Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1993) – 2

As I’ve discovered in Croatia and Serbia, the four-wheel drive is the vehicle of preference for the war zones of the post-Cold War world. It has become the chariot of choice for the warlords who rule the checkpoints and the command posts of the factions, gangs, guerrilla armies, tribes that are fighting over the bones of the nation in the 1990s. (p.139)

In 1993 Michael Ignatieff was commissioned by the BBC to make a TV series in which he investigated what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. With this aim he and his TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, to recently reunified Germany, to Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. Each location produced an episode of the TV series and a chapter of this book.

Ignatieff introduces autobiographical elements into his text. We learn that he has personal links with Ukraine (where his Russian great-grandfather bought a farm), Quebec (his grandparents emigrated to Canada where he spent his boyhood), Yugoslavia (where his father was posted as a diplomat and Ignatieff appears to have spent 2 years as a teenager), Germany (where he has also lived) and Northern Ireland, because he had lived and worked in London through the later 1980s and 1990s, and Ulster was (and is) the UK’s biggest nationalist problem.

But the autobiographical elements are always dignified and restrained (for example, the moving and evocative descriptions of his great-grandfather’s long-ruined house in the Ukraine). More importantly, they always serve a purpose. They are chosen to bring out the broader political, sociological or historical points which he wants to make.

1. Croatia and Serbia

The key point about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that, despite lingering memories of the brutal civil war between Croats and Serbs 1941 to 1945 within the larger Second World War, the wars which broke out across the former Yugoslavia were not inevitable. They were the result of the calculated efforts of communist leaders to cling onto power as the Soviet Union collapsed, especially Slobodan Milošević of Serbia; and of the over-hasty and thoughtless steps to independence of Croatia under its leader Franjo Tuđman which alienated the large (600,000) Serb minority within Croatia’s borders.

Another way of looking at it is that neither Serbia nor Croatia, nor Slovenia nor Bosnia, had time to develop anything like western levels of civic society before the slide to war began, at which point the crudest ethnic nationalism became the quickest way to maintain power, for someone like Milošević, and opened the way for opportunistic warlords such as Arkan (real name Željko Ražnatović, ‘the most powerful organized crime figure in the Balkans’ to take over entire regions).

Ignatieff reiterates the themes summarised in the introduction:

  • a slide towards anarchy inculcates fear; ethnic nationalism addresses that fear by providing safety and security among ‘your’ people
  • into the vacuum left by the collapse of civil society step warlords, whose rule revives the political arrangements of the late Middle Ages

He points out, in more than one chapter, the intense psychological and erotic pleasure of being a young men in a gang of young men wielding guns or machetes and lording it over everyone you meet, forcing everyone out of their houses, looting and raping at will, bullying people at checkpoints, making them lie on the ground while you swank around above them. Photos of Arkan and his tigers indicate what a band of brothers they were and how this kind of behaviour fulfils a deep male need. (Until you’re killed in a firefight or assassinated, that is; but who wants to live forever?)

Large parts of former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlord. They appear wherever states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early-medieval. (p.28)

(Which is why Beowulf is, in many ways, a much more reliable guide to life in many parts of the contemporary world than any number of modern novels.)

The warlord is not only the figure who naturally emerges when civic society collapses; the ethnic cleansing which was given its name in Yugoslavia is his natural strategy.

The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and the boys to protect you. (p.30)

Ignatieff gives a great deal of historical background, especially the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945. In this context he explains Tito’s great failing. Tito went out of his way to defuse ethnic tension in the region by carefully redistributing power between the national groups and seeding Serb communities in Croatia and Croatian communities in Serbia and so on. But he made two signal mistakes:

  1. He tried to bury and suppress the genocidal past, as symbolised by the way he had the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovach (where as many as 250,000 people, mostly Serbs, were taken to be murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable) bulldozed to the ground instead of acknowledging the atrocity and undertaking a truth and reconciliation process.
  2. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia gained the reputation of being more independent from Soviet control and therefore more liberal, Tito completely failed to develop any form of civic democracy. When the collapse came none of the constituent nations had any track record of real democratic debate, of addressing disputes through discussion. Instead the respective leaders (in Serbia and Croatia in particular) seized power for themselves with arrogant indifference to the large minorities within their borders (most notably the 600,000 Serbs who lived inside Croatia) which triggered a wave of paranoia, and then it only took a few sparks to ignite localised fighting, and then the leaders declared ‘It’s war!’

To summarise the road to war:

  • until recently the difference between Serbs and Croats were glossed over or ignored by people who lived together, intermarried, worked and played football together
  • they made up a community of interest where people concern themselves with jobs and pay and housing and schools
  • the collapse of Yugoslavia into its constituent states was a long time coming (Tito, who held the place together, died in 1980);
  • in the decade after Tito’s death the peoples off Yugoslavia underwent a sustained period of austerity imposed on them by the IMF and Western bankers as the price of repaying the massive debts Tito had run up in the 1970s
  • at the same time it became evermore obvious that the communist rulers were corrupt and creamed foreign money off to live a luxurious life; the combination of poverty and corrupt leadership led to widespread resentment
  • the trigger was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the realisation by the communist rulers that their rule was destined to end soon
  • therefore they turned to ‘national identity’ to create a new ideology to underpin their rule
  • civic nationalism treats every citizen as equal, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender and so on, and citizens are united by a shared commitment to the rule of law and established institutions
  • however, the traditions and institutions of democracy and the civic virtues of tolerance and inclusivity take time to create and inculcate via education
  • for demagogues in a hurry it is much much easier to whip your population up using ethnic nationalism i.e. to tell people a) they are part of a distinct ethnic group b) that this group has historically been victimised and exploited but now c) it’s time to rise up, to stop being helpless victims, to stand up to the exploiter, to seize what is rightfully ours etc
  • ethnic nationalism provides all kinds of advantages to both the ruler and the ruled: for the ruler it is a quick way to whip up fervent support for a National Idea and cover up your own corruption; for the ruled the excitable fervour of nationalist belief makes you feel authentic, like you finally belong; it creates a community of equals, your tribe, gives opportunities to rise in the ranks and lord it over friends and neighbours who thought you were a loser: all the while this ideology explains that everything bad that’s ever happened in your life and to your country by blaming it on them, the others, the outsiders, who must be purged, expelled or plain liquidated from the territory you now consider your Holy Soil

Update

Ignatieff visited in 1993 and travelled through zones where different militias held neighbouring villages and had dynamited all the homes belonging to their ethnic adversaries. Reading his account you get the sense that some kind of uneasy peace had settled. But this was way wrong. The wars in Yugoslavia were to continue right up till 2001, centred on the cruelty and then Serb massacres of the Bosnian war, and then, when the Serbs refused to cease killing Kosovans, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade.

  1. The Ten-Day War (1991)
  2. Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)
  3. Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)
  4. Kosovo War (1998 to 1999)
  5. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999 to 2001)
  6. Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

2. Germany

Ignatieff’s prose is a little more purple and metaphorical in the chapter on Germany. This is because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the epicentre of the crisis which swept the Soviet regime and its east European colonies. So he uses descriptive prose to try and capture what East Germany felt like during the long years of drab, repressed communist rule, and then what it felt like in the ecstatic months of protest leading up to the demolition of the wall.

Now, four years later, all the euphoria has gone. The East Germans he speaks to are a shabby, disillusioned bunch, very conscious of the way the West Germans quickly took to looking down on them, accusing them of being workshy malingerers.

What happened was a massive experiment in political theory. Divide a nation in half. Keep them utterly separate, physically and psychologically isolated, for 45 years. Then suddenly remove all barriers and let them reunite. Then ask: to what extent does the people (an unchanging social and cultural group) make the state? Or how much does the state shape and mould the people? I.e. in those 45 years, how much had the wildly divergent West and East German governments managed to mould their populations?

Short answer: states mould the people. During the Cold War West Germans were quietly proud that East Germany was the most economically successful of Russia’s colonies. But when the wall came down and Western industrialists visit the East’s fabled factories they discovered they were a shambles, incompetent managers overseeing workshy workers. They would have to start again from scratch, inculcating Germany virtues: timekeeping, conscientiousness, hard work.

In reality, it was less a reunification than the West colonising the East. Ignatieff meets Helmut Börner, the tired manager of a museum in Leipzig, so conceived and run to flatter the East German authorities and their Russian sponsors and they both reflect on how quickly the new Germany will erase memories of the shameful East. Ignatieff visits a sweaty underground club full of pounding music which has the exotic twist that it used to be the torture rooms of the East German security police. He looks around. It’s only a few years after reunification but the kids don’t care. They’re dancing and getting off with each other. Life is for living.

Ignatieff interviews a neo-Nazi called Leo who cheerfully denies the Holocaust and yearns to reconquer Silesia, now part of Poland, where his family came from. Ignatieff thinks the resurgence of neo-Nazism is dangerous but not really worrying, when it amounts to gangs of skinheads fighting immigrants.

More worrying is the growth of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, exemplified by the retired prison officer and local politician, Herr K, standing for election for the Republikaner Party. He wants rights for immigrants restricted more than they already were in 1990s Germany (where a Turk could be born, educated, work, pay taxes, and yet never achieve formal German citizenship).

Because there’s no actual war in reunified Germany, this long chapter is the most varied and subtle. It is a beautifully observed essay on the contradictions and quirks of the German nation and its ideas of itself, something we Brits rarely hear about.

Update

That was a long time ago. Inequality between East and West Germany has proved an intractable problem, admittedly partly because the East is more rural than the dynamic, industrialised West. And the refugee crisis he discusses turned out to be just the harbinger of a central issue of the 21st century, which is what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants wanting to escape Africa and the Middle East and start new lives in affluent Europe. Which came to a head in the refugee crisis of 2015.

And the right-wing Republikan Party candidate Ignatieff interviews has been superseded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in 2013 and which now holds 83 seats in the Bundestag. Germany’s struggle with its past, with its national identity, and its multicultural present, is a microcosm of the problems which face all Western nations.

3. Ukraine

Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was Russian and bought an estate in the Ukraine in the 1860s when he was ambassador to Constantinople (over 1,000 miles away). Ignatieff flies in to Kiev and takes a bus then taxi out to the old estate, stays the night, interviews the priest in the village church and the manager of the collective farm.

What keeps coming over is his sense of the Soviet Empire, as he calls it, the largest empire of the twentieth century, as a magnificent and catastrophic failure. In the Ukraine Soviet failure and tyranny had disastrous effects.

Something like 3 million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1931 and 1932. A further million were killed during the collectivisation of agriculture and the purges of intellectuals and party officials later in the decade. An additional 2 to 3 million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia. The peasant culture of small farmers and labourers that my grandfather grew up among was exterminated. This was when the great fear came. And it never left… (p.91)

Like the communist officials in charge in Yugoslavia, the leaders of communist Ukraine realised they could transition to independence and still remain in power, so they deftly adopted nationalist clothes, language and slogans, despite the fact that only a few years previously they had been locking up nationalists as subversives. Ignatieff meets the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, a smooth operator

He speaks to a Ukrainian journalist working for the Financial Times and a former nationalist, locked up in prison. Their fear is what happened to Russia will happen to Ukraine i.e. a relentless slide into economic collapse and anarchy.

He attends a service of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in St George’s Cathedral, Lvov, and has an insight. The nationalists dream that their entire country will be like this congregation:

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, it becomes clear what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet. (p.95)

In other words nationalism can be a beautiful dream, a vision of unity and belonging, typically, as here, through religion, language and song.

Also, this passage mentions the importance of the dead and where the dead are buried. The land where the dead are buried. For the first time Ignatieff feels a stirring of that feeling for the land where his great grandfather and mother are buried, which he is the first member of his family to revisit since the revolution of 1917.

When he meets the Tartars returning to Crimea from their long exile in central Asia, they are even more obsessed about the land, about the soil, about the sacred earth of their ancestors (pages 99 to 103). Ignatieff begins to understand how our individual lives are trite and superficial, but acquire depth and meaning in light of these ancestral attachments.

Land is sacred because it where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves… (p.93)

Update

In 2013, when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspend the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and seek closer economic ties with Russia, it triggered several months of demonstrations and protests known as the Euromaidan.

The following year this escalated into the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a new, more Europe-facing government. However, the overthrow of Russia-friendly Yanukovych led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the War in Donbas in April 2014.

4. Quebec

Ignatieff is Canadian, he grew up in Ottowa where his Russian grandparents had emigrated. As a boy he knew about the Frenchies up the road but he never actually met any. Now, as an adult, he realises he has never actually visited the French part of his own nation, Quebec. He thought he knew Canada, but realises now it was only a Canada of his imagining. Which leads him to realise that all nations are, in a sense, imaginary.

You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens, that is, people who share both the same rights and the same image of the place they live in. A nation, therefore, is an imagined community.

But now he realises that during his young manhood he completely failed to imagine what it felt like for the other community in Canada. He recaps his definitions of nationalism, in order to go on and define federalism, for this chapter will turn out to be an investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of federalism. First nationalism:

Nationalism is a doctrine which hold (1) that the world’s people are divided into nations (2) that these nations should have the right to self-determination, and (3) that full self-determination requires statehood. (p.110)

Federalism is the antithesis of this idea of nationalism, for it holds that different peoples do not need a state to enjoy self-determination. Under federalism two different groups agree to share power while retaining self government over matters relating to their identity. Federalism:

seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle according to which people wish to be ruled by their own; with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship. (p.110)

But federalism is not doing so well. He lists the world’s most notable federal states – Canada, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, the former USSR – and then points out that all of them are in deep trouble. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t live together; Yugoslavia collapsed in a welter of wars; India struggles with regional separatism. The very concept of federalism is in trouble around the world and so his long chapter on Canada treats it as a kind of test bed or laboratory to assess federalism’s long-term prospects for survival.

He gives a lot of detail about Canadian history, and the dawn of modern Quebecois nationalism in 1960, none of which I knew about. But out of this arises yet another definition or aspect of nationalism:

Nationalism has often been a revolt against modernity, a defence of the backwardness of economically beleaguered regions and classes from the flames of individualism, capitalism, Judaism and so on. (p.116)

Yes, this makes sense of the aggressive over-compensation of so many nationalists, who all speak a variation on the comic stereotype of the English provincial: ‘You come down here with your fancy London ways, with your multicultural this and your cosmopolitan that. Well, people round these parts live a more simple life, see, a more honest and authentic life than you la-di-dah city types.’ They flaunt their backwardness.

But this leads Ignatieff into a paradoxical development which he spends some time analysing. In the Canada of his boyhood the Quebec French really were discriminated against, weren’t served in shops unless they spoke English, were perceived as small-town bumpkins with a lower standard of education, dominated by an authoritarian Catholicism and with extravagantly large families (ten children!).

So, Ignatieff says, surely as these very real obstacles have been overcome, as Quebecois have become more urban, progressive, women’s liberation has led to much smaller families, they’re all less in thrall to the church, surely they would abandon their nationalism and become modern urban cosmopolitans like him? But no. Contrary to everything Ignatieff would have expected, Quebec nationalism has grown. The paradox is exemplified by a French Canadian Ignatieff interviews who is president of a very successful bank.

I had assumed that global players cease to care about nationalism. I was wrong. (p.115)

Historical grievances are never forgotten. The British won the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and Quebec nationalists are still unhappy about it. He talks to modern journalists and a group of students. All of them are proudly nationalistic and want their own Quebec. There’s a division between those who want an actual independent state with its own flag and seat at the UN, and those who just want almost complete autonomy. But they all see Quebec as not a part of Canada or a province of Canada but a separate nation and a separate people.

But the problem with nationalism is it’s infectious. If Quebecuois want a state of their own so they can be a majority in their own state and not a despised minority in English-speaking Canada, what about two other constituencies?

1. Ignatieff goes to spend time with a native American, a Cree Indian. There are about 11,000 of them and they reject all the languages and traditions and legal concepts of the white people from down south, whatever language they speak. The Cree think of themselves as a people and they want their own protection.

2. Then Ignatieff goes to spend time with some of the English-speaking farmers who live in Quebec, have done for hundred and fifty years. No-one tells their story, the history books ignore them, Quebec nationalists have written them out of their narrative.

Nationalism spreads like the plague, making every group which can define itself in terms of language, tradition, religion and so on angry because it doesn’t have a nation of its own. You could call it the Yugoslav Logic. Smaller and smaller nations become shriller and shriller in their calls for ethnic purity.

And, of course, increasingly anxious about all the outsiders, non-members of the language group, or religion or whatever, who remain inside its borders. Read about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian  and Ottoman empires to see what happens next. Insofar as the Sudeten Germans found themselves in the alien state of Czechoslovakia, the Second World War was caused by the collapse of the Austrian empire into impractical ethnic nation states.

Ignatieff doesn’t state this explicitly but I see this nationalism as a malevolent virus which, wherever it goes, creates antagonism at best, sporadic violence, if you’re not too unlucky or, given enough economic collapse or social stress, war.

Ignatieff visits Dennis Rousseau, a working class guy who works in a local paper mill and plays ice hockey in Trois Rivieres which is, apparently, the working class neighbourhood of Quebec. In a long conversation Rousseau won’t budge from his position that he wants Quebec to be independent because Ontario (capital of English-speaking Canada) isn’t doing enough for the struggling papermill industry, for his town and his peers. No amount of evidence to the contrary can shift his simple conviction and Ignatieff wonders whether nationalist sentiment like Rousseau’s is, among other things, a way of avoiding the truth about the changing economic situation.

All round the developed world businesses are being exported and once prosperous communities are getting poor. This is a function of the super-charged neo-liberal global capitalism which has triumphed since the collapse of communism, all those manufacturing jobs going to China and India.

Apart from all its other appeals (the very deep psychological appeal of belonging, of having a home, having people around you who understand your language, your religion, your music, your jokes) this kind of nationalism provides simple answers to intractably complicated economic realities. Twenty years after this book was published Donald Trump would reach out to the tens of millions who live in those kind of communities where life used to be great and now it isn’t with his brand of whooping Yankee nationalism.

Update

Kurdistan

There are perhaps 40 million Kurds. The territory Kurdish mostly inhabited by Kurds and which Kurdish nationalists would like to be an independent Kurdish state straddles four of the fiercest nations on earth: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Following the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq rose up against his rule in the Kurdish intifada of March 1991. Hussein unleashed the full might of his army against them, driving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children up into the northern mountains until the Western allies intervened and set up a no-fly zone, preventing Saddam massacring any more of them.

It is this enclave which Ignatieff visits in 1993. With his typically intellectual perspective, he points out that it is something new: the first ever attempt by the UN to protect a people from the genocidal attacks of their national ruler. The enclave was far from being a state, but the Kurds had done as much as they could to make it like one, raising their own flag, holding elections. As in Ukraine among the Crimean Tartars, he realises how much the land, the actual soil, means in the mythology of nationalism:

At its most elemental, nationalism is perhaps the desire to have political dominion over a piece of land that one loves. Before anything, there must be a fierce attachment to the land itself and a sense that there is nothing else like this, nothing so beautiful, anywhere else in the world. (p.149)

Ignatieff travels and meets: representatives of the democratic party, the KDP, which has been run by the Barzani family for generations; then up into the mountains to see the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, one of the last doctrinaire Marxist guerrilla groups in the world.

