quite right to tell me,’ said Robin, hanging out situation-well-in-hand signals as he spoke. (p.152)

This is the kind of thing you read about the young Amis keeping his mates in stitches with at Oxford, and which the early books like Lucky Jim are stuffed to the brim with. But equally as much of the time it feels oddly alienated and detached, almost robotic. It feels weird.

  • Either she was doing a marvellous imitation of a girl quite uninterested in the impression she was making, or she was such a girl. The latter, he thought, and good for her. He knew it was bad luck on her to have got tied up with a chap who hardly knew what it was not to care how he seemed to other people. (p.165)
  • It was one of those rare times when he forgot to care how he seemed to other people. (p.166)

And in fact at some moments, it feels almost panic-stricken. The comedy is so close to panic fear, to a Kafka-esque level of alienation from other people, from the world and from himself, that it’s impossible to even smile, let alone laugh. In the climactic scene when Nancy confronts him with his stupid, selfish promiscuousness and threatens to leave:

A great fear of being altogether alone swept over him, as if she might take from him not only herself and their life together but everything familiar to him, all his reference points, whatever made it possible to steer through the hours between waking up and falling asleep. (p.302)

It’s ironic that Amis once or twice is quoted as taking the mickey out of continental philosophy, especially the Sartrean existentialism which was fashionable as Amis came to notice – because all of his novels, for me, far more than the superficial comedy, bespeak a really powerful terror of existence, a nausea in the face of other people and great yawning chasms of Time which cannot be faced or handled without a multitude of tricks, pulling faces, negotiating bits of time, manipulating other people, drinking and a pointless pursuit of sex. In  his way, Amis is the great English existentialist novelist.

Sections of time and bits of stuff

There’s a particular mannerism which bugs me, which is when a character gets cross or happy or delivers a speech or something – and then the narrator or protagonist or some characters refer to what we’ve just heard as a performance or, even more vaguely and demotically, as ‘a bit’, or ‘that lot’, or some ‘stuff’.

Instead of characters responding to each others’ dialogue, they just sit through it, regarding it all as ‘stuff’ that has to be endured. After Mr Davies very mildly criticises them for being indecent in his house, Nancy retreats to the bedroom to recover and Robin goes to ask if she’s alright.

‘I’m fine. I just sort of wanted to rest for a moment before the next lot.’
‘Oh, there won’t be a next lot for quite a time.’ (p.116)

  • Robin had had time to prepare some of that…. He would probably not had the cheek to blurt out the last bit… (p.154)

Time itself is broken down into sections which have to be defined and then navigated. Absolutely nothing flows naturally. Here he is in bed with Nancy and failing – I think – to get an erection.

  • The particular kind of embrace that should have come next seemed no less firmly indicated, but that was only to start with. After a minute or so he found he had nothing much to go on with, not enough, in fact. Such a thing had not happened to him since the time before he met Nancy and he was put out, though not as much as much as he might have been in the absence of anything else to claim his attention. (p.243)

Time gets tied up in knots in Amis’s prose. It is the one issue – even more than sex – which his characters are always fretting about.

  • ‘If we go along there now we can set about filling in the time to some purpose.’ (p.277)

Beady-eyed

Above all, the protagonist has a permanent, beady-eyed air of calculation, calculating the impression he’s making on people, manipulating and manoeuvring everyone around him in order to give himself the easiest ride and, above all – obsessed with getting women into bed. Even if it’s to a disappointing experience, even if it involves unhappiness and regret, it doesn’t matter – women women women, bed bed bed sex sex sex. The real world barely exists.

For the next couple of minutes, Robin’s attention was not on the shops and such about him as he walked, which surely must have changed since he last saw them but in no way that interested him or caught his eye. (p.153)

As a typical example, it emerges that – surprisingly – while on active service during the war, Robin won a medal. His friend Jeremy asks him about it.