He is taken on a tour of Halabja, the town Saddam ordered his jets to fly over and bomb with a cocktail of chemical gasses, resulting in at least 5,000 dead. It is, of course, a horrific sight but, as always, with Ignatieff, he not only notes and records touching, moving, terrifying details: he also extracts interesting and useful points about nationalism and death. First is the way nationalist ideology gives a meaning to life and death, especially the latter:

Nationalism seeks to hallow death, to redeem individual loss and link it to destiny and fate. A lonely frightened boy with a gun who dies at a crossroads in a fire-fight ceases to be just a lonely frightened boy. In the redeeming language of nationalism, he joins the imagined community of all the martyrs. (p.148)

Thus the roads of Kurdistan are marked by portraits of killed peshmerga fighters staring down from the plinths which once carried portraits of Saddam. He goes on to make a point about genocide. He doesn’t phrase it like this, but you can think of genocide as the dark side of nationalism, the demonic brother. If a nation is defined entirely by ‘the people’, defined as one ethnic group, who occupy it, then anyone outside that ethnic group should not be there, has no right to the land, is a pollutant, a potential threat.

Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide it becomes their fate. Genocide and nationalism have an entwined history. It was genocide that convinced the Jews and even convinced the gentile world that they were a people who would never be safe until they had a nation state of their own. (p.151)

The Turks have been waging war against their Kurds since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923. Its leader Kemal Ataturk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular nation with a civic nationalism. Logically, therefore, there was no room for tribes and ethnic nationalism which destabilised his vision of a secular state. Hence the aggressive attempts to ban the Kurdish language in schools, erase their traditions and songs, even the word Kurd is banned; officials refer to the ‘mountain Turks’. To quote Wikipedia:

Both the PKK and the Turkish state have been accused of engaging in terror tactics and targeting civilians. The PKK has historically bombed city centres, while Turkey has depopulated and burned down thousands of Kurdish villages and massacred Kurds in an attempt to root out PKK militants.

For the only place in the book Ignatieff loses his cool when he is assigned a 24-year-old Turkish special forces agent who carefully chaperones him around the ‘pacified’ region of south-east Turkey, where the local Kurds obviously go in fear of their lives, and the agent carefully monitors everyone Ignatieff speaks to, while another spook photographs them all. The agent’s name happens to be Feret and this leads Ignatieff into the borderline insulting use of the word ‘ferret’ to refer to all such spooks and spies and security force agents and repressers and torturers (pages 158 to 161).

You can’t compromise when the very unity of the state is at stake. There is no price that is not worth paying. Pull the balaclava over your face; put some bullets in the chamber; go out and break some Kurdish doors down in the night. Pull them out of bed. Put a bullet through their brains. Dirty wars are a paradise for ferrets. (p.161)

Update

A lot has happened to the Kurds in the 28 years since Ignatieff visited them. The primary fact was the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the break-up of Iraq during which Iraqi Kurds were able to cement control over the territory in the north of the country which they claim. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, was even elected president of post-Saddam Iraq (2005 to 2014). Kurdish fighters were also involved in the Syrian civil war (2011 to the present) and involved in the complex fighting around the rise of Islamic State. And low-level conflict between the Turkish-facing PKK and Turkish security forces continues to this day.

Northern Ireland

Like most English people I couldn’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. I was a boy when the Troubles kicked off around 1970 and Irish people shooting each other and blowing each other up was the wallpaper of my teenage years and young manhood, along with glam rock and the oil crisis.

Decades ago I was hit by flying glass from a car showroom when the IRA blew up an army barracks on the City Road in London. Like the Islamist terrorists who drove a van into tourists on London Bridge then went on the rampage through Borough Market ( 3 June 2017) it was just one of those mad features of modern life which you cross your fingers and hope to avoid.

For the first time I get a bit bored of Ignatieff when he says he went to Ulster to discover more about ‘Britishness’. I’ve read hundreds of commentators who’ve done the same thing over the last 50 years and their clever analyses are all as boring and irrelevant as each other. Most English people wish Northern Ireland would just join the Republic and be done with it. The situation in Ulster doesn’t tell you anything about ‘Britain’, it just tells you about the situation in Ulster.

Ignatieff still makes many good points, though. He adds yet another category of nationalist conflict to his list: which is one caused – as in Ukraine, as in Croatia (as in Rwanda) – where there is a history of oppression of one community by another. The proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide was the conscious, deliberate, well worked-out plan for extermination devised by the ideologues of Hutu Power. But the deeper cause was the long period of time when the majority Hutus had been treated like peasants by the aristocratic Tutsis. Visitors to the country couldn’t tell the two groups apart, they lived in the same communities, spoke the same language, used the same currency. But deep in many Hutu breasts burned anger at generations of injustice and oppression. Breeding ground for virulent vengeful ethnic nationalism.

Same in Ulster where Roman Catholics were treated as second class citizens since partition in 1922, and were actively barred from various civil positions and comparable to the WASP prejudice against the Catholic French in Quebec, or to the much more vicious colour bar in the Deep South of America.

It is the memory of domination in time past, or fear of domination in time future, not difference itself, which has turned conflict into an unbreakable downward spiral of political violence. (p.164)

But much of Ignatieff’s discussion deals in clichés and stereotypes about Britain and its imperial decline which have been discussed to death during the extended nightmare of the Brexit debates.

He spends most of the chapter in the company of working class youths in a Protestant slum street in the build-up to the big bonfire night which inaugurates the July marching season. He notes how fanatical they are about the symbols of Britishness, pictures of the Queen, the Union Jack plastered over everything.

Which is when he springs another of his Big Ideas: Ulster Protestantism is like the cargo cults anthropologists have identified in the South Seas. The great white god arrives by ship, fights a battle, saves the local tribe and their religion from neighbours and rivals, then departs never to return. But generations of tribespeople wear out their lives waiting, waiting for that return, and turning the bric-a-brac the white man left at random into relics and cult objects to be worshipped at home-made shrines on special holy days (pages 182 to 184).

Same, Ignatieff claims, with Ulster Protestantism. It has become a weirdly deformed caricature of the culture of the homeland. While mainland England has become evermore secularised and multicultural, Ulster Protestantism has become evermore obsessed and hag-ridden by its forbidding religion, evermore furiously insistent on its ethnic purity, evermore angry at what it perceives as its ‘betrayal’ by the great white god across the water.

Apart from the historical accident of a handful of symbols (Queen, flag, crucifix) it has grown utterly separate from English culture and is an almost unrecognisable caricature of it.

Loyalism is an ethnic nationalism which, paradoxically, uses the civic symbols of Britishness – Crown and Union Jack – to mark out an ethnic identity. In the process the civic content is emptied out: Loyalist Paramilitarism, for example, makes only too clear what a portion of the Loyalist community thinks of the rule of law, the very core of British civic identity. In the end, the Crown and the Union Jack are reduced to meaning what they signify when tattooed on the skin of poor, white teenagers. They are only badges of ethnic rage. (p.185)

Update

The situation Ignatieff was reporting on in 1993 was superseded by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the 23 years of peace which have followed. Nowadays, there is much feverish speculation that the peace may be jeopardised by the complicated economic and political fallout of Brexit. Maybe a new generation of men in balaclavas will return and think they can achieve something by blowing up cars and shooting farmers.

The bigger picture, though, is that Ulster is now part of a United Kingdom substantially changed since Ignatieff’s time, because of the devolution of Scotland and Wales. Somehow, Scotland and Wales are still part of something called the United Kingdom but articles every day in the press wonder how long this can last.

Personally, I feel like I’ve been hearing about Scottish nationalism and Plaid Cymru all my adult life. Although they now have their own expensive parliament buildings and control over their healthcare and education systems, the basic situation doesn’t seem to have changed much – both Scots and Welsh nationalists continue to make a good living criticising the English politicians who pay for their nations to remain solvent.

I have no skin in the game. If they want to be independent nations, let them. Fly free, my pretties. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, my indifference is fairly representative of my people, the fat lazy English:

Less than half of English people (46%) say they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. Few want to see the nation pull away, however, at just 13%. Most of the rest (34%) have no opinion, saying that they consider it a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

It seems unlikely that Scotland or Wales will ever become independent nations or that Northern Ireland will join the Republic, and for the same simple reason. Money. All three receive substantial subsidies from London and would become poorer overnight if they left. Try and sell that to your electorate.

Brief summary

Reviewing the six nationalist issues reviewed in the book prompts a simple conclusion which is that: none of these conflicts have gone away. Nationalism is like a terrible disease: once it has gripped a people, a tribe, a region, and once it has been used to set populations at loggerheads with other neighbouring groups or with the very state they find themselves in, it is almost impossible to extirpate. Nationalism is a virus which has no cure. Like COVID-19 we just have to learn to live with it and try to mitigate its effects before they become too destructive, before there’s an outbreak of another, more virulent variety.

The Cold War as the last age of empire

The Cold War was a lot of things to a lot of people but I am still reeling from one of the biggest of Ignatieff’s Big Ideas, which is that the Cold War amounted to the last phase of imperialism.

There was the early phase of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism; there was the rivalry between the French and British around the world in the 18th century; the Europeans grabbed whatever bits of the world they could bite off during the 19th century; and then the French, British, Dutch, Belgians and a few others hung onto their colonies through the catastrophic twentieth century and into the 1960s.

Then they left in a great wind of change. But they did so at exactly the same time as the spreading Cold War meant that huge areas of the world came under the direct or indirect control of the Americans or the Soviets. Although it wasn’t their primary goal, the CIA supporting their authoritarian regimes and the Soviet advisers to countless communist groups, between them they sort of – up to a point – amounted to a kind of final reincarnation of imperial police. Up to a point, they policed and restrained their client states and their opponents around the world. They reined them in.

And then, in 1990, with little or no warning, the imperial police left. They walked away. And instead of blossoming into the wonderful, democratic, peaceful world which the naive and stupid expected – chaos broke out in a hundred places round the world. The gloves were off and ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflicts which had been bottled up for decades, exploded all over.

Because this ideology, this psychology of blood and belonging and ‘kill the outsider’ – it’s easier for hundreds of millions of people; it provides a psychological, cultural and linguistic home, a refuge in otherwise poverty-stricken, war-torn, economically doomed countries.

It offers reassurance and comfort to stricken populations, it flatters people that whatever is wrong with the country is not their fault – and it offers an easy route to power and strategies to stay in power for demagogic leaders, by whipping up ethnic or nationalist sentiment and justified violence against the Outsider. Demonising outsiders helps to explain away the injustices and economic failure which somehow, inexplicably, despite their heroic leadership, continues.

Blame it on the others, the outsiders, the neighbouring tribe, the people with funny shaped noses, different coloured skin, spooky religions, use any excuse. The poison of ethnic nationalism is always the easy option and even in the most advanced, Western, civic societies – it is always there, threatening to break out again.

Concluding thoughts on the obtuseness of liberalism

Ignatieff ends with a brief conclusion. It is that his liberal beliefs have profoundly misled him. Educated at a top private school, clever enough to hold positions at a series of the world’s best universities (Harvard, Cambridge) and to mingle with the most gifted of the cosmopolitan elite, he thought the whole world experienced life and thought like him. Idiotic. The journeys he made for this book have made him realise that the vast majority of the human population think nothing like him.

This was crystallised by one particular type of experience which kept cropping up wherever he went. On all his journeys he saw again and again that most of the warlords and fighters are young men aged 18 to 25 (p.187). Until he met them at roadblocks and checkpoints he had not understood what masculinity is. An etiolated, lily-pink liberal with the impeccable manners handed down by his family of Russian diplomats, Ignatieff had no idea what men, poor men, uneducated men, out there in the world, are really like.

Until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone fears and hates violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns. (p.187)

Only someone so phenomenally clever and immaculately well educated could be so remote from the world as it actually is, from human nature in all its appalling greed and violence. Meeting gun-toting warlords made him realise more than ever that the aim of civic society is to quell, control and channel this kind of male aggression which he had never experienced before.

I began the journey as a liberal, and I end it as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilisation – the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. (p.189)

And the best all-round way to prevent the outburst of ethnic nationalism and the almost inevitable violence which accompanies it, is the creation and maintenance of a strong stable state with institutions which distribute and diversify power, which act as checks and balances on themselves, which are permanently capable of correction and reform, including the most important kind of reform which is the ability to get rid of your political leaders on a regular basis.

The only reliable antidote to ethnic nationalism turns out to be civic nationalism, because the only guarantee that ethnic groups will live side by side in peace is shared loyalty to a state, strong enough, fair enough, equitable enough, to command their obedience. (p.185)

The fundamental responsibility of a government is not to promote ‘equality’ and the raft of other fine, liberal values. They’re nice-to-haves. It is more profound than that. First and foremost it is the eternal struggle to build and maintain civic nationalism – because the alternative is horror.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


New world disorder reviews

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

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

Protectionism

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

New industries

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

Monopoly-capitalism

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

New managerial class

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

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

Population growth

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

Consumer capitalism

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

Department stores and chain stores

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

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

Mass advertising

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

The poster

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

Hire purchase and modern finance

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

New popular technologies

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

Competition for resources

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

Imperialism

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

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

Globalisation

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

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

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

A world divided

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

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

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

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

New working class militancy

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

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

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

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

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

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

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

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Question

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

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

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

Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Woman

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

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

Feminism

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

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

Upper class feminism

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

Nancy Astor

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

Rentier feminism

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

New secretarial jobs for women

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

Women and education

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

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

Women and religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sport

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

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

The bicycle

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

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

The arts and sciences

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

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


Credit

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

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The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns (2019)

This is a lovely biography, a sensible, balanced account of a sane and lovely man.

Boyhood in Birmingham

Born in 1903, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris had a difficult boyhood. His parents were mismatched. His father, George Harris, was an ambitious young man from south Wales who was a successful lawyer with a promising career ahead of him right up to the moment in 1898 when, at a society dance, he was discovered in a side-room with a young lady on his knee who screamed when other partygoers opened the door. Whether this was simply because she was startled or because he was molesting her was never made clear, but it was enough of a scandal to force young George to quit his job and leave the principality, moving to England and setting himself up for a second attempt at being a lawyer, in Birmingham. Here he met and fell in love with Gertrude Parkes, the daughter of a successful and wealthy ironmaster, John Israel Parkes, several notches above George’s family in terms of income and class.

Gertrude was no innocent virgin, she had already been married once, at age 24 to Thomas William Hunt, then aged 32, who managed to a) die from a cold caught on their honeymoon which fatally exacerbated his tuberculosis, but not before b) giving her venereal disease. John Israel liked her new suitor, George, well enough but disapproved of him as a potential son-in-law and refused to give permission for the couple to marry. But George was determined and eloped with Gertrude to the Lake District, where they were married by special license in 1902.

But George’s law practice failed to prosper and he began to sink into the character of a failure and a bully. He was forced to rely on business and handouts sent his way by his rich father-in-law, and began to resent him and his wife. He pestered the female servants and drank to excess.

This was the unhappy home atmosphere Wyndham was born into. His parents separated in 1908 and his mother, Gertrude, sold the family home and went on to spend the rest of her long life in a succession of provincial hotels and resorts i.e. from the age of just 5 young John had no settled home. He had a younger brother, the writer Vivian Beynon Harris (1906 to 1987) who he was very close to all his life.

Three of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris’s names are explained by his parents’ names: George Beynon Harris and Gertrude Parkes. It’s not entirely clear why he was given the name Wyndham. Binns shares two theories: one of George Harris’s many brothers was named Windham, with an i; but Windham Wyndham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl was an eminent figure in Glamorgan, the county surrounding Cardiff, and giving the name to his first-born son may have been an attempt by George to curry favour or, alternatively, simply claim association with this eminent family, much as he later claimed, in books he later wrote about himself, to have (entirely fictitious) aristocratic connections. It was an eccentric decision, which was to impact the world of books 60 years later (p.22).

Bedales

John, known to his friends as Jack, was sent to a succession of prep schools where he was bullied and unhappy and never had a settled family home to return to. He only found a measure of happiness at the unconventional and pioneering experimental school, Bedales, near Petersfield in Hampshire (which he attended 1918 to 1921) where he didn’t particularly excel but was happy. Binns devotes a large section to Bedales with a full explanation of the progressive thinking behind it, the broad curriculum, the daily routine which included cold baths, outdoor exercise and open windows, and an extended profile of the visionary who founded it and was its headmaster, John H. Badley. This is fascinating social history in its own right.

Thirty years later, Wyndham named the leader who emerges in the chaos after the global blinding in The Day of The Triffids and who ends up leading the survivors out of London to found a new community, Beadley – a name which combines Bedales and Badley, and testament to the pioneering headmaster’s profound impact on him (p.194).

Jack left Bedales at the age of 18 without any qualifications. He didn’t go to university so, after leaving Bedales in 1921, he tried a succession of jobs, spending a few years with a sheep farmer (!) before getting shorter jobs as a trainee lawyer and in advertising. The sheep farming experience reappears in the attempts of Bill Masen to set up a farm in the second part of Day of the Triffids.

Writing

In 1925 Jack decided to try and make a living as a writer and from then till the outbreak of war 14 years later produced a series of short stories and three novels. It was to take him a long time to find his voice. His first book was a cheap detective novel, The Curse of the Burdens (1927), which sounds like a farrago and didn’t sell.

Binns applies the same brisk, thorough and riveting approach to the ‘birth of science fiction’ as she did to his parents’ ill-fated marriage and to Bedales (pages 82 to 98). She explains how  the first American science fiction magazine publisher was Hugo Gernsback, editor of Science and Invention and Radio News. He coined the term scientifiction and published stories on this new subject in his magazines. These stories proved so popular that he set up the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre, Amazing Stories, in April 1926, with garish covers supplied by illustrator Frank R. Paul.

As soon as he started making money, Gernsback spent it on the high life with the result that Amazing Stories went bankrupt and was sold to creditors. Gernsback promptly set up Amazing Science Stories in 1929, followed six weeks later by Air Wonder Stories. You can’t hold a good man down. Since his creditors now owned the copyright of the term ‘scientification’, Gernsback came up with a new term, ‘science fiction’, and thus the name and the genre were born. (Previous to this the works of someone like H.G. Wells were referred to as ‘scientific romances’.)

Back copies of Gernback’s colourful, cheap and cheerful magazines started trickling into England because, believe it or not, they were used as ballast to fill half-empty cargo ships returning from the States. Wyndham, casting around for a direction, noticed the new genre and decided to write for it.

(In a further footnote on the genre, Binns tells us that Walter Gillings (1912 to 1979) a UK journalist and editor, published seven issues of a fanzine, Scientifiction in 1937 to 1938. This led on to his becoming editor of the first true UK sci-fi magazine, Tales of Wonder (1937 to 1942). His use of the term ‘science fiction’ on the cover of issue number one, June 1937, is taken by scholars to mark the first appearance of the phrase to describe the contents of a UK professional magazine or book. Surprisingly late, isn’t it?)

Jack’s first published short story was Worlds to Barter, published in 1931, and between then and the start of the Second World War in 1939 he had about 20 short stories published. He published three more novels: another murder mystery – Foul Play Suspected (1935) – and two science fiction novels, The Secret People (1935) and Planet Plane (1936).

Jack used different combinations of his names, publishing as John Beynon or John Beynon Harris. Binns thinks the fact that he a) wrote in several genres b) under different names, prevented him establishing a clear ‘brand’ and helps to explain his pre-war lack of success. But there is a third reason. The stories are sort of OK, in a classic pulp sci fi way, but the novels aren’t at all good.

The Penn Club

Jack’s life during this period is quite a bit more interesting to read about than his writings. As soon as he went to live in London, Jack’s attentive mother asked friends to recommend a boarding house or hotel and she was told about the Penn Club, located in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, central London. This had been founded in 1920 with surplus funds left over from the Friends Ambulance Unit, active during World War I. The club was founded by pacifists and conscientious objectors with a strong association with the Quakers (page 61). In fact there was a close connection with Bedales; many old boys roomed there and it hosted Bedales Annual Reunions.

Jack joined in 1925, taking a single room at a cost of £2.50 per week. His room contained a bed, washstand, dressing chest, table and chair, with a cold lino floor and a coin-operated gas heater. Not all the rooms even had running water. But its combination of spartan lifestyle with a friendly, high-minded, liberal-left membership was like a cosy continuation of Bedales.

Jack was always a liberal and satirised the hard-core communist element at the Penn Club, especially when their world was turned upside down by the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939; and then again in 1942 when Hitler invaded Russia and what he called ‘the fatheaded communists’ of the Penn Club (page 213) had to do more mental gymnastics to accept that Stalin had now allied himself the hated British ruling class, instead of, as they hoped, doing everything he could to foment revolution in Britain.

Grace Wilson

It was at the Penn Club that Jack met and fell in love with the woman who was to become his lifelong companion, Grace Wilson, a young English teacher just down from Oxford. They slowly, shyly embarked on a love affair, a few years later acquiring adjacent rooms in the Club, but for many years they didn’t marry, partly because of the marriage bar, which would have meant that, if they had married, Grace would have had to quit her job as a teacher (!).

Binns makes the point that both Jack and his brother Vivian reacted against their parents’ unhappy marriage by a) having long-lasting and faithful relationships with one woman for their entire lives, b) not getting married.

Grace was every inch Jack’s equal but much more passionate about politics and equality. In 1930 she went on a high-minded visit to the Soviet Union which confirmed her opinions about the workers’ paradise, something Jack gently teased her about. But their unshakable love is reflected in the profound closeness of the married couples at the centre of his major novels, and Binns points out that Grace is the model for all the strong-minded, give-as-good-as-they-get women in Wyndham’s post-war fiction:

  • Josella Playton, the intelligent and unconventional heroine of Day of the Triffids
  • Phyllis Watson, independent-minded scriptwriter and journalist in The Kraken Wakes
  • Rosalind, the strong, resourceful young woman heroine of The Chrysalids
  • the Sealand woman, tough harbinger of a new race of telepathic humans in The Chrysalids
  • Diana Brackley, biochemist and successful entrepreneur, central figure of Trouble With Lichen
  • Dr Jane Waterleigh, the intelligent and resourceful heroine of Consider Her Ways

Second World War (1939 to 1943)

Jack and Grace were deeply in love by the time war broke out and at the heart of this biography is the huge trove of letters Jack wrote to Grace throughout the conflict. There are some 350 of these and Binns quotes from them at length. They convey a wonderful innocence and freshness and love. Grace was evacuated to the south of England but as the conflict developed she and her school were moved to rural England and then to Wales, it’s hard to keep track of her constant movements. Whereas Jack stayed in London, in his old room at the Penn Club, for the duration. Women and children precious, men expendable.

Jack worked as a firewatcher and his letters describe incident after incident from the Blitz which make for very vivid reading, detailed descriptions of air raids, the sounds of the different kinds of bombs, the flash and boom of a direct hit on a German bomber overhead. Sometimes there was an odd lull when a raid had finished and the German planes droned into the distance, when the guns fell silent, but there were no streetlights. Then Jack looked out from his firewarden rooftop over a London completely black and completely silent. Eerie visions which were to lend depth to his descriptions of the empty London in both Triffids and Kraken.

Half way through the war Jack got his first proper job working as an official censor, censoring hundreds of letters a day in a team, first in the Prudential building, then his department was moved to the seventh floor of the University of London’s Senate House, behind the British Museum (page 134). He got to know the building very well and made it the centre of Beadle’s attempt to gather together the sighted survivors of the catastrophe in Day of the Triffids. (Jack was working there at the same time as the wife of George Orwell, who famously used the tower as the model for his Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four, published just two years before Triffids)

From the writerly point of view, there were two key aspects of the experience:

1. In his letters Jack repeatedly tells Grace how unreal it was to be walking through the familiar streets and squares of Bloomsbury while the sky flashed with anti-aircraft lights and flak and bombs fell all around. He felt it was a dream, he describes himself as not being himself but some other person altogether, walking in another world. This is captured in a letter dated 7 October 1940.

Why do I write these things in such detail? I don’t know quite. It’s not a desire to harrow. More than anything, I think, to convince myself that these fantastic things are happening in these prosaic spots. (Quoted page 111)

2. Working in the censors department was Jack’s first real job and he was forced to get along with a far wider range of people – from the really hoity-toity officers to more working-class characters – that he hadn’t met either at liberal Bedales or the pacifist-feminist Penn Club (page 115). Binns makes the point that coming into contact with a much wider range of people was one of the decisive factors which contributed to his breakthrough novel, Day of the Triffids, where the protagonist, Bill Masen, is forced to deal with and handle a random cross-section of Londoners who have survived the great catastrophe (page 116).

In action (November 1943 to October 1946)

In November 1943, Jack was called up and sent for training in Northern Ireland. In March 1944 he was posted to 11 Division Armoured Signals, which contained 15,000 men and 343 tanks, as lance corporal in a cipher section. Within days of the D-Day landings the division was deployed to Normandy where Jack was close to the front line. His division took part in the brutal fighting for Caen, then the body-strewn fighting around Falaise. He saw the exhausted, defeated soldiers coming back from the failure that was Operation Market Garden.

Binns quotes Jack’s letters at length from this time and they give a graphic impression of the mixture of boredom, horror, disbelief and weary disgust with a catastrophe which keeps going on and on. Increasingly he is worried what the world will be like after so much killing. His letters describe his sense of the shallowness of so-called civilisation. Belgium, Holland, and dead bodies everywhere. Can there ever be an end to the killing, he wonders? How come, after all these centuries, the only counter to brutality is brutality? Is that all there is?

And so on via Operation Veritable into North Germany, to Bremen, where he hears the news that Hitler has killed himself, Berlin has fallen to the Russians, and then the end of the war. It takes well over a year for him to be released from the army, a year he spends in a barracks in Harrogate.

The Days of the Triffids (1946 to 1951)

Binns gives a fascinating overview of the state of science fiction, as a genre, after the war. The handful of British sci fi magazines had closed down as their editors were conscripted. In America, 22 SF titles had been reduced to just seven, and the beginnings of post-war McCarthyism meant that editors weren’t prepared to take risks. They wanted action and monsters with tentacles threatening scantily clad women, all ‘bulging brassieres and provoking panties’ as Jack himself put it (quoted page 190).

Finally demobilised in 1946, Jack returned to living at the Penn Club, in a room next to Grace’s, and returned to the anxiety of a freelance writer’s life. He managed to place a few stories, including Time To Rest, an elegiac story set on Mars which clearly reflects his exhaustion after the war (and contains a nihilistic vision of the entire planet earth exploding), along with Technical Slip and the cheesy Adaptation, but wasted a lot of time producing a farrago titled Plan for Chaos, which was so poor it wasn’t published during his lifetime.

He had another go at advertising, but was appalled at its culture of lies, and at the way it was coercing women into the new profession of ‘housewife’, a proto-feminist view he would return to in Trouble With Lichen and Consider Her Ways (p.191).

Jack still had an allowance left him by his father but its value had diminished and his mother, 70, was ailing and would soon incur the costs of a care home. Grace had a full-time job, had been promoted to Head of English at Roan’s school, but after the war experienced a series of health scares, first with a duodenal ulcer, then breast cancer. In 1949 he made a grand total of $25 as a writer (page 196).

The odd thing is that Jack had finished a good draft of Day of the Triffids by 1948 but failed to place it anywhere. Binns gives a detailed account of its gestation, showing how different elements derive from earlier stories. The idea of killer plants goes back to a story called The Puffball Menace from 1933. The idea of isolated communities surviving a disaster was anticipated in an unfinished story about a Pacific island which was protected by fog from flashing lights in the sky.

But Triffids brought to this pulp material a new realism and psychological depth resulting from his war experiences and its situating in an England he really knew, instead of made-up rockets and space stations. The streets the hero walks after the disaster are those around the Penn Club. The meeting of the sighted is held at the Senate House which he knew intimately. The farmhouse in the Sussex Downs is based on the surroundings of Bedales which he knew so well. All this gives the story the depth of real experience.

Binns explains the crucial role was played by the American novelist and editor Frederick Pohl. Having tried and abandoned several other stories, Jack dusted off the manuscript of Triffids and sent it to an agent he hadn’t tried before, Walter Gillings, representative of a New York agency. Gillings sent it on to the Dirk Wylie agency, where it was read by sci fi novelist and editor, Frederick Pohl, Pohl immediately realised it’s potential but it is amazing to learn how different it was from the novel we know today. This initial version is set 30 years in the future when humanity has colonised the solar system. The triffids are seeds brought back from Venus, and the bright lights in the sky are suspected by earthlings, as being an attack by some of the other-world colonists.

Pohl objected to all this saying it ruined the novel’s sense of unity. Jack agreed and promised to drop all the solar system stuff and give the triffids an entirely terrestrial origin (in the final version they are the result of genetic engineering in the Soviet Union). At the same time it was in correspondence with Pohl that Wyndham decided to drop his previous bylines, associated as they were with pre-war pulp, and create a new name to associate with his new style of more realistic post-war fiction, John Wyndham. It is in their correspondence that the name is finalised and agreed to.

Then came a stunning break. In November 1950 Pohl wrote to Wyndham (as he is now referred to) that he had managed to sell the now-rewritten story to the up-market Colliers magazine as a five-part serial for the staggering sum of $12,500. This equated to £4,500. At the time the average British annual wage was around £100. In other words it represented financial and literary success beyond Jack’s wildest dreams (p.199).

Pohl sold it to Colliers to serialise and to the reputable publisher Doubleday to publish the novel. In England Jack visited Sir Robert Lusty, Deputy Chairman of the publisher Michael Joseph, who read the manuscript overnight, was excited, and offered Jack a publishing deal straightaway. It was published in America and Britain in 1951 and, although the reviews were lukewarm, it sold. Its terrifying storyline, presented with complete realism, tapped into the Cold War anxiety of the time. It went on to sell millions, be translated into 11 languages, read out on BBC radio in 1953, adapted to a radio drama in 1957, Cubby Broccoli bought the film rights in 1956 (though it wasn’t till 1962 that a movie version was released), and it became an acknowledged classic of the genre.

Jack had special notepaper created with John Wyndham heading, and began to receive a trickle and then a steady stream of fan mail, which he replied to courteously and sometimes at length, explaining his ideas and stories. He had found his voice and the next decade saw an explosion of short stories, which were snapped up by magazines, and sometimes turned into radio or TV adaptations, alongside a series of major novels.

The golden decade 1951 to 1961

  • The Day of the Triffids (1951)
  • The Kraken Wakes (1953)
  • Jizzle (1954) 15 short stories
  • The Chrysalids (1955)
  • The Seeds of Time (1956) 11 short stories
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
  • The Outward Urge (1959)
  • Trouble with Lichen (1960)
  • Consider Her Ways and Others (1961)

Wyndham’s women

Binn devotes a chapter to considering Wyndham’s female protagonists from various angles, as tough heroines, survivors, non-conformists, the shrewd and intelligent ones in married couples, as partners, lovers, sisters and mothers.

All Wyndham’s novels consistently feature strong independent women (as listed above) but not just the famous ones; a more pulpy novel from the 1930s, Stowaway to Mars, features Joan, the doctor’s daughter from his second ever published story, The Lost Machine, and in this novel-length sequel she not only stows away on a spaceship to Mars, but is the only member of the crew to properly engage with the Martians when they get there. Then there’s Alice Morgan who outlives all the men on a crippled space flight to Mars, and Lellie, the ‘dumb Martian’, who is strong and determined enough to take revenge on her cowardly, bullying master.

Plenty of women but no mothers, no actual babies. It is notable that in Consider Her Ways, although Jane is ‘transposed’ into the body of a ‘Mother’, a breeding machine of the future whose sole purpose is to have babies, there are no actual babies in the story. Similarly, the primary womenfolk in Midwich Cuckoos manage to dodge the bullet of having babies, who are only observed at a distance and quickly turn into toddlers and then adolescents.

Binns speculates this has two reasons 1. It reflects the Wyndham’s resentment at the lack of real mothering he ever had from his mother who, at an early age, abandoned him to a series of prep schools, and then boarding schools and since she herself took to a peripatetic life of living in hotels, never provided a stable home for him.

2. The deeper issue which is, How to reconcile feminism with motherhood. The central issue for intelligent women is how to reconcile achievement in their chosen sphere, profession or activity, with the primordial instinct to have babies. Of course it’s more possible than ever before in human history thanks to various technologies, and to equality laws, and to social conventions which have changed immeasurably since Wyndham’s day. But to breed or not to breed is still the central issue for all women today and will continue to be for all time, because we are not products of university gender studies courses, we are animals, members of the class mammalia, who have evolved over tens of millions of years to reproduce sexually, as have countless hundreds of thousands of other species. We’re just one more sexually reproducing animal species which happens to have evolved a mind, a consciousness, and the contradiction between the two elements has been the subject of hand-wringing and puzzlement ever since records began. Feminist ire at the female plight is just a subset of all humans’ bewilderment at the human plight.

What emerges from Binns’ account, what is so striking and unexpected, is the way these eternal issues are so thoroughly aired and fluently articulated by a chronically shy, ex-public schoolboy, who only had one significant love affair in his entire life.

The rest of his life

Binns covers the rest of Jack’s life and his post-Triffid writings quite quickly, devoting far less space to it than she did to the wartime letters, which may be fair enough, since so much more of it is in the public domain due to the high profile of his writings and through interviews. Mind you, these were pretty rare, Jack kept a deliberately low profile leading to the jokey description of him as ‘the invisible man of science fiction’, compared to peers who were happy to step into the media limelight such as Arthur C. Clarke.

For me a major theme which emerged from my rereading of his novels is the question of whether two intelligent life forms can inhabit the same planet; his big four novels boil down into existential struggles between two such intelligent species: triffids versus humans; alien invaders versus humans in Kraken; humans versus new breed of telepathic humans in Chrysalids; humans versus alien children in Midwich. When he was asked in a rare television interview (1960) whether the Midwich children were evil he said no. They are just trying to survive, like we are. Binns summarises:

To him, the Midwich Cuckoos, like the Chrysalid telepaths and the [unnamed] monsters of the deep, were just another species engaged in the bloody struggle for survival. They might be the enemy, but he still had sympathy for them. (p.229)

Binns makes the neat point that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) are mirror images of the same story: what to do about telepathic children? In Chrysalids they are the heroes, we are on their side in the struggle to survive; in Cuckoos they are the enemy and we are on the side of the humans who struggle to liquidate them before it’s too late.

It doesn’t escape her notice that both stories are about children, the problem of children, the disturbing qualities of children – see the problems of feminism, mentioned above. There is something eerie about children at the best of times, and to a non-parent like Wyndham, something almost other-worldly. She relates it to the mid-50s anxiety about the phenomenon of ‘the teenager’, unruly, rebellious, destructive. And she connects it to Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End, which also sees children as unearthly harbingers of the end of the old order (p.223).

In this respect, his final published novel, Chocky, is like a late echo of the same theme. The story itself is fairly straightforward, what makes it a good read is the social history detail of childhood in the 1960s and, above all, the reactions of the parents to their son who seems to be going mad. As my own children have had mental health issues, I sympathise very strongly with the parents in this book.

Late marriage

On 26 July 1963 John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris married Grace Wilson at Russell Square registry office. She had retired as a teacher and marriage could no longer harm her career. For a decade Wyndham had been a polite and shy part of London’s science fiction community, which gathered for sociable evenings in the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, and they were all astounded at the news. Binns quotes fellow sci fi authors Arthur C. Clarke and Sam Youd (who wrote under the nom de plume John Christopher) as being amazed to learn that Jack even had a girlfriend, let alone a fiancée (p.257).

After living there for 40 years, Jack was tired of London. He and Grace bought a house in Sussex, in the village of Steep, not far from Bedales, the school which made him. Jack was a very practical man and enjoyed DIY and fixing things. He lived in this modest house, Oakridge, for the rest of his life, very quiet and understated considering the fortune he made from his books. Triffids continued to sell as did all of its successors, plus the film rights to Triffids (filmed 1962) and Midwich (made into the cult classic Village of the Damned in 1960. Binns says he was making about £8,000 a year in royalties, equivalent to maybe £160,000 nowadays.

Binns gives a characteristically sensitive reading of Chocky, seeing the 12-year-old protagonist, Matthew Gore, as a boy blessed with a vivid imagination and forced, by a hard and uncaring world, to be careful how much of it he reveals, guarding his every word. Binns sees it almost as the successful adult Jack reaching back to his boyhood self, shy, withdrawn, imaginative, anxious, and reassuring him that everything will turn out alright.

This is a beautiful and moving book about a kindly, sensitive man who crafted some of the most haunting fictions of his day.


Credit

Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns was published by Grace Judson Press in 2019. All references are to the 2019 paperback edition.

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler (1943)

Warning: This review contains disturbing content about sexual violence and the Holocaust.

Arthur Koestler, a potted biography

Arthur Koestler was born to a Jewish mother in Budapest, capital of the Hungarian part of the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1905. So he was 14 when the short-lived Hungarian communist government of Bela Kun seized power in 1919 and Koestler later remembered his teenage high hopes for it and for a better future. The Bela Kun regime was crushed and replaced by the authoritarian rule of Admiral Horthy, but Koestler retained that youthful idealism

Koestler became a journalist and travelled widely in the late 1920s and early 1930s, reporting from the Soviet Union, Palestine and Germany, for a variety of German newspapers. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931.

In 1936, early in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler got access, as an accredited journalist, to General Franco’s headquarters and gathered evidence of the support the regime was getting from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which was published, a great scoop at the time. This and other experiences were incorporated into his book Spanish Testament.