‘Does that thing above your pocket mean you were very brave about something?’
‘No, just that I was somewhere in particular at a particular time.’ (p.157)

Everything is downplayed, underplayed, dismissed, not taken seriously, it’s just stuff to sit through and be endured while you act whatever part the tedious old shags around you require, till you can get free to have a smoke, better still a couple of jars with a mate, best of all a bunk-up with some dolly bird in a rented room.

Between then and the time fixed for Robin’s departure for Oxford the next morning nothing of great significance happened. (p.184)

Most of life apparently consisted of being in a minority of one, a status worth going to some lengths to alleviate at events like your father’s funeral. And old Emble had intrinsic merits too, seeming older than Robin, actually being richer and posher, also staid of demeanour, just the sort of fellow whom luck or good judgement could turn into a means of mitigating or even removing some minor disagreeableness like having to chat to an uncle or find an erstwhile business colleague a seat. (p.202)

In other words, his best ‘friend’ is in fact merely a convenient tool for assuaging the protagonist’s inescapable solipsism.

Feeling and meaning

Surprisingly, the text rises to a handful of moments of something like real emotion – for example, when the narrator describes the scenes around his father dying or at the climax of the abortion plotline. But I couldn’t make out whether the feeling was really in the text, or just me supplying it because I knew it was appropriate.

Certainly, most of the time, the reader has to add their own feelings to animate scenes which seem to lack any emotion on the part of the calculating protagonist. For example, to the later scenes when his mother tells him what his dead father really thought of him, or when his gay friend Jeremy lets loose a stream of 1940s prejudices about queers and women.

But for the most part I felt little or no emotional involvement with any of the characters, since I was repelled in almost every sentence by Amis’s weird prose style and his deliberately vague and alienated worldview.

Towards the end, it dawned on me that the frequent use of the passive voice has a moral dimension, too. It typifies the protagonist’s sense that he isn’t responsible for events. Things just keep on happening to him, damn it, and his only concern is how to negotiate ‘this bit’ and live through ‘the next section’ and handle the ‘stuff’ that keeps on coming his way, and do some ‘welcoming’ or ‘laughing’ or making polite small-talk, or whatever guff it takes to appease the irritating old duffers who seem to populate the world around him.

He could think of no other way of passing the next hour or so, and concluded that this was one of those times when you had little choice in what you were to do. (p.183)

Objects are seen; voices are heard; people are said to appear; houses come into view; expressions are registered. The passive voice not only indicates the strange alienation from the world of the protagonist and narrator, it also points towards his continuing evasion of responsibility. His brother George surprises Robin by saying that for most of his life his father had a nickname for him – O.O. Davies – standing for Options Open (p.220) – describing the way he can’t get anywhere near committing to anyone or anything because he is always calculating and gambling on something better coming along.

Thus Robin has a reasonable amount of self-knowledge: he knows he is self-centred, only after one thing, casually hurtful – he knows he is ‘selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature’ (p.245) –  and the narrator doesn’t spare him, just as he didn’t soft pedal the unpleasantness of so many previous protagonists, like adulterous John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling or Patrick Standish, the compulsive fornicator in Take A Girl Like You.

This unflinching honesty may be admirable, up to a point, but it doesn’t really compensate the reader for having to wade through what is, more or less, the same kind of story about the same kind of unpleasant, selfish and, above all, unimaginative – in fact aggressively anti-imaginative – character.

The streets [of London] were not crowded, but there were enough people in them, moving rapidly enough, for Robin to become aware of his small and shallow experience of the city he had been born in, not because he had been brought up near its distant edge but inevitably, not at all exceptionally. He would live and die without having found out anything much about it, anything personal to him, perhaps nothing worth remembering about anything. (p.229)

The casual sexism and homophobia will presumably outrage the politically correct, or even averagely decent, modern reader. What upsets me far more is the deliberately and insultingly vague and obtuse vision of the world and the people in it, a wilfully unobservant, ignorant and uninterested view of life which is lamentably narrow, dull and self-blinkered, and which becomes extremely wearing far before the book reaches its end.


Credit

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1994. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

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