On a second trip in 1937, Koestler was caught in Málaga when it fell to Mussolini’s troops, was arrested, and convicted for spying because of the revelations from the Franco HQ. He was sentenced to death and from February to June 1937 he was imprisoned in Seville under sentence of death.

Quite an experience, which he also wrote about in Dialogue with Death. Eventually he was released in a prisoner exchange for the wife of one of Franco’s favourite flying aces.

Koestler moved to Paris where in 1938 he completed The Gladiators, a novel about the rising of ancient Roman slaves under Spartacus. The same year he quit the Communist Party and began writing the novel he’s most famous for, Darkness at Noon. His then girlfriend, English sculptor Daphne Hardy, translated Darkness at Noon from German into English and smuggled it out of France when she left ahead of the German occupation (June 1940).

Koestler’s life story is extremely colourful. First he was arrested by the French authorities in late 1939 and held in a French internment camp as an enemy alien. He described this experience in the hastily written memoir Scum of the Earth. He was eventually released at the request of the British authorities and as the result of intense lobbying by Hardy.

But how to get out of France without official papers, which the sclerotic French bureaucracy wouldn’t give him because he was ‘an enemy alien’? Koestler came up with a mad scheme. On the very day the French surrendered to the invading Germans, in May 1940, Koestler joined the French Foreign Legion in a desperate expedient to get out of the country.

He was accepted, trained and packed off to North Africa where he promptly deserted, made his way to Lisbon and so by boat to Britain. However, because he arrived without an entry permit, Koestler was again imprisoned.

Surely the only major writer to have been imprisoned in three different countries.

Koestler was still in prison when Daphne Hardy’s English translation of Darkness at Noon was published in Britain in early 1941 to great acclaim. This, and influential friends, helped get Koestler released from prison and he immediately volunteered to fight for the British Army, serving 12 months in the Pioneer Corps.

In March 1942 Koestler was assigned to the Ministry of Information, where he worked as a scriptwriter for propaganda broadcasts and films. During his spare time he wrote Arrival and Departure, the third in what had now become a trilogy of ‘political’ novels that began with The Gladiators and continued with Darkness at Noon.

Arrival and Departure

Although Darkness at Noon is transparently about the grotesque show trials which Stalin organised in the Soviet Union to discredit and liquidate all the old Bolshevik leaders who could be a threat to him, a striking feature of the book is that it nowhere actually mentions Russia, the Soviet Union or Stalin, preferring to use generic terms such as ‘the Party’ or ‘Number One’.

Clearly, Koestler felt there was value in trying to generalise the experience he was describing. Presumably the same wish not to be tied down by details and specifics underlies his approach in Arrival and Departure which continues to use some of the same generic terms.

Arrival and Departure is arranged in five parts which also bear very general titles.

Part 1: Arrival

The book opens mysteriously with an unnamed male protagonist leaping from the deck of a ship carrying a waterproof bundle. He swims to the anchor chain of the large ship, a cargo ship, the Speranza, which he’s been stowing away in while he orientates himself. He’s been hiding in the cargo hold for fifteen long days and nights. Now he can see a shoreline not too far away and swims towards it, eventually hitting the sloping shoreline and walking up through the waves onto the beach. He hides in one of the long row of bathing huts. His nose has been broken, his two front teeth smashed. His body has cigarette burns at various places (we later learn there are three: on one heel, behind one knee and on his penis), the result of torture. He is 22.

On the beach were sandcastles made by children. One of them carried a little toy flag, the flag of ‘Neutralia’ – so that’s where he is. Hidden in the beach cabin he weeps with relief.

Next day, things feel very relaxed. His clothes have dried overnight, it is very bright and sunny, he walks into town along a road lined with palms, there’s a square, he manages to change some of the money he had in his bundle, sits at a cafe table and orders a slap-up breakfast.

A family sitting nearby recognise him. They’re waiting to get visas to move on. So are friends. They tell him where the consulate is. As he walks on people recognise him. We learn from a woman in a queue that his name is Peter Slavek, he was a leading figure in the Party, and was arrested. Her husband mutters it’s best not to remember anything. Nonetheless the woman remembers that ‘they’ broke his nose, smashed his teeth out and extinguished cigarettes on his body. ‘He was the hero of our generation’.

Another woman, Dr Sonia Bolgar, watches Peter pass. She tells her companion Peter’s mother was a friend of hers. She thought ‘they’ had shot him. She says an accident happened in his family when the boy was just five and he has blamed himself ever since. He was a star student at the university, joined the party and was arrested a couple of times.

The combination of extreme heat (‘blazing street’, ‘hard glare’, ‘the sun was like a furnace’) and tropical fruit in the market stalls Peter passes made me wonder if it’s set in a North African colony. The waiter and others speak French, so a French colony – Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria.

Peter walks to the consulate and tries to persuade the officials that he wants to enlist in their army. Their country is at war. The official (incongruously named Mr, not Monsieur, Wilson) accepts Peter but shrugs and says it’s for ‘the authorities at home’ to decide. The problem is Peter comes from a nation which is an ally of the country the country he’s in is fighting. (Hungary? Allied with Nazi Germany? against France?) Mr Wilson says he’ll see what he can do but off the record suggests he tries the American consulate.

He sees Nazi posters in the shops but, in line with the ‘allegorical’ approach, the posters which describe a New Europe dominated by a newly arisen Central Power, under its stern-faced leader – neither the country nor leader are actually named. Walking on Peter comes to another shop window which shows photos of the New Nation’s opponents, led by their king and a cabinet minister in a bowler hat who flashes a V sign.

Peter bumps into the couple who discussed him earlier. He refers to the man as Comrade Thomas. They were both once part of the Movement. But the Movement has tacked and veered and changed directions so many times it has strangled itself. Presumably he is talking about the Soviet Union and the staggering impact it had on communists around the world when Stalin abruptly announced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939.

He had thought it would be so easy. Stowaway. Get to a safe destination. Find the consulate. Volunteer for their army. Be greeted with open arms, taken right in, given somewhere to sleep and papers. But no. None of that. He’s out walking the blazing hot streets, rejected with officialdom, with nowhere to stay and no papers.

By about this stage I realised it’s CasablancaCasablanca for intellectuals. There’s an extended community of refugees from all over Europe

Part 2: The Present

Five weeks later, Peter is in the queue at the American consulate. Dr Sonia joins him. He is evidently feverish and weak. She realises he is starving, making one loaf of bread last four days. She takes him back to her flat, feeds and washes him, and he moves in. It isn’t a sexual thing. She is huge (her size is repeatedly emphasised) and was a friend of his mother’s i.e. twice his age.

Sonia is a practising psychotherapist. Half the refugees in town come to her for advice and comfort, even representatives of ‘the other side’. The young woman Odette often comes to visit and the two women make it plain they expect Peter to leave.

Over the coming days Peter slowly falls in love with Odette, well, develops a one-sided obsession with her.

One day she calls round when Sonia is out, one thing leads to another, she gets up to walk out, he slams the door shut, she struggles, he grips her, they stumble to the floor and in a red mist he rapes her. I didn’t see that coming.

Peter doesn’t acknowledge the enormity of what he’s done, he insists that he loves her while the raped woman remains in a foetal position on the sofa facing the wall, crying.

But after a while of Peter pleading, Odette loses her temper and tells him to shut up. He holds her hands and insists that he loves her and after a while she stops crying and start commenting sarcastically on this so-called ‘love’, on men and their brutish ways, how they beat a woman down, bullying and nagging until she eventually says, ‘After all – why not?’ And as he lowers himself towards her again, she says that to him: ‘After all – why not’, indicating her self-abandonment. Athough she adds: ‘But don’t hurt me this time.’

For ten days he lives in a sensual paradise, absolutely head over in heels in love. Every day he spends at Odette’s room in a her boarding house, they have sex, then laze around chatting, then get dressed and go for mussels and local wine at a harbourside restaurant. Paradise. On the tenth day he knocks and immediately sense the flat’s emptiness. Inside it has been stripped bare. A note on the table says she got her visa, had a place booked on a ship and has left.

Part 3: The Past

Peter undergoes a complete nervous collapse. He can’t walk. He has deep dreams and waking hallucinations. Deliriously he thinks he’s flying a fighter plane. He has snapped. Sonia calls Dr Huxter who does a thorough physical. Nothing wrong. It is mental. Huxter describes himself as ‘an old Jew’, ‘a general practitioner of the old school’, and is sceptical of Dr Sonia’s depth therapy methods, in fact he sees her as a huge beast, Leviathan from the Bible, dabbling in arcane and unhealthy powers.

Peter is delirious for three days. When he comes out of it he is very weak. Big Sonia nurses him but also does therapy. In his delirium he repeated a psalm about Jerusalem. Now he remembers an incident from his childhood when the family had a pet rabbit, and he overheard the cook say they were going to eat it, and he decided to save it, and his mother repeated the psalm and the little boy picked up the word Jerusalem and applied it to the rabbit and knew that, so long as he thought about Jerusalem the rabbit would be safe. But one day at the park he saw a little girl his age by the pond and fell in love with her and forgot all about Jerusalem, When he got home hungry he wolfed down the chicken stew and only then did the family cook (it was that kind of bourgeois family) tell him it was rabbit stew. He vomited.

Now he remembers that story.

But much worse follows. Suddenly, from pages 78 to 87 he gives a detailed account of the time he was taken out of prison and sent (by mistake it turns out) on a mixed transport, a long train of cattle trucks which included ‘Useless Jews’, women who’d been selected to become prostitutes for Nazi officers, and gypsies who were going to be sterilised.

Only a few pages ago we were reading about the sensual bliss of being young and in love. Now Koestler delivers a really stomach-churning account of how the journey takes days, each truck too packed for people to sit down, then all treading in each other’s excrement, before they are parked in a siding by a disused quarry and here, his truck load watch the ‘Useless Jews’ be forced along a corridor of guards and up steps into removal-type vans which have airtight doors, and in which the Jews are gassed to death in batches.

It takes all afternoon and long into the night, and in their cattle trucks and then as they are hustled along to the vans, the Jews sing, sing defiantly, a song about the return of the Messiah as they are led to be murdered.

Then the scene switches: Peter describes being caught. He was distributing leaflets for the Movement in a working class area near a mill when cops spotted them and gave chase. His three colleagues fell behind, but Peter made it to the main street, jumped on a tram, switched to a bus, made it home to the apartment where he lived with his poorly mother and the maid, a peasant girl. Later the same day, three detectives arrive. The take the place to pieces, ripping open pillows and cushions and sofas, smashing lamps, breaking chairs, looking for evidence. Then they take him away, handcuffing him and punching him in the face. It was the last time he saw his mother.

Peter explains the arrest was nothing to do with the leafleting. It was because he was on the executive committee of ‘the Movement’ at the university.

He is taken in to be questioned by the legendary interrogator, Raditsch, in his deep-carpeted interview room. Raditsch is a burly peasant who has risen to the top of his career. He disarms Peter by revealing he knows all about his career, and knows the identities of half the members of the Movement, who the authorities are about to arrest. He explains that this country will never go communist because it is a land of peasants. Raditsch understands them, he came from a peasant family.

Worse, Raditsch then proceeds to enumerate the failings of Marxism during which it becomes clear that he knows and understands its theory, history and practice fact better than peter does. Raditsch is familiar with Rosa Luxemberg’s arguments with Bukharin, with the shortcomings of the labour theory of value, he explains to Peter how the theory of working class consciousness is based on an inadequate theory of psychology (p.100).

In other words Raditsch quietly and confidently strips Peter of all his intellectual and organisational protection. Then he gives him thirty seconds to confess, thirty seconds to avoid being taken away and tortured and puts his pocket watch on the table and they both watch the second hand tick round.

At the end of 30 seconds Peter has kept silent and so with a sigh Raditsch orders him to be taken away, down stairs, along a corridor and into a room with six strong men dressed in black who in a friendly ungrudging way proceed to beat him black and blue, breaking his nose, smashing his face, stretching him across a table and whipping him with some metal implement that makes it feel like his body’s been cut in two. He screams, he wets himself, he shits himself, his face is covered in blood and tears and snot, he passes out.

All this is in flashback. Peter pieces together the scene over a series of sessions with Sonia, who sits quietly and rather formally, apparently doing her knitting, only occasionally asking a question to prompt Peter, to help him over a bump in the road.

All kinds of mental images and memories and layers overlap and interpenetrate. For example, Peter explains that despite the most outrageous torture he refuses to ‘confess’ not because of Party discipline, he’s long forgotten the Movement, it’s something deeper, a sense that he has already betrayed the Party with a thousand little mental infidelities and witholdings, which he’s told Sonia about. On page 119 he makes a list for Sonia of all his betrayals, starting with feeling guilty about getting away after the leafleting episode when his three comrades were captured, for breaking his mother’s heart, for being powerless to help the Jews as they walked off to be gassed, working backwards through a long list of excuses for guilt.

Anyway, the text gives a very detailed description of the four days of intense torture, beatings, whippings, waterboarding and bastinado that he received, very detailed and stomach-churning, not for the faint-hearted.

But all this is only really preparatory to Sonia’s psychotherapy. Peter was to emerge as a hero for the Movement, a legend because he didn’t break under torture. But he had nothing to confess because in his heart he had already betrayed everyone. It is the root of this guilt which Sonia is really interested in, she calls it his Christmas tree of guilt on which he has spent his life (he is now 23 years old) hanging all kinds of decorations. Backwards she goes through his memories till we reach the real bedrock.

When he was five he was playing half-maliciously with his younger brother in a disused rowing boat by the sea on a family holiday, when they both tripped and fell forward and his little brother’s eye was impaled on a rusty rowlock, permanently blinding him. But even that isn’t it, because digging deeper we learn that aged just three he remembers reaching into the cot of the little baby, the newcomer who had taken everyone’s love and affection away from him. Not long before a beloved toy of his, a teddy bear, had been taken away supposedly because its eyes had fallen out. Now, aged just three, little Peter thought that if he put the eyes out of the screaming baby it, too, would be taken away and he would be restored to the centre of his mother’s love. He was disturbed in the mere beginnings of the attempt, but the memory of the murderous impulse remained with him, and when the accident in the rowing boat happened he was stricken, because it felt like his murderous wish had come true.

And for the whole of the rest of his life, he had sought pretexts and excuses for blaming himself for everything. Feeling guilty at the way the cops trashed his mother’s apartment, feeling guilty about his comrades being arrested – these are just decorations on the really deep, swarming, brooding feeling of worthlessness and guilt pullulating at the core of his mind. As Dr Sonia says:

‘The hardest sentences are those which people inflict on themselves or imaginary sins.’ (p.97)

Peter’s nightmares disappear. His leg begins to move again. His fever goes. He feels calm and awake. He is cured.

And not only cured of his personal demons. He had joined but then abandoned the Movement, disillusioned, but these complicated personal motivations, the memories, the guilt and the cataclysm of the torture, had kept him tied to it. Now he has exorcised both chains which held him back.

That was over. He was cured; never again would he make a fool of himself. He was cured of his illusions, both about objective aims and subjective motives. The two lines had converged and met. No more debts to pay, no more commands to obey. Let the dead bury their dead. For him, Peter Slavek, the crusade had come to an end. (p.128)

Outside of Freud’s own case studies, I think this is the most extended, detailed and compelling account of a psychotherapeutic cure of neurosis I’ve ever read.

Part 4: The Future

Just as he fell ill, Peter had received a letter to go see Mr Wilson at the Consulate. There he received the papers he needed to apply at the American consulate for permission to emigrate. Now he has been given permission to travel to the United States, and immediately visits a travel agency and books a berth in a ship sailing from Neutralia to the US in three weeks time.

Sonia has left on a boat to the New World. He stays on in her flat. He is in limbo. She has exorcised him of the past, but the new world has yet to begin. This part is made up of scattered scenes set against his mounting anticipation of boarding the precious ship.

By far the most interesting is the long scene (pp.136-151) where ‘Bernard’ drops by to collect some books he’d loaned Sonia. Peter politely lets him in and their conversation immediately turns into a schematic confrontation. Bernard is a Nazi (nobody uses that word, but that’s what he is), a fervent Nazi, a believer that it is Germany’s destiny to carry the next stage of human evolution which will sweep away all traditions, parliaments and liberal notions of individual liberty, it will sweep away old nations and national boundaries and usher in a world built entirely on the rational use of Europe’s resources for a racially purified population.

There’s much more to it than that. Bernard skewers the compromised motives of all the upper-class university-educated liberals who claim to be one of the ‘workers’, while many of those ‘workers’ actually flocked to the Nazi party because they wanted a way out of their proletariat destiny. He accurately describes a lot of revolutionaries as neurotic middle-class mummy’s boys. They argue back and forth about the legacy of the French Revolution. Bernard puts the view that the Thirty Years War set back German nationhood by 150 years, but this means she is coming to the notion of nationhood completely new and unshackled by nineteenth century ideas, free to create a new future for all mankind.

What’s vivid and exciting about this passage is the plausibility of much of what he says – about the bankruptcy of old economic systems, the ineffectiveness of old parliaments, and the vigour of new scientific discoveries and technologies, not least genetics and selective breeding. If of plants, why not of humans? And when he goes on to explain how similar the Soviet Union is to Nazi Germany, particularly in their totalitarian systems designed to crush individual liberty in the name of a greater social good, Peter is uncomfortably aware of the similarities and overlaps.

There are other short sections. Peter has a drink at a cafe with Mr Taylor from the Consulate who introduces him to ‘Andrew’, a young man who’s been horribly burned flying planes during an early phase of the war, and his face reassembled with skin grafts from other parts of his body, with grotesque results. Worse, Andrew is cynical about people’s motives for fighting. Everyone feels guilty about someone else who is doing more, is closer to the action, is more at risk, he says. Maybe this four-page section is a coda to the de-guilting of Peter during the psychotherapy scenes.

Peter dreams dreams. The book is full of dreams. Before his therapy, they were anxiety dreams and nightmares. During his therapy they are hideously vivid memories of torture, guilt and self-hatred. After his therapy he continues to have them but they are now diffuse and mysterious.

He dreams of reuniting with Odette. Her letter to him, the one explaining that she’d abruptly left with no goodbye, had left it open whether he wanted to follow her, be reunited with her. Now he is obsessing about that possibility, he dreams of her and her naked body.

Cleaning out the drawers on his last few days before leaving he comes across a fragment of letter written from Odette to Sonia which strongly hints that they were lesbian lovers. He’d sort of guessed that from the way he had to leave the flat every time Odette came round but, it exacerbates his uncertainties about leaving (p.166).

Bernard drops by for another brief fascinating exchange in which he makes the telling point that Marxism has preserved the class divisions of the nineteenth century in aspic and brought them into the 20th, where they are utterly irrelevant. His movement on the other hand is more dynamic and fluid. Nobody can deny that large sections of the so-called working classes have gone over wholesale to the fascists while, conversely, a lot of the upper-class intelligentsia have gone over to communism. In short, a class-based analysis is hopelessly out of date for modern conditions. Bernard is badgering him because he wants to recruit him to work for ‘them’ in America. He drops the bombshell that he will be sailing on Peter’s ship (the Leviathan).

On the day of departure Peter arrives early, is checked on board and dismayed to discover how cramped Third Class quarters and the pitiful lower deck promenade. To cover his anxiety he drinks two bottles of wine for lunch and passes out in a deckchair. When he regains consciousness, it is to discover the deck heaving like a Bank Holiday crowd. He looks up just in time to see Bernard walking up the gangplank and waving down at him. He bursts free, goes down to his hot sweaty cabin and feels like throwing up. Through the porthole he sees a former party member, Comrade Thomas and his wife and Ossie (!) the comrade he thought had been caught by the police at the leafleting fiasco.

Suddenly he feels morally sick. He rushes out the cabin, up the crowded staircases, across the deck to the gangplank and, as the final hoots of the enormous funnel sound above him, safe onto shore, runs to the ticket booth (empty) and then runs runs runs back into the city.

He runs all the way to Mr Wilson’s office. The latter is disappointed to see him but not altogether surprised and happens to have a military man visiting. On the spot Peter manages to volunteer to fight, to fight the enemy. He walks back into the city enormously relieved. Sometimes decisions just have to be taken. Maybe he is motivated by romantic idealism. But if, like him, you have seen the Jews being herded towards the gas vans in the name of a shiny new technocratic Europe, then it behoves you to take up arms against it. When he had joined the Movement, he hadn’t been fully aware of his motives, which were largely personal. Now he is aware of his motives, which are just as flawed and personal but it is a fully conscious decision.

Peter has been writing short stories. In the last few days before he’s called up he writes a short story about the Last Judgement. It is a very powerful fable, very impressive. The Last Judgement is the nightly court of the unconscious which we are all called to and to which we must all return every night of our lives.

Part 5: Departure

The novel concludes with a five-page envoi (‘an author’s concluding words’). Peter is driven to an English RAF aerodrome, shown into officers quarters, introduced to his pilot, given a cup of tea. He waits. In the other room the pilots are playing ping-pong. He is being parachuted into enemy territory. He just has time to finish a hurried letter to Odette telling her he will lover her always. then the pilot appears and it is time to go.

Some hours later he jumps out of the plane and into the night just as he did at the start of the novel when he jumped from the deck of the Speranza into the dark, but this time he knows why and is determined to see it through.

Wow. What a brilliant ending.


Style

Koestler the Hungarian has an infinitely clearer, cleaner and more enjoyable prose style than the other two, English novelists from the same period who I’ve been reading, Rex Warner and Edward Upward. He just describes things in cool, clear flowing prose.

Out in the blazing street again, Peter had to narrow his eyes against the impact of the hard glare on walls and pavement. He felt in his breast-pocket for a cigarette and his hand touched the flag in his buttonhole. He automatically put it away in his pocket and strolled slowly uphill through the steep, narrow street towards the main Avenue. (pp.25-26)

This directness and clarity means that when he comes to describe the two really harrowing scenes – the Mixed Transport and gassing of the Jews, and Peter’s torture – he is able to do it with factual, unsentimental phrasing which makes it all the more harrowing, I mean really harrowing.

If you are squeamish you shouldn’t read this book. On day three the torturers tie Peter naked and spread-eagled to a table and then just look at his bruised bleeding broken body.

This silence, fraught with the expectation of the unknown, brought him nearer to breaking down than the physical pain they had inflicted upon him the previous days. Pain had its limits, fear had none. It was all-pervading like a sustained electric shock, it made his bared teeth vibrate although he clenched his jaws to prevent them from clattering. (p.112)

In these scenes you are right there, inside the character’s terrified mind, feeling every new bolt of shattering pain.

And it means that when Koestler discusses ideas, or has Peter and Bernard argue about the historical, philosophical, economic and psychological basis of Nazism, he does it crisply and logically, making the arguments in sharp clear sentences which are readable and powerful to this day.

Science metaphors

Koestler wrote a lot. Trained as a journalist, he churned out words every day and produced a wealth of articles, essays and books. But it’s notable that after Arrival and Departure he more or less abandoned fiction. He wrote memoirs and books against communism and about Zionism and the Jews in Palestine – but most of his later books are about science or pseudo-science, beginning with an account of the astronomy of Kepler and moving on to tackle Lamarckism, psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia. By the time I started reading in the mid-70s a lot of these books had been discredited and Koestler was seen as an eccentric or fringe character.

You can see the scientific side of his mind already at work in his fondness for scientific metaphors throughout Arrival and Departure.

Touched with the magic rod of cause and effect, the actions of men were emptied of their so-called moral contents as a Leyden jar is discharged by the touch of a conductor. (p.116)

[Peter] listened to [Sonia] with eager excitement, as one listens, at the end of a crime-story, to the detective explaining the clues which had been all the time before one’s eyes; and as at last they begin to yield their meaning, one feels a new pattern of understanding emerge, like symmetrical crystals in a liquid solution. (p.120)

He felt the exultation of his early student days, when he suddenly grasped the principle of Kepler’s laws of planetary movement and the chaotic world around him was tamed. (p.126)

His interest in scientific metaphors can be considered just one aspect of Koestler’s obvious quest for a factual, unrhetorical style and approach, for a clear-headed factual approach – one which eventually led him out of fiction altogether.

N.B.

It is interesting that Arrival and Departure keeps faith not only with the ‘allegorical’ method of Darkness at Noon but with some of the same nomenclature. Neither Germany nor Russia nor the Communist party nor the Nazi party nor Hitler or Stalin are mentioned by name. As in Darkness the ruler of the people’s state is referred to simply as ‘Number One’, and Bernard jovially agrees that his own country (the one bent on uniting Europe and cleansing it of the mentally and racially impure i.e. Germany) has its own ‘Number One’.

We all know who he’s referring to but this use of generic terms keeps the story floating just above actual historical reality, giving it an allegorical, generalised power.

Conclusion

Arrival and Departure – with its detailed description of torture, its harrowing account of the murder of the Jews, with its complex treatment of the psychotherapy of the traumatised central character, and the clear and powerful arguments between Bernard and Peter about the merits of communism and fascism – is a far more varied, powerful and intellectually stimulating novel than Darkness At Noon.


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Alan Furst’s ‘Night Soldier’ novels

Alan Furst’s ‘Night Soldier’ series of novels are unashamed thrillers, but they are set in the same murky world of spies, and communist and fascist agitators in Eastern and central Europe in the mid and late-1930s which Koestler is depicting, and the best of them (arguably, the first two) capture the mood of paranoia and fear (and brutal violence) which is the subject of Arrival and Departure.

In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

Edward Upward was born in 1903 to a middle class family in Birmingham. He went to prep school and then Repton public school and then ‘up’ to Cambridge, before going on to (try to) become a writer. These are all classic characteristics of members of the so-called ‘Auden Generation’ and, as it happens, Upward’s father was, like Auden’s, a doctor.

But Upward had a particularly close connection to the Auden Gang because at Repton he became good friends with Christopher Isherwood, later to be W.H. Auden’s collaborator, friend and sometime lover. At Cambridge, Upward and Isherwood invented an English village, Mortmere, which became the setting for various surreal, obscene and satirical stories. He was introduced to the great Wystan in 1927.

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

1. Teacher After leaving university he became a teacher (as did Auden and Isherwood) in 1926 and remained one till he retired in 1961. For 30 years he taught at Alleyn’s private school in Dulwich. Nowadays Alleyn’s annual fees are £21,000.

2. Communist Somehow Upward managed to reconcile teaching at private schools for the rich with being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He became a ‘probationary member’ in 1932, then a full member in 1934. From 1942 Upward and his wife, also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, were investigated by MI5 for their communist activities. (MI5 should have been investigating those pillars of the establishment Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt). It was only in 1948 that Upward quit the British Communist Party and that wasn’t in disgust at the show trials or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, but because he thought it had gone soft and was becoming ‘reformist’, i.e. ceasing to be revolutionary and instead truckling to the post-war Labour government, then at the peak of its power.

Despite winning poetry prizes at Cambridge, publishing some poems and hanging round on the fringes of the literary world, Upward only managed to publish one novel in the 1930s, Journey to The Border, in 1938. This describes in poetic prose how a private tutor rebels against his employer and how this and the darkening international situation triggers a breakdown from which he only emerges when he realises he must throw in his lot with ‘the workers’. (Presumably by teaching at a fee-paying, exclusive private school for the wealthy.)

Then came the Second World War. Upward continued his teaching career but struggled to write anything. When he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, in the 1950s, specifically to write his Great Novel, he found he couldn’t and suffered, like the fictional character of his first novel, an actual nervous breakdown. Only slowly did Upward work up a story about a posh private schoolboy who goes to Cambridge and tries to reconcile the conviction that he’s a writer (a poet; they’re always poets) with his commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A ‘story’ which is, in other words, completely autobiographical.

Slowly the idea turned into a trilogy which came to bear the overall name, The Spiral Ascent. In the second volume, Rotten Elements (1969) our hero terminates his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain because he thinks it’s gone soft and ‘reformist’ (ring any bells?). In the final part, No Home But The Struggle (1977), the protagonist is reconciled to the new forms of radical politics of the 50s and 60s and joins the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.

In The Thirties, published in 1962, is the first volume of The Spiral Ascent and introduces us to its lead figure, would-be poet Alan Sebrill.

In The Thirties

The Penguin paperback edition I picked up in a second-hand bookshop is 237 pages long, so average novel length. It’s divided into 14 chapters. Its protagonist, Alan Sebrill, is supposed to be a young, aspiring poet. The title of this book leads you to expect that it might capture some of the youthful exuberance and heady excitement of those strange and threatening times and it certainly describes the idealism, naivety and gaucheness of youth.

Chapter 1

Chapter one is by far the longest at 40 or so pages. Having finished the book I can now see that Upward intends it as an introduction to his lead character and fills it with incidents designed to show how young, privileged, idealistic and naive he is.

It is the summer of 1931. (This isn’t explicitly stated, we deduce it from two pieces of evidence. 1. In chapter two a character says it’s nearly ten years since he took part in the great Hunger March of January 1922 [p.58], so just under ten years after Jan 1922 must be December 1931 at the latest. 2. Later on, the narrator tells us that the meeting where the character said yhat took place in October i.e. October 1931. Since the events in chapter 1 take place in the summer of the same year, we can deduce they take place in the summer of 1931.)

Young would-be poet Alan Sebrill has packed in his job as a teacher at a posh preparatory school and taken up the invitation of his friend, young would-be poet Richard, to come and stay with him on the Isle of Wight so he can complete his Great Long Poem. Richard moves Alan into a spare room in the boarding house he’s staying at, kept by a strict Miss Pollock.

They are innocent young chaps, full of banter and absurd idealism. They walk down to the beach and along the cliffs, playing with words and terms for the birds and geological strata and wave formations, convinced that their special feel for language and the acuteness of their perceptions will make them poets, great poets, place them among ‘the English poets’.

The doomed

Alan develops the idea that they are ‘doomed’ because they are so much more sensitive and alive and alert than ordinary people, and especially the hated ‘poshos’.

‘What makes people vile is being successful or comfortably off. That’s why most of the hotel visitors are so poisonous. They are the wicked, the devils. Only the doomed are good, and we must be on their side always.’ (p.20)

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

Richard is convinced he is ‘well in’ with the local working classes. He gets a drunk local lad, Basher, to show off his tattoos to Alan. How frightfully working class! Richard enjoys talking to ‘the working classes’ on the beach-front esplanade in a loud voice.

‘It surprised the stuck-up public school gang staying at the big hotel. I’ve realised lately that the time has arrived for me to show definitely that I’m against the plus-foured poshocracy, and for the cockneys and the lower orders.’ (p.8)

‘Poshocracy’? Richard and Alan both agree their poetry will contain plenty of ‘Marxian’ ideas although, when pushed, it turns out that all Marx means for Alan is that he was the great repudiator of the ‘upper-class mystique’ which dominated his ghastly prep school. Now he’s left the school Alan doesn’t find Marx so compelling any more.

Outsiders

Alan is on the short side, chronically shy, specially round girls. He feels like a misfit. He thinks writing poetry makes him special. He thinks it makes him different and better than the ‘poshocrats’ who dress for dinner up at the grand hotel. He tried reading Marx (Capital) but the reader can clearly see that he uses the German philosopher as a psychological prop to counter his excruciatingly self-conscious sense of inferiority around the effortlessly tall and stylish ‘poshos’, both at his former prep school, at the hotel on the island.

For example Alan and Richard see other young people dancing outside the pub they frequent, but Alan is too shy to approach any of the girls, despite fairly obvious encouragement.

After a week Richard abruptly announces he is leaving. Alan is at first upset that he is breaking up their poets’ conclave but Richard is bored of the island, is not writing anything, wants to go back to London. Well, when you have independent means you can be free and easy like that. (Later on we learn that Richard has left England to live abroad. Alright for some, p.197).

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

Alan stays on in Miss Pollock’s boarding house for weeks, squeezing out four or five lines of verse a day for his Great Poem. In the entire book we are shown only one couplet of Alan’s poetry and it reads like pure Auden. Here it is:

Central anguish felt
for goodness wasted at peripheral fault (p.12)

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

  • omitting the definite or indefinite article – ‘the’ or ‘a’ – where you’d expect them (in front of ‘central anguish’ or ‘goodness’, for example) in order to convey a more robotic/ominous meaning
  • technocratic diction – ‘central’, ‘peripheral’ – which somehow makes it feel part of a science fiction film or laboratory report
  • half-rhyme (‘felt/fault’) cf. Auden: ‘Fathers in sons may track/Their voices’ trick’

Peg

After Richard has left, Alan summons up the courage to talk to the red-haired girl who he’s noticed staring at him. She is far more experienced and forward than him. They talk and then dance (the foxtrot) to the band on the esplanade at the bar/pub/restaurant on the beach. She’s called Peg and rather surprisingly tells him she has a fiancé up in London, but this is a holiday romance so it won’t count. She discovers Alan’s middle name is Thorwald, and playfully introduces him to her two friends as the poet Count Thorwald. Playful undergraduate stuff.

Peg invites him for tea at her aunt’s house where she’s staying. The aunt is eccentric. Confident Peg tells the disconcerted Alan that that night she’ll leave the scullery window into the house unlocked (the aunt firmly locks all the other windows and doors). So a lot later that night, Alan has to go through the rather degrading experience of sneaking down the lane to her house, shimmying up the wall and squeezing through the narrow window, stepping into scullery sink and elaborately down onto the floor then tiptoeing through the house up to her bedroom.

Sex in the Thirties

Eventually they arrive on her bed where, to the modern reader’s bemusement, they lie side by side ‘for a very long time’ (p.27) chatting. Really? Eventually they turn towards each other and embrace but then lie in this position ‘for almost as long’. Alan postpones any movement at all as it would have seemed like ‘an affront to her, an impudence, a crudity’ (p.27). The very next sentence is: ‘After the climax they stayed awake talking about what they would do next day.’

Sex is strange – an odd, uncanny, disruption of everyday life and manners and conventions. Reading about anybody else’s sex life is almost always disconcerting. But the oddness of Alan and Peg’s behaviour makes you think: is this really how our great-grandparents thought and behaved, with this odd combination of knowingness and timidity?

Is the scene here to indicate just how young and timid and shy and inexperienced Alan is? Why does it jump from them lying completely still to ‘after the climax’? Was it the Censorship – remember Ulysses and a number of D.H. Lawrence novels had been banned for their sexual content? Maybe the very strict rules about depicting sexual activity meant novels were allowed to tell you all about the before and the after but all descriptions of the thing itself were simply removed?

Or is it me? Are my expectations of sexual behaviour thoroughly debauched from watching thousands of movies and pop videos in which scantily-clad dolly birds adopt a series of stylised and stereotyped poses and positions – and I’ve come to think that that’s what sex is or should be? That I’ve lost touch with a world before TV, movies and pop videos, magazines and advertising saturated us with fixed ideas about what sex, or behaviour around sex, should be?

Is this scene a) incomprehensibly innocent and dated or b) a fairly accurate description of some people’s often clumsy and embarrassed experience of sex?

The oddity of the scene suggests how books like this have at least two values over and above any literary ones:

  1. as social history, to show us how our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents thought and felt.
  2. by doing so, to broaden our horizons about what human behaviour and feeling can be. To show us that we’re not trapped in an Instagram / Tinder / ‘hot priest’ world, where each new TV series tries to outdo its predecessors in sexual frankness and explicitness. That we can escape from the crushing conformities of the modern world.

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

Anyway, after whatever it is that happens that night, things go awry. He is initially elated and wants Peg to become his beloved, but she continues prattling on about her fiancé in London (John) and casually mentioning that even after she’s married she intends to have lots of lovers. Deflated, he stumbles back out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He can’t be bothered to go through the fol-de-rol of climbing out the scullery window and just unlocks the backdoor and walks out. Stuff the security-minded aunt.

Next day they meet on the beach and their relationship deteriorates further. Alan presses his love and Peg is increasingly distanced and detached and then announces she’s going back to London earlier than expected. He wants to take her in his arms but is convinced she will rebuff her. But he can see that she still has feelings for him. Cross-purposes. Later that day she catches the coach for London, he doesn’t bother to see her off.

The struggle to write continues

Abruptly Alan decides romanticism is the enemy. He must be hard, forget all about Peg. For the next fortnight he struggles with the Long Poem, writing a handful of lines each morning. Then he realises it is all wrong because it’s based on this notion of the ‘doomed’, sensitive young men. No no no. Start again. He wakes up one fine morning and decides he is going to throw all that sentimentalism out and write a Great Marxist Poem. Right. Now. Sit down. Get blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand. Er…

God, this is hopeless. He looks in the mirror and sees himself for what he is:

It was the face, he thought, of a self-fancying spoilt darling, of the overvalues don from a bourgeois family who had been unreasonably expected and had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all, that he was a pampered young or no longer quite so young shirker who considered himself too good for the kind of everyday job in which he might perhaps have been of some slight use to the community. (p.34)

But even here, there is a big difference between looking in a mirror and, in a sentimentally depressed kind of way, confronting yourself (or a rather dramatised version of yourself), a big difference between doing that – and actually going out and getting a useful everyday job.

Suicidal thoughts

Alan melodramatically concludes that his life is a failure and decides to walk to the nearest cliff and throw himself off. But he is so entranced with the soulful beauty of the idea that without even realising it, he walks out the boarding house, under the hawthorn arch, into the lane and in the opposite direction from the clifftops, walking in a dream up to Peg’s aunt’s house before he realises it. He moons around looking through her bedroom window, hoping against hope that she is still there, but she isn’t.

Then Alan does find himself walking up to the cliffs, looking out over the scintillating sea, thinking about jumping off and realising it’s impossible, it’s hopeless, he’ll always be this miserable unless he makes some seismic change, finds some kind of ‘way of escape’.

(That phrase prefigures Graham Greene’s use of it for the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, published in 1980. They had all the advantages life could give them, these young men of the 1930s, but they still managed to be desperately unhappy.)

As he stands on the cliff Alan thinks maybe he should join the church, become a vicar, yes, ‘In his will is our peace’. He spies the Congregationalist church down in the village and remembers visiting the Congregationalist chapel of his grandparents. Hmm. It was quite grim. Maybe something more ornate. Maybe Catholicism. Great poets had been or had converted to Catholicism, it was meant to be easy once you’d made the initial leap of faith.

Or what about Marxism? Yes it was on the side of the ‘doomed’, against the hated ‘poshocrats’, maybe it would help him to write his poetry.

Communism was the only force in the world which was uncompromisingly on the side of the doomed and against those who wanted to keep them doomed. It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public-school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again (p.43)

Summary

All this happens in just one chapter, the first 40 pages or so, the first eighth of this 240-page-long book.

I initially found its upper-middle-class locutions and earnestness (‘Oh super idea, Richard!’) silly and off-putting. But if you bear with it, then my experience was that the story slowly grows on you and turns into an engaging portrait of a naive, confused young man.

Upward is a patient and very detailed chronicler – he describes in detail the appearance of a room, its furniture, and curtains and mirrors – and in the same meticulous way describes dialogue, people’s appearances and precisely how Alan feels at every moment, how his feelings are swayed and buffeted by trivial incidents. It’s a key quality of Upward’s mind and approach which he attributes to his alter ego in the narrative.

In revulsion from the platitude he tried to be more precise (p.161)

Once I got past Alan and Richard’s naive poshness I realised that most sensitive, bookish, young people have probably had one or more of these experiences, and began to respect and enjoy the precision with which Upward depicts them.

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

It is the end of October 1931 (p.46). Alan has come down to London for an interview to work as a teacher. The chapter opens as he travels by tram to an office of the Communist Party. He’s scared to go in, thinking they’ll despise him.

They would be intelligent, politically experienced people who would see him as he was; yes, and who would see through him, would guess the self-regarding quasi-religious motives, the sickly wish for his own salvation, which had brought him to them. (p.46)

In the event it’s a shabby room with some people preparing leaflets, others hanging around. The apparent leader Ron Spalding takes pity on the shy young man, says they need more posh people to help them, and suggests he goes out leafleting with a couple of the comrades, young Elsie Hutchinson and Wally Ainsworth (p.53). An election is coming up and they’re leafleting for the local communist candidate, Joey Pearson.

With chapter 2 the book immediately gets more grip and drive. The reality of the shabby hall is described with Upward’s trademark attention to detail, as are the half dozen communists. What stiffens it, though, is that right from the start the characters discuss the current economic and political situation in concrete terms, the number of unemployed, the reality of unemployment benefit, recent bills and votes in Parliament – and combine this with the sweeping generalisations about the crisis of capitalism which they have learned about in Engels and Marx. Out leafleting with Wally the pair discuss Feuerbach, Plekhanov, Lenin.

Leafleting complete, Alan says goodnight to Wally and walks away feeling elated.

He had found a place among people who wanted him and with whom, however inferior he might be to them in courage and in strength of will, he felt an affinity because they were members of the lower class to which he too, the would-be poet, in a sense belonged. He would do all he could to be worthy of them and of the great cause for which they were working. From now on he would be dedicated to the Revolution. (p.46)

Chapter 3

It is four months since his first contact with the party (p.86), so presumably January 1932. Alan has a teaching job at a boys school, Condell’s (‘‘It calls itself an Academy and likes to pose as a public school.’ p.60). He devotes a page (p.110) to describing in detail how much he despises its shameless aping of public school customs and terminology.

In part one of the chapter Alan has just plucked up the courage to pin a leaflet about a communist party meeting to the staff noticeboard. This is spotted by the Second Master, and triggers a fascinating debate between the two of them. It’s almost a dramatised version of a political pamphlet.

Alan says the crisis of capitalism is inevitable, as Marx predicted. The other teacher, Aldershaw, points out that Marx predicted the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist countries whereas in fact it occurred in by far the most backward, Russia. Alan counters that both Lenin and Stalin had written that Marx was indeed wrong about this and the revolution of necessity broke out in the weakest link of the capitalist system.

Aldershaw highlights another wrong prediction of Marx’s, that the proletariat would become steadily more impoverished until revolution became inevitable. Alan counters with mass unemployment. Aldershaw says modern young men have motorcars and the cinema and cigarettes and radios, a lifestyle his own parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Alan counters that malnutrition statistics show mothers and children aren’t getting enough to eat. Aldershaw counters that’s because most mothers are completely ignorant of the basics of diet and nutrition and send their kids with packed lunches full of buns and jam tarts.

Alan says society will never be free till all businesses are owned by the people. Aldershaw counters that lots of businesses are run by shareholders. Alan says workers will only be free when the state owns everything and Aldershaw lures him into asserting this is the case in the Soviet union.

Aldershaw says the Soviet Union is the worst place in the world to be a worker because if you make a wrong word of criticism about the system or Stalin you’ll be hauled off to a labour camp. Alan asserts that the camps are necessary because of reactionary and bourgeois elements who are trying to sabotage the worker’s paradise. Communists accept a temporary phase to dictatorship because it is a step on the path to a totally free and equal society. Aldershaw counters that no dictatorship ever willingly evolved into anything else. Dictators cling onto power until they’re overthrown.

Alan counters that dictatorships which oppress the Negro or try to keep women economically subservient to men deserve to be overthrown, but dictatorship in the name of communism i.e. creating a free society, can be justified.

Several points about this exchange.

  1. It is very well done. Upward really captures the way both men become steadily more infuriated that the other one isn’t seeing the obvious sense of his arguments.
  2. It suggests how schematic the entire novel is, how carefully constructed so that each episode contributes to the whole.
  3. It is striking how contemporary these arguments seem, especially about overcoming racism and women’s equality. They were written 50 years ago and put into the mouths of characters from 90 years ago, giving the reader the strong impression that some things never change.

In the second half of the chapter Alan, upset from this argument, tries and fails to keep discipline over his class. They obviously despise him and make a hissing noise as he approaches his classroom. He ends up shouting at them and giving detention to a particularly repellent spotty oik (Dibble) who answers back. Then subsides behind his desk feeling, as so often, like a complete failure.

Chapter 4

Description of a workers march on Trafalgar Square which starts in a street with warehouses, presumably in the East End. Alan learns to his surprise that Roy, the leader of their cell who greeted him so kindly on his first visit, has been arrested and is in gaol on charges of burglary – he and mates stole timber from a timber yard. He’s been expelled from the Party.

Upward pays attention to the detail of people’s appearance and behaviour, to what Alan sees and feels, as the disciplined march is blocked by a police cordon and he lets himself be led away through back streets to the Square by the tall and reckless comrade Bainton. When they get there Whitehall is cordoned off by mounted police and then a file of riot police move in with truncheons and start battering the workers, hitting many to the ground.

As the crowd disperses Alan gets a bus and notices comrade Elsie is on it. He is attracted to her again, goes and sits with her and tries to make conversation but she mostly upbraids him for failing to attend recent meetings.

Chapter 5

It is 18 months since Richard and Alan were at the seaside village (p.116), so presumably the autumn of 1932. Alan is called to see the headmaster of the school. While he waits for the appointed hour (9.30am, after Assembly) Alan looks out the window at the autumnal trees and experiences a characteristic series of thoughts about the squalid reality of being an educator upholding the corrupt capitalist system. He vows to become utterly mechanical in his tuition, an automaton, reserving his energy for working with ‘the Party’ in the evenings.

Unfortunately, the headmaster is pretty critical of the way Alan can’t seem to control or win the respect of his class. Alan is coming up to the end of his first year’s probation. The head doesn’t sack him, as he fears, but says he’ll have to toughen up. The boys need to be driven. And has he considered beating some of the offenders?

Alan zones out of the entire conversation, becoming absorbed in the reflection of the autumnal trees outside the window in the glass frontage of a bookcase, making first the books, then the trees come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever read that experience, of completely zoning out of a conversation, be described in such minute detail. I am coming to appreciate that this is what Upward does very well. The real minutiae of experience.

For a while he fantasises that he can pack in teaching and go back to being a poet by the sea, and indeed he fantasises in great detail the experience of walking down to the sea and watching the scintillating waves. Then the headmaster’s voice brings him back to reality. No, he tried that and it was an abject failure. He finds himself saying ‘Yes Headmaster, yes I will strive to take your advice,’ rising as in a dream and leaving the room.

Only his devotion to the Party prevents him falling into bottomless misery and despair.

Chapter 6

The local communist party cell has been renting the upper floor of a coach-house. Alan arrives early for a meeting. We are introduced to the ten or so party members. Alan is hopelessly starry-eyed about them, convinced they know so much more about the ‘real’ world than the ghastly middle-class intellectuals he knew at university. Take Eddie Freans, Eddie works on building sites but in his spare time is a practical inventor. Alan is in awe of his true working class roots.

Eddie might have his moments of naiveté but about things that were really important he had a far better understanding than was to be found in the university-educated intellectual chatterers of whom Alan had met too many. For those, and for members of the middle class generally, Alan could never have the respect that he had for Eddie; and in spite of the things Alan had in common with them – education, accent, manners – he felt much closer to Eddie than to them. He was happier and more at home with Eddie, just as he was happier and more at home with the other comrades here… (p.127)

Turns out this is the meeting where the members vote whether to accept Alan as a member of the Communist Party, they do by a unanimous vote. He is asked why he wants to join, what motivated him to make contact with them in the first place. He had a little speech prepared:

He had intended to say that in the conditions of modern monopoly capitalism the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for individual members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists, and that therefore he had decided to contact the Party. (p.130)

This is actually how all the other members talk and might have gone down well. However, with typical clumsy scrupulosity, Alan realises that is too stereotyped and insincere, and the Party is all about truth! So he actually shares with them that his first motivation came when he was leading prayers in a class at a prep school where he was teaching and was disgusted that he, an atheist, was put in this position, and realised it was not just him, but millions put in false positions by the system, which needed to be completely overthrown. That was the moment he first realised he had to be a communist.

There’s an embarrassed silence, followed by nervous laughter and Alan realises, yet again, that he’s done something wrong. Then the meeting gets down to an extended discussion of the current economic and political situation, which is rammed full of Marxist analysis and Marxist rhetoric and Upward describes very carefully and precisely. Characteristically, Alan finds himself zoning out of the discussion and imagining the whole room being blown up in the coming war between fascists and communists so misses half the discussion.

Afterwards, they lock up the room and go their separate ways. Alan is walking part of the way with Elsie and manages to persuade her to go up a dark alley as a ‘short cut’, where he tries – extremely clumsily – to embrace her. Upward gives an excruciating account of what a tangle he gets his arms in as he attempts a smooch, ending up placing his cheek next to hers and then has a go at a fumble, cupping her breast in the summer dress and then, toe-curlingly, pinching what he thinks is her nipple but might just be a seam of the fabric. During this entire thing Elsie remains utterly silent and unresponsive. When Alan eventually gives up they resume walking to the end of the lane and Alan says a lame goodbye. Well, he blew that.

Communist Party members:

  • Elsie Hutchinson, ‘wore glasses, had a sullen-looking mouth, and whose fuzzy hair rising to a point above her forehead and jutting out sideways at her temples had the effect of a triangular frame.’ (p.53)
  • Jimmy Anders –
  • Willie Dean Ayres, head round as a ball (p.128)
  • Beatrix Farrell, Ayres’ wife, posh (p.128)
  • red-haired Jean Pritchet (Anders’ girls, p.128)
  • Mike Bainton, irreverent and a little insubordinate, he leads Alan away from the marchers blocked in the East End, and by side routes to the main meeting. In chapter 8 he is expelled from the party for his deviant views i.e. denouncing Stalin’s takeover of the
  • Wally Ainsworth, ‘a happy-faced man of about thirty-five, with sallowly chubby cheeks reminiscent of those squeezable rubber faces that used to be made as toys for children.’ (p.53)
  • Eddie Frearns, slim, thinfaced, works in a small workshop which makes lampshades (p.126)
  • Harry Temley, 22, thickset, works as a mechanic (p.125)
  • Jock Finlayson, branch secretary of the AEU (p.127)
  • Sam Cowan, trade unionist and orator (p.127)
  • Lily Pentelow, recently elected to an important position in the Co-op movement (p.128)

Chapter 7

Back at the school. In the playground some of the boys make the contemptuous pssssssing noise they seem to make whenever Alan appears. Infuriated, Alan pounces on the probable leader, Childers, and tells him to report to the Master’s room. He is going to cane him. The entire chapter rotates around this event. He has to borrow a cane off a master who is infinitely more confident and self-assured than Alan.

The boy is waiting outside the master’s room at the assigned time, Alan takes him into the room although it’s the other master who really sorts things out, arranges the desk so there’s enough swing room for the cane, and then stands at the door while Alan administers six of the best. Upward gives a very detailed description which makes you realise how difficult caning actually is to administer. You must be sure to hit the exact same spot on the buttocks six times in a row.

Afterwards the boy stands, says ‘Thank you, sir’, and leaves without a backward glance. Alan feels wretched.

Back in the staff room the report of what he’s done triggers a discussion among the other masters. Almost all of them vigorously approve, the boy Childers is a frequent offender. But their very enthusiasm suddenly prompts a vehement outburst from Alan condemning caning as primitive and barbaric. That throws cold water on everything. Once again Alan has displayed his uncanny knack of throwing away an advantage, of making himself the least popular person in the room.

Staff members:

  • The Head Master
  • Sidney Bantick the Head Master’s assistant, with his black jacket and striped city trousers (p.114)
  • Aldershaw – who Alan has the extended argument about Marxism with in chapter
  • Ampleforth – a very reserved man
  • Barnet, the only master who stands up for Alan, in fact expresses his own extreme disgust with capital punishment
  • Benson – ‘pale-faced and strongly built, moving with large strides, his big glasses calling attention to his pale eyes which had no expression in them.’ (p.145)
  • Brook – disciplinarian, assists at the caning
  • Buckle, ‘brown-eyed pale-faced and physically strong’ (p.180)
  • Gus Chiddingford, ‘rotund’ popular joker
  • Hefford, Head of English
  • Langton, ‘one of the Maths men’
  • Lexton, ‘a bumptious extroverted younger member of the staff who taught Classics’
  • Moberley, the Handicraft man
  • Railton, ‘very tall’, older than the others, tight skin over his skull but heavy eyelids (pp.186, 188)
  • Ransome, ‘a Classics man’

Chapter 8

A meeting of the CP is held and Ben Curtis attends, to judge Mike Bainton on charges of criticising the Soviet Union in public. He’s been overheard slandering the workers’ paradise while doing a holiday job on Bognor beach.

Bainton repeats his criticism to the members. In the Soviet Union congresses have been held less and less frequently. Now the USSR has signed a treaty of non-interference in each others’ affairs (November 1933) and joined the League of Nations (15 September 1934). Bainton sees this as selling out the international revolution and thus betraying the world’s working classes.

As so often, Upward shows us how Alan drifts off during this speech, visualising the early revolutionary workers, and the travails the workers’ paradise had been through.

Then other members stand up to denounce Bainton. He is immediately recognised as being a Trotskyite heretic, i.e. someone who continued to push for world revolution while the official line was the Soviet Union needed forst and foremost to survive in the capitalist world and therefore some compromises with capitalism and imperialism might be called for.

The members vote unanimously to expel Bainton, and he votes with them, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being ironic. When Elsie and Alan leave the meeting they cut Bainton, though both feel bad about it, and try to rationalise this snubbing of a man who had been a good friend till an hour earlier.

if the Party were to disappear from the world there would be no hope for humanity. The showing of kindness to a few deviationist human individuals could lead to disaster for human beings in general. At a time when decaying capitalism had taken the form of Fascism in Germany and Italy and was preparing for an all-destructive war, and when only the Soviet Union stood unequivocally for international peace, anyone who like Bainton spread propaganda against the Soviet Union was objectively helping Fascism and working to bring violent death to millions of men, women and children. He was a traitor not only to the Party but to humanity. (p.171)

Alan feels a sort of exultation because he has suppressed his natural fellow feeling for Bainton in a higher cause. By this point I am really admiring Upward’s unflinching honesty.

The same honesty he applies to part two of the chapter where Alan walks with Elsie who suddenly asks if she can come back to his flat. Alan’s heart skips a beat, this can only mean one thing and is a big surprise after his hideous fumblings up a back alley.

But once again it turns into a peculiar scene. Upward describes with mechanical clarity Alan’s shyness. She sits in the only armchair, he sits at the further edge of the divan, three quarters of a room away. They discuss a ramblers meeting she’s leading. Bursting with tension he eventually picks up a cushion and throws it at her, then bounds to her side and puts his hands on her cheeks stroking them, then has a hurried feel of her breasts in her vest, slips down into the cramped armchair as she squeezes up then slips his hand up her skirt and does something up there for ten minutes or so, during which her expression never changes, they don’t say a word, they don’t kiss.

Then he stops whatever he was doing (‘the activity of his hand’), she stands up, they kiss mechanically, she goes over to the mirror and adjusts her clothes and hair. Is that it? Watching her, he is overcome by repulsion from her, she is definitely from a lower class than him, with a rougher accent and manners. And then he feels disgust at himself for his petit-bourgeois mentality.

As usual, Alan demonstrates his gift a) behaving clumsily and b) making himself miserable.

Chapter 9

The chronology of the book is leaping ahead. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland (p.183).

Back at the school Alan has been given a gizmo to raise money for the ‘The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement. It is a battery with a power plug and lots of sockets. You pay 4d, put the plug in one of the sockets, if it lights up you get 1/6. He takes it to the games room for masters and is, predictably, confused and humiliated. Maybe Alan Sebrill is one of the great losers of English literature.

Alan tries to persuade them that Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland is just the first step. Next it will be Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Was anyone that prescient in 1936? Easy enough to be from the vantage point of 1962.) All the masters in the games room ridicule him. They’ve nicknamed him ‘the Red Menace’ (p.150) or, more amusingly, ‘Rasputin’ (p.180).

There’s an extended description of four masters playing a game of snooker and all their posh banter which is quite funny, but which Upward recites with the attitude of a scientist examining specimens.

Afterwards one of the sceptical teachers gives the battery gizmo a go and loses half a crown to Alan. It’s typical of Alan that he doesn’t understand betting or odds.

He bumps into Barnet and has a conversation in which Barnet agrees with pretty much everything he says, especially the inevitability of a war, and Alan suggests he joins the Communist Party.

Chapter 10

It’s September (1936?). Alan is on the train from his parents’ house up to London. He and Elsie have arranged to be married but, typically, he has already said yes but backed out of it twice. He doesn’t really want to marry her, but sees it as his duty to marry a fellow party member. He also wants to overcome the class gap between them. When Elsie had come to visit, his parents had displayed ‘undisguised and snobbish disapproval of her’ and then, on the railway station platform he had spotted a public school friend, Tom Cumbers, with an unmistakably posh young woman, classy-looking, well dressed… and Alan had felt mortally ashamed of his rough girlfriend with her sometimes ‘pug-nosed’ appearance (p.201), turned his back to try and hide himself and her from the public schoolfriend and – cringingly – told her he couldn’t marry her.

He is a feeble twerp.

Yes, it is 1936 because as soon as he meets Elsie at the ticket barrier they start talking about the Spanish Civil War. For a moment Alan thinks he sees Jimmy Anders in the crowd, Jimmy is due to go off and fight in Spain any day now. His cousin had volunteered to drive an ambulance but has returned wounded (his right arm was amputated).

Elsie takes Alan by tube and bus to a street where new maisonettes are being built. She’s chosen one for them to live in once they’re married. She shows him round. It’s an interesting piece of social history. It’s clean but small and cramped. He looks out the window and sees a big cedar tree like the one at his parents’ spacious home in the country and all of a sudden is flooded with despair that his life has come down to this.

He turns on Elsie and says he can never live here. She is beginning to say she can find another place when he goes further and says he can never marry her. She is stunned. He knows he has to say something irrevocable, and so now says: ‘Oh Elsie, you are so ugly.’

The second he says it, he regrets it, and tries to take it back. Elsie is sensible. She simply says she is not ugly, and some of the men she’s gone out with have told her she’s very attractive. Now, seconds after trying to get out of it, Alan finds himself more determined than ever to marry her and live the life of a communist poet.

Chapter 11

Well, they appear to have reconciled because this chapter opens with Alan and Elsie sitting in armchairs opposite each other in their maisonette. They discuss a review in the New Statesman in which Robert Jordan complains that modern poetry is too obscure. This upsets Alan who seems to think of himself as a poet even though he doesn’t appear to write poetry and has never had anything published.

Wally Ainsworth arrives. They are scheduled to go to a meeting of the British Union of Fascists that evening. It is at least 1937 because the conversation references the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937). They set off for the meeting. Barnet questions a young lad why he’s selling the British Union of Fascist newspaper, Action. Because the Jews are ruining the country, the lad replies. Barnet reveals that he is a Jew and he is not ruining the country. The boy is confused.

The communist group continues to the meeting and Upward describes with characteristic precision the exact appearance of the hall, the look of the fascist stewards they have to pass, the look of other members of the audience.

Alan shares his reflections on the nature of fascism’s appeal to the petite bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, small businessmen, workshop owners, people who aspire to be part of the haute bourgeoisie, and ape its snobbery and pretensions but are economically insecure and thus anxious and thus desperate to blame someone (the Jews) and adulate whoever will save them (the Leader).

The  Leader appears and speechifies in respectful silence for 20 minutes before cranking up a gear and beginning to blame the Jews for everything. At this point Alan and the other communist party members stand and walk out. That’s all they intended to do – make a peaceful protest.

Barnet, the schoolteacher, who Upward had implied was Jewish in chapter 9, is delayed because he lays out leaflets saying ‘Smash Fascism before Fascism Smashes You’. For a moment stewards close in on him and you think there’s going to be a fight. But Alan stands his ground in front of Barnet and the threatening steward straightens up and lets them leave.

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

Elsie’s baby is nearly due so it must be eight months later. The chapter opens with Alan plunged in real misery, about his job, the baby, the coming war, the triumph of fascism, his non-existent poetic career. The future seems like a tidal wave of slime heading for him, for everyone. He doesn’t want to wake up. He doesn’t want to go to work.

He casts his mind back to a few days earlier when there was a knock at the front door of the maisonette. It was Holyman, an old boy from the school come to show them how to put on gas masks. They were talking about Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia so it must be the autumn of 1938. Holyman shows them how to put on the gas mask and explains how babies will be placed inside gas insulators. Elsie is querulous. When Holyman leaves she bursts into tears of unhappiness and wishes she’d never got pregnant.

Now back to the present as they both wake up together. She is heavily pregnant. He has fantasies about dressing, walking to the station but going on straight past it, to the coast, the cliffs, to the countryside, anywhere except to his wretched job.

Chapter 13

The Munich Crisis (September 1938). Alan is at school taking round a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he not submit to Hitler over the Sudeten Crisis for the other masters to sign. No fewer than 15 have signed and it is a symbolic victory when the most sceptical among them, Brook, also signs. To Alan’s surprise the Head Master also signs, but with a few patriotic provisos, reminding Alan that England never had, and never would, break a promise; but that supporting the Czechs was the Christian thing to do. Alan suppresses his disagreement with all this and thanks him.

This segues into a really good scene where Alan tries to get one of the last of the masters, Benson, to sign, and the man turns out to be a Christian pacifist, a really thorough-going and intelligent pacifist. For pages (pp.249- ) Upward stages a very stimulating debate between the two sides – we must stand up to Hitler versus violence only begets violence, look at the last war where both sides ended up losers; except now it will be fought with much more destructive weapons.

What makes In The Thirties so enjoyable is that Upward gives his ideological opponents a very fair crack of the whip. Like the extended debate with Aldershaw, this one with Benson forces Alan onto the defensive. When he says the final war of communism which overthrows capitalism will lead to a world of perpetual peace, he can hear how unbelievable it sounds, and Benson scores a big point when he says that, even if communism did triumph the world over, the communists would fall out with themselves as they already had in Moscow.

As he works his way systematically through the arguments, Upward forces you to consider which side you would have been on. In autumn 1938 would you have encouraged Britain to enter into a catastrophic war simply to uphold France’s treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia?

In fact the argument takes on a surreal twist because when Alan insists on the necessity of struggle, that struggle defines and will always define humanity, they both end up speculating about humanity carrying that struggle on into outer space, into colonising the planets and so on, as the conversation strays into H.G. Wells territory. Benson refuses on principle to sign anything which might provoke violence. Not only that but he points out, quite simply, that it the precious letter will never be read or, if it is, chucked in the waste bin.

A few days later Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement and returns home promising peace in our time. Alan is disgusted, convinced that such kowtowing to Hitler makes Chamberlain and his cabinet more than appeasers but active allies of fascism.

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

‘Nearly ten months after Munich’ i.e. July 1939.

The concluding chapter is deliberately and carefully lyrical. It is set entirely in a ramble by a large group of communist party members in the North Downs. Alan is with Elsie and quite a few others. As they climb into a wood Alan notices, with the same kind of intensity he had had back on the Isle of Wight, the extraordinary variety of shapes made by trees and branches, old and new. Light plays amid the branches and he is suddenly seized by a sense of poetry, that there is a spirit in the woods, some special message, but it won’t come.

Only when they emerge from the woods and all camp down to eat their sandwiches and drink coffee from thermos flasks, does it come to him. To some extent, throughout the book, his strong sense of a poetic vocation had been set against the iron logic and demanding work of the party. Now, suddenly, the two are reconciled, the two modes of thinking become one and he has an uplifting and inspiring vision of the future.

As he sat and continued looking up at the trees, he could not suppress a contrary and a stronger feeling, a gladness, a conviction that the poetic life was not a fraud, not a mirage, was good, was possible. It was possible because he knew from within himself that he was capable of it…

A time would come when human beings would know how to remove the social obstacles which they themselves had been forced to set up against happiness. Then the poetic life could be lived – though he would be dead – by others whose inborn bent would be similar to his. There would be a world in which everyone would have freedom for self-fulfilment, would be expected, would have the prime social duty to become whatever he was born to be. (p.272)

Here on a sunny slope, surrounded by friends and party members, he has an utterly optimistic view of the future. He wants to share it with his wife and – typically – spends some time trying to find just the right words, not sentimental, not patronising, that would express just what he feels for her. He leans over and tells Elsie:

‘I’ve been thinking how admirable you are.’ (p.274)


Details

I slowly came to appreciate Upward’s way with very carefully imagined and precisely described scenes. To give a small example, it takes a couple of pages to describe Alan trying to persuade a sceptical Brook to sign the letter. When he does, Brook takes it from his hands and presses it up against the wall of the school corridor to sign. Except that the school walls are covered in roughcast render and Alan immediately sees that if he tries to write on it, Brook will inevitably tear the paper with his pen. Quick as a flash, he proffers the schoolbook he’s holding in his hand, for Brook to use to write on. Suddenly I could see and almost feel the texture of that roughcast wall, and felt the sudden panic in Alan’s mind that his petition would be torn and ruined.

The novel is full of hundreds of little details like that, which add verisimilitude and clarity to the scenes and situations, making them that much more imaginable and enjoyable.

The rasping of Alan’s shoes against the brickwork of Peg’s aunt’s house as he humiliatingly pulls himself up and through the scullery window is more closely described than the act of sex which, apparently, follows it.

And the reader is reminded of the intense passage back at the start when Richard and Alan go walking along the shoreline intensely noticing everything, leaves, shells, rock shapes, strata, waves.

Upward is well aware that it’s a feature of his style. He even makes a joke about it at the end of the book. After the passage where Alan has made an enormous list of the different shapes and analogies the tree trunks remind him of, he realises:

He had lost the excitement of the wood in the interesting detail of the trees…

In other words, he quite literally can’t see the wood for the trees. But it’s OK. In the euphoric final pages of the novel, details and overall narrative are integrated, the poetic life becomes one with the struggle for a better future, the details and the pattern coalesce – he can see the wood and the trees.

Politics

There is a great deal of thinking about communism in the book. Alan starts by expressing an inchoate longing for the certainties of communist doctrine, then turns up ready with thoughts to his first meeting, and then listens to other communists debating current politics. He himself gets caught up in political arguments, namely the two extended arguments. 1. with Aldershaw which amounts to a checklist of objections to communism and their refutations and 2. with Benson when he really struggles to combat Benson’s powerfully consistent Christian pacifism.

Any time he’s with other party members, even with the party member who becomes his girlfriend (Elsie) the subject is likely to change at the drop of a hat into an extended Marxist analysis of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, or musings about party policy, or how a good communist ought to behave.

Communism dominates the book. It is a novel about an idealistic young communist.

Indeed it’s a striking feature of the book that, whereas the Alan character is depicted as hopelessly confused, self-conscious, timorous and clumsy, the political speeches given to the characters are solid, thoughtful pieces which stand up to analysis even 60 years later.

I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the book isn’t really from the 1930s but was published in 1962 i.e. Upward had had 30 long years to mull over these issues, to see what the unknown future turned out to hold in story, to read, study and listen to Marxist thinkers cleverer and clearer-minded than him.

However, coming fresh from reading Ian Kershaw’s magisterial survey of European history in the 1920s an 30s – To Hell and Back – what interested me was the logic of the communists’ opposition to socialists, a fundamental problem with The Left throughout the period which Kershaw sees as one of the causes of the rise of Fascism.

Because the communists have an iron-strict confidence they are the side of History and the Future, they despise any softening of their calls for the complete and utter overthrow of the system. It is fascinating to read the historical interpretation that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could and should have spread to Europe, and was only stopped by the Social Democrats. Here is party member Willy Dean Ayres explaining:

The only way out from this present crisis was by proletarian revolution and by the abolition of the capitalist system, which was strangling the forces of production, and this way could and should have been taken all over Europe during the period following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. What had prevented it from being taken? Mainly the political attitude of the Social Democrats, who instead of co-operating with the Communists had preferred to try to help capitalism to its feet again and had even been responsible for the suppression by violence of workers’ risings. The Social-Democrats had acted as the faithful backers of senile capitalism, but later, when the crisis deepened and disillusionment began to spread among those sections of the working class who had hitherto trusted them, they were no longer useful to the capitalists. ‘Capitalism in extreme decay,’ Dean Ayres was at the moment saying, ‘is forced to use other means, more openly dictatorial and more crudely demagogic, to maintain itself in power. The Social-Democratic hostility to revolution brings not a gradual progress towards Socialism but – as we have seen in Italy and recently in Germany – the temporary victory of Fascism.’ (p.135)

I, as a left-liberal, read Kershaw’s analysis as tending to blame the hard-line communists for the splits which so weakened the Left during these crucial years. And there’s no doubt from all the objective accounts of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with George Orwell’s, that it was the Stalinist hard-line of the communist party which prompted it to attack the anarchist party in Barcelona and led to the localised but intense and bitter civil war between the parties of the Left, which Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

So it’s fascinating to read, in lots of places throughout this book, the opposite point of view being presented – that the communists were the only real force capable of a) overthrowing capitalism and b) taking on fascism, and that it was the fatal weakness of social democrats propping up the defunct capitalist system which a) dragged out its demise unnecessarily b) left so many working people so immiserated that they threw in their lot with the fascists and their easy promises of renewal.

Fascinating to read that other side of the argument put with logical and imaginative conviction.

Credit

In The Thirties by Edward Upward was published in 1962 by William Heinemann. I read the 1969 Penguin paperback. References are to the online version, see below.


Related links

It’s symptomatic that none of the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent appears to be in print. You can pick up the first volume on Amazon for as little as £4 second-hand, but each successive volume seems to double in price. My Penguin copy cost £1 in Oxfam. Or you can download all three novels in the series from the The Spiral Ascent website.

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (1935)

‘I must say, Bill, you’re a nice little chap, but you do have some queer friends.’
(journalist Helen Pratt to the narrator William Bradshaw, page 187)

Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood (b.1904) was a key member of the Auden Generation. In fact he first met its leader, W.H. Auden, when they went to the same prep school. Christoper went on to a jolly good public school (Repton – modern boarding fees £37,000 per annum), where he became lifelong friends with the novelist Edward Upward – and then onto Cambridge.

Throughout the 1930s Isherwood wrote novels and essays and collaborated with his friend from prep school, W.H. Auden, on three experimental plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as writing an extended prose account of their joint visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, which was published along with Auden’s poems as Journey to a War (1939).

In January 1939, along with Auden, he sailed for America to make a new life. Auden stayed in New York but Isherwood moved onto California and to a long, successful career as a novelist, critic, screenwriter, devotee of Indian religion, and lived long enough (he died in 1986) to become a gay icon in Reagan’s America.

Right back at the start of his career, though, he wrote the books for which he’s most famous, the autobiographical accounts of his time in Weimar Berlin. (From 1918 until its overthrow by Hitler in 1933, Germany was a parliamentary democracy which came to be named after the town of Weimar where Germany’s new government was formed by a national assembly after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918. Thus anything from this era is referred to as ‘Weimar’ Germany, ‘Weimar’ Berlin etc).

Berlin had, by the late-1920s, become a byword for sexual, and especially homosexual, license, offering a freedom of lifestyle and sexuality which couldn’t scarcely be imagined in starchy, repressed, between-the-wars England, and which still hasn’t really arrived in Puritan England nearly a century later.

The first of the Berlin novels was Mr Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935. It is often combined with its 1939 sequel, Goodbye to Berlin into a single volume, The Berlin Stories, and together these formed the basis of the well-known 1972 movie, Cabaret. I remember arriving at them as a schoolboy having already read quite a lot of French literature with its explicit descriptions of sex and drugs, and being bitterly disappointed at their utter tameness and their prissy, public schoolboy tone. Now, returning to them years later, I appreciate them for what they are, hilarious social comedies.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

This is a bloody funny book. For the first 100 or so pages I smiled or laughed out loud regularly.

The narrator is William Bradshaw. He is an English tutor in Berlin. He appears to be 27 when the novel begins, for he is 28 a year later (p.129). It is autumn 1930. He is on a train back into Germany he meets ‘Arthur Norris, gent.’, a much older man, fat, fussy, nervous, who wears an outrageous wig, worries about his passport, his papers, is widely travelled, calls everyone ‘dear boy’.

William returns to his Berlin boarding house and his pupils but we hear next to nothing about them or his work. Instead the narrative focuses almost entirely on the larger-than-life figure of Arthur Norris. He is an eccentric, a posing exponent of out-of-date values and manners, he ‘risks’ the poor wine on the train, orders champagne with everything, delights in gossip and fine art.

Soon after his return to Berlin William goes round to Arthur’s flat (at 168 Courbierestrasse, a real Berlin street) where the eccentricity builds up. Arthur’s apartment has two doors right next to each other, one is the private entrance, one is marked ‘Import/Export’. A sinister young man with a big head opens the door, takes his coat, and visibly disapproves of his visit. Arthur flusters though, takes William by the hand and escorts him round the oddly arranged flat.

Over the course of successive meetings at cafes and restaurants, William learns that Mr Norris is a relic of the legendary Oscar Wilde circle from back in the 1890s. That’s when his beloved mother died and he came into a small fortune which, however, he managed to blow in just two years (p.45). Two years during which he met the divine Oscar and his circle, gossip is made about the scapegrace Frank Harris, and Mr Norris has a fund of stories which date from the late 1890s or the early 1900s, or the glory years just before the war when he had a large apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, with decorations designed by himself and a unique collection of whips! (p.51)

Now he has very much fallen on hard times and tries to keep up the appearance of a cultured and flamboyant man of business, but in reality he is up to his neck in debt (£5,000!) and Schmidt – the sinister young man who opened the door – is his minder, receiving all the money deriving from Mr Norris’s dubious and mysterious ‘business ventures’, managing the numerous debtors in a blunt brutal manner which Mr Norris could never bring off, and in exchange taking 10% of the transactions.

He was one of those people who have not only a capacity, but a positive attitude for doing their employer’s dirty work. (p.46)

In fact, over scattered conversations in cafes, restaurants or his flat, Arthur slowly reveals he has had quite a few brushes with the law and then that he actually went to prison, Wormwood Scrubs, for 18 months. Something to do with embezzlement or misappropriated funds.

So the humour derives mostly from the outrageous pretensions, lies and evasions of Mr Norris, as well as his humorous turns of phrase. He is, in his way, a sort of Falstaff, pompously fond of all the good things in life while completely unable to afford them. He is a great comic character.

Arthur certainly gave things away with an air. He knew how to play the Grand Seigneur. (p.173)

But the humour is aided by Isherwood’s stone cold, precise and sometimes malicious eye for detail. The narrator reports everything with exceptional lucidity. Not only that but he disarms us with suddenly blunt turns of mind, which are often very funny, and which Arthur comments on:

‘Really William, you’re so unkind. You say such sharp things.’ (p.37)

For example:

As he spoke he touched his left temple delicately with his finger-tips, coughed, and suddenly smiled. His smile had great charm. It disclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks. (page 7)

These moments are designed to show us that Isherwood has a kind of unblinking, unflinching clarity of observation. But their tactlessness, and their abrupt surprising appearance are also very funny.

‘This is Olga, our hostess,’ Arthur explained.
‘Hullo, baby!’ Olga handed me a glass. She pinched Arthur’s cheek: ‘Well, my little turtle-dove?’
The gesture was so perfunctory that it reminded me of a vet with a horse. (p.32)

Key to all these effects is the William/narrator persona. He laughs at everyone’s jokes, he gets on with (almost) everyone, he dances, he drinks but doesn’t get angry or maudlin. He knows what to wear, how to eat correctly at smart restaurants, he is tactful and polite. Quite a few paragraphs start with the simple sentences: ‘I smiled’, ‘I grinned’ or ‘I laughed’. He is flattering company. He is the perfect, well-mannered English house party guest and excellent company.

(I took the trouble of counting and the word ‘smile’ appears 80 times in the novel, ‘laugh’ 55, and ‘grin’ 14. The point being that all this smiling and laughing subconsciously nudges you towards reading the book in a good mood — rather as the hundreds of mentions of ‘death’ and ‘blood’ make the Penguin Book of Civil War Verse such a grim read.)

The cast

  • Arthur Norris – ‘I’m generally at my best in the witness box’ (p.42)
  • Schmidt – Arthur’s malicious assistant or minder (p.18)
  • Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno – a scary drawling nightclub denizen, rimless monocle screwed intimidatingly into his pink face as if by some horrible operation (p.28)
  • Anni with the thigh boots who Arthur likes being whipped by (p.32)
  • Fraulein Schroeder – William’s ancient landlady, who enjoys dressing up and flirting with Arthur
  • Helen Pratt – Berlin correspondent to one of the weekly political magazines, tough as nails, no-nonsense, statistics and Freud, very earnest about Sex (p.38)
  • Fritz Wendel – German-American man about town, likes playing bridge (p.39)
  • Olga – enormous, wobbling hostess of decadent parties i.e. everyone gets blotto, men dance with men

Events, dear boy

Things happen. They have to in a novel. Early on Mr Norris takes William to a New Year’s Eve party to see in 1931 (p.30) at the house of a certain Olga, an enormous good-natured woman. Everyone is very drunk and Isherwood describes being drunk at a party very well. People appear, disappear, he finds himself with his arms round someone, dancing with two or three people at once. He is introduced to the slightly sinister Baron von Pregnitz, then to Anni a bored prostitute wearing leather boots up to her knees. Later on William staggers down the hall, blunders into a room and finds her standing with a whip in hand while fat Mr Norris is on his hands and knees polishing her boots and she is whipping him for being such a naughty boy. Neither of them minds him blundering in, in fact Anni says he can be next.

Anni lives with Otto, her pimp, an enormously strong, good-natured working class man, middleweight champion of his local boxing club (p.57). It is a recurring comic motif that he insists on shaking William’s hand whenever they meet, and crushes it so hard, it takes a while for William to recover feeling in it. Or slaps people so hard on the shoulder that they nearly fall over.

In a surprise development, Mr Norris takes William along to a Communist Party meeting, a hall full of Berlin’s working class, to which he makes a surprisingly impactful plea of solidarity with the poor peasants and workers of China!). William goes along and meets Anni and Otto there (chapter five). It is very funny when all four of them return to Arthur’s flat, open a bottle of wine,m and jovially refer to each other as Comrade Arthur, Comrade Otto and so on.

It is, of course, a scam. Desperate to pay off his debts, Mr Norris has fibbed to the head of the Berlin Communists, a short extremely self-contained man named Bayer, that he has ‘important contacts’ in Paris etc. He never explains it properly to William but the general idea is that he becomes some kind of go-between or messenger.

Mr Norris plans to host a party on his 53rd birthday but William gets there to find everyone gone – Arthur pawned his carpet to pay for it but when Schmidt saw what he’d done and he demanded all the money from the pawnbroker and only left Arthur a few marks.

Arthur tells William that Otto and Anni broke up after they argued about the Party and Otto smacked Anni so hard he knocked her back over the bed and against the wall so hard she dislodged the picture of Stalin which fell to the floor and its glass shattered. Anni runs off and next thing Otto knows she’s shacked up with a guy he knows who quit the Communist Party to join the Nazis. Otto goes right round to the bar or Lokal where this guy, Werner Baldow, and is just being thrown out for the second time when some police passing by and, when he starts attacking them too, arrest him so that he ends up sending a couple of weeks in gaol. (pp.72-73)

As it happens William and Arthur glimpse Otto from a window when Arthur is summonsed to Berlin police headquarters for a, er, meeting. Arthur is so nervous he asks William to accompany him, which our man does. There’s a typically light-hearted / facetious exchange as they emerge from the restaurant where they have a boozy lunch before going into police HQ:

‘Be brave, Comrade Norris, think of Lenin.’
‘I’m afraid, ha ha, I find more inspiration in the Marquis de Sade.’ (page 64)

It turns out to be a friendly enough chat with the authorities but it is just to let Arthur know that they know that he is linked with the Communists and they’re keeping an eye on him.

Half-way hiatus

There is a hiatus half-way through the book, a caesura. Arthur suddenly disappears. William goes round to discover the flat in Courbierestrasse empty and abandoned. A few weeks later William receives a letter from Prague in which he apologises for his sudden disappearance (p.83).

The political situation in Germany deteriorates with more violence in the streets and hysteria in the newspapers (pp.90-92). Nearly six months later William himself goes back to England for an extended break, which includes ‘four months in the country’. He promises to write but doesn’t.

When he finally returns to Berlin in October 1932, and tramps up the familiar stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house, he is delighted to discover Arthur has returned! Not only that but he seems to be surprisingly flush and so, being the bon-viveur that he is, insists on immediately taking William to a wildly expensive restaurant. William gives us an amusing description of Arthur’s morning toilette which goes on for some time and involves plucking and make-up.

Mr Norris takes William to dinner at a restaurant where they find Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno. They’ve had some kind of a fight and Mr Norris rather desperately tries to be the life and soul of the conversation, before making his excuses and leaving, making it clear he’s dumped William for Kuno to seduce, which the latter tries to do in a taxi home, while William successfully fights him off (chapter ten).

(It’s worth remembering that in an earlier chapter, Arthur and William had visited Kuno at a wonderful lakeside mansion he has and discovered it packed with a collection of almost naked, beautiful, tanned and fit young men, who oil themselves, sunbathe, swim in the pool and play practical jokes on Kuno. Gay paradise.)

November 1932. Germany’s confused political situation deteriorates. Everyone is making backroom deals, including Hitler. There is another general election and communist party support increase while the Nazis lose two million votes.

Mr Norris’s murky affairs appear to go downhill. He had been receiving mysterious telegrams from Paris which William and Fraulein Schroeder steamed open. They appeared to come from a woman named Margot and described his presents to her – must be a code, William decides.

One thing leads to another and finally, in a coy and roundabout way, Arthur explains to William that Kuno aka Baron von Pregnitz, now something in the German government, has an interest in a German glass manufacturer. Now his contact in Paris – ‘Margot’ – is interested in going into business with him. What they need to do is to arrange for Margot and Kuno to meet, not on German soil. Slowly Arthur reveals that he himself cannot go because he would find it ‘difficult’ to return to German soil, so, er, would William very much mind accompanying Kuno to Switzerland. Even more suspicious is when Arthur explains that Kuno mustn’t know – the rendezvous when it happens, must appear to be chance.

And so William finds himself kitted out with a new dinner jacket on a train to Switzerland. it didn’t take much persuading to get Kuno to agree to go – after all, we’ve seen that he’s already made one pass at William, he must have thought his chance had come. Their first morning in the sweet Alpine resort is Boxing Day 1932 (p.141).

Here, in chapter thirteen, the book veers into spy thriller / Eric Ambler territory. Over the coming days our duo (William and Kuno) meet several characters – a Mr van Hoorn and his son Piet, tall blond and striking in a Viking way – a French popular novelist Marcel Janin who Isherwood satirises for the brisk superficiality of his research (maybe it’s a lampoon of someone famous – this book has no notes or introduction, it would be nice to know).

The point of the chapter is that William is on tenterhooks trying all the time to guess who ‘Margot’ is that Kuno is supposed to be making contact with. There are various distractions, for example Piet and Kuno seem to form a gay friendship based on athletic skiing, and William has a hair-raising conversation with Piet who explains that Europe needs to be cleansed of its rotten Jews by a strong leader. Eventually, on day three of this mystery, William comes across Mr van Hoorn and Kuno deep in a whispered conversation in a corner of the lounge. Aha. He must be ‘Margot’.

It is just at this moment that William is handed a telegram which triggers the final crisis of the book. It simply reads: ‘Please return immediately’ and is signed Ludwig, an alias used by Bayer, head of the Berlin Communist Party. Something is up. William makes his excuses, packs his bag, catches a train back to Berlin, takes his bags to the flat – Arthur is out – takes a taxi to Communist Party headquarters. Here there is:

The big reveal

Bayer reveals that Arthur has, all this time, been spying for French security – on the communists or anyone else he can information about – sending reports to ‘Margot’ in Paris (p.157). Not only that, but the communists have been using him to send disinformation to the French. Not only that, but the Berlin police know all about it, as they made clear on a visit to Bayer a few days earlier. And now Bayer is, very generously, passing it on to William.

The ‘business’ trip to Switzerland was arranged so that ‘Margot’ – an official from French security – could make an approach to Kuno, not because he is a businessman (I didn’t think he was) but because he is now in the German government. The French are approaching him to see if he wants to spy for them. Bayer calmly lucidly explains that this makes William an accessory to an attempt to suborn an official of the German government. (It’s why Arthur didn’t want to go or be involved.) In other words – William could find himself in a German prison sentenced as a spy.

Listening to this William passes through the gamut of emotions – humiliation, embarrassment, mortification – but with this final revelation blazes with anger. Bayer restricts himself to advising William to be more careful how he picks his friends, and mildly suggests he might want to pass this all on to Arthur and shakes his hand. In a daze in a dream in a dazzle William stumbles down the stairs, out the building, into a taxi and charges up the stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house.

Arthur has (conveniently for the theatrics of the situation) returned and William lets him have it with both barrels. Arthur tries to manage it all with his ‘dear boys’ and pooh-poohing but as William reveals that the communists know he’s been betraying them and the police know, too, Arthur’s confidence wilts and then collapses.

Arthur looked up at me quickly, like a spaniel which is going to be whipped. (p.161)

Eventually William’s rage blows over and he starts feeling sorry for the shattered old man before him.

He sat there like a crumpled paper bag, his blue eyes vivid with terror. (p.161)

He says there’s only one thing for it. Arthur has to get out of the country before he’s arrested. Already William’s noticed a detective has been posted outside the boarding house. They discuss it then William packs Arthur along to a travel agency (where the detective follows him) and he returns declaring he has, rather improbably, bought tickets for Mexico. He’ll catch a train to Hamburg, then get the boat.

There is then a Big Psychological Moment – a moment when the scales really drop from the narrator’s eyes:

Mr Norris tentatively asks William whether – given the fact the police don’t know everything yet and that there might be a big reward for more information and William stands to gain from it – whether… he’s going to tell on him…

And in a flash William and the reader realise that Arthur judges everyone by his own standards, thinks everyone can be bought and corrupted, that anyone is willing to betray his friends if the price is right.

William is at first scandalised and insulted by the imputation, by even the suspicion that he might betray his friend. But then he realises… he is the one at fault. All the time he had been projecting his own public schoolboy, English code of honour onto someone who really is from a different time and set of values. His bad. (There is also the deeper implication – that William might not understand anything which is happening around him).

Arthur washes and brushes up and they go for a last meal together but, although they giggle like schoolboys at the detective who so blatantly follows them and even enters the restaurant and has his own meal, the old spirit, the old closeness has gone.

Next morning Arthur liberally gives away those of his belongings he’s not taking with him, dispensing gifts to the porter, the porter’s wife and the porter’s son, and some of his wonderful silk underwear, incongruously, to Fraulein Schroeder.

After a final lunch (these characters and their eating out!) Arthur has packed his bags and moved them into the hall ready to depart when there’s a flurry of excitement. After banging on the door  Schmidt his old minder-bully bursts in, very drunk, looking down at heel, demanding his money and, when he sees Arthur has packed his bags, accusing him of doing a runner. Real violence might have broken out except that, in a moment of Joe Orton farce, it is feeble old Fraulein Schroeder, so angry at having her lovely Herr Norris threatened like this, who runs at Schmidt from behind, taking him unawares, pushing him into the front room (‘like an engine shunting trucks’) and quickly locking the door on him.

William accompanies Arthur to the train station. There is a prolonged and excruciatingly embarrassing farewell during which Arthur pours out wishes and regrets which make William’s toes curl. ‘He was outrageous, grotesque, entirely without shame.’

Coda

The last chapter is a sort of coda or envoi. The Falstaffian figure of Mr Norris departs early in January 1933. His departure disenchants William who for the first time looks around him and sees the dire situation Germany is in. On 30 January 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg, as a result of backroom deals, appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It is William’s acquaintance, the tough journalist Helen Pratt, investigating the uptick in arrests and rumours of torture, who tells William that Bayer, the communist leader, is dead. A Jewish friend suddenly becomes very fearful.

The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear. I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.

William realises he’s got various Communist Party papers in his possession, which Bayer had given him to translate into English, and realises how incriminating these would be if the authorities discovered them. He and Fraulein Schroeder hide them. He lies awake at night hearing vans driving past wondering if one will stop and he’ll hear the thunk of Nazi boots on the stairs.

Otto turns up on their doorstep, dirty and dishevelled. His old rival, Werner Baldow, had turned up with six of his stormtroop but Otto escaped through the skylight and has been on the run ever since. They feed and wash him and in a few days he says he’ll leave and try to make his way to the French border. He has a list of comrades who are said to be dead. Of Anni his whore he knows nothing and doesn’t care. Olga the big hostess was protected by having an important Nazi as a client. She’ll be fine.

There is a wonderful bittersweet moment when William shows Otto a postcard from Arthur in Mexico. Otto’s face gleams, he is convinced Arthur is still true to the communist faith, is out there in Mexico making speeches and raising money, old Hitler had better look out when Arthur gets back. ‘Yes of course that’s what he’s doing,’ William lies, with the perfect poise we’ve come to expect of him.

He and Fraulein Schroder give him some food, a penknife and a map of Germany and wave him off. William never hears from him again. Three weeks later William returns to Britain, Helen Pratt comes to visit him, immensely fired up by her award-winning journalism about the new Nazi regime, full of scoops and insider info. She tells him that the police caught Baron von Pregnitz (Kuno) for spying, tailed him to a train station and then chased him into a public lavatory where he locked himself in a cubicle and tried to blow his brains out.

Helen also introduces the final thought and lasting motif of the novel, which is she discovered Pregnitz was being blackmailed by none other than Schmidt, Arthur’s venomous minder-blackmailer. This leads us into the final sequence where the narrator shares with us a series of hilarious-gruesome postcards from Arthur which recount how he moved from Mexico to California where he was hoping to manage a tidy little deal, but who should turn up and ruin it but SCHMIDT. Arthur elopes to Costa Rica – but Schmidt follows him there – ‘may try Peru’ says one brief postcard. But even there Schmidt follows him. He cannot shake him off. By this time the pairing has become allegorical, mythical, the two are tied together like Faust and Mephistopheles, condemned to torment each other for all time. In his very last postcard, Arthur is forced to admit that they are, reluctantly, going into partnership.

And thus the book ends on this complex note, all the preceding frivolity seriously undermined by the final ten pages detailing Nazi brutality and murders, and then this quasi-religious final image of a pair of rascals ‘doomed to walk the earth together’. The very last sentence returns to the comic mode, but now with all kinds of complex overtones.

‘Tell me William,’ his last letter concluded, ‘what have I done to deserve all this?’

Very funny. A comic masterpiece.


Gay culture

Knowing that Isherwood was gay, and would go on to become something of a gay icon, changes the way we read the book. There is the obviously gay character, Baron von Pregnitz and his villa full of tanned half-naked young men. That’s quite a hauntingly sensual image.

Mr Norris himself is a more complex creation. On the one hand he is very associated with the 1890s and the Oscar Wilde circle – what could be more gay? On the other hand Isherwood – presumably because he had to because of the times – makes his peccadilos solidly heterosexual – he may have naughty French erotic literature and he may like to be whipped as he polishes his dominant’s boots – but the naughty books are about schoolgirls and the person holding the whip is definitely a woman (Anni). I.e. the latent homosexuality of the character has been changed into acceptable, if still risqué, heterosexuality.

Despite this camouflage, the book can be seen as a kind of handing on of the torch. Mr Norris educates, shows and displays the camp values and behaviour of that older, late-Victorian and Edwardian, gay generation. William observes and analyses them, and in some measure absorbs them into his good-humoured schoolboy-in-Berlin persona, before taking them with him to sunny California.

The novel stands alone, but can also be interpreted as part of a gay lineage, a tradition, handing on the torch of a subterranean set of behaviours. In his introduction to a recent edition of this book, the gay American novelist Armistead Maupin describes meeting Isherwood at the end of his life, who was kind enough to read the manuscript of his first novel. Like Mr Norris Changes Train, Maupin’s novel rotates around a number of characters in a boarding house and thus, at one remove, invokes the outrageous, camp, very funny and sad persona of Mr Norris. It’s really Maupins idea that he was taking part in a gay lineage or tradition, I’m just pointing out that the entire novel can be read in this light.

Isherwood disowned it

Like many of the 1930s writers, Isherwood came to dislike and even despise his younger self and his early works, for their shallowness and immorality. Not their sexual immorality, the deeper immorality of seeing the real suffering, poverty, prostitution and violence around him in Berlin but thinking it was all frightfully exciting and fun, purely the raw materials for an Englishman’s novels – which is pretty much what the Berlin stories do.

Twenty years later, when Isherwood was invited to write an introduction to a memoir by the real-life person Mr Norris is based on, the memoirist, critic and crook Gerald Hamilton, he took the opportunity to put the record straight:

What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The ‘wickedness’ of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the ‘monsters’, they were quite ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.

On this reading, the narrator’s endless good humour and incessant laughing is not a sign of his wonderful bonhomie but of his ignorance and superficiality. It encourages us to remember the couple of places where Isherwood explicitly refers to the narrator’s behaviour as immature, callow and schoolboyish.

We sniggered together, like two boys poking fun at the headmaster. (p.168)

Well, maybe this attitude of regret was appropriate enough for Isherwood in later life, but I don’t think we need to be limited by his perspective. Things have moved on since he wrote that. I can think of at least two comic movies about the Nazis which have been well received in our times (Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful) and nobody seems to have questioned the 1972 movie Cabaret for its comic or silly interludes.

And then, the ending of the book, the last chapter, doesn’t at all treat the dangerous times, the Nazis’ arrival in power, the terror of his Jewish friends, at all frivolously. I thought he was being hard on himself.

Lastly, this novel is funny, and funny is good. We need more humour and less anger in the world. For a lot of the book the German background is irrelevant, it could have been set in Paris or any other European capital, any of which would have had communists and fascists fighting against a sense of looming disaster. And wherever it had been set, any novel describing a bunch of posh, amused characters drinking and diletantting against the backdrop of the Great Depression might have prompted the author to later berate himself for not being more sensitive to the poverty and sufferings of the poor, or to the political catastrophe just round the corner.

Don’t beat yourself up, Christopher. It’s a very funny book, Mr Norris is a comic masterpiece and the crisp witty prose it’s written in is a delight to read.


Related links

Weimar Germany

Novels from or about the 1930s

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