Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, who happens to be half-Congolese, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ – but in reality to plunder the country’s resources. Salvo is there to translate, but ends up hearing more than he should about the brutal behind-the-scenes deals the syndicate and the delegates are cutting, and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man –
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (1960)

‘At the end you find you haven’t even got a self to express. I have no interest in anything any more , Doctor.’…
‘When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.’ (p.46)

‘Querry may be also a burnt-out case,’ the doctor said… [Burnt-out cases are] the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.’ (p.110)

Plot – part one

A mysterious figure trying to escape his past life has taken the river boat as far as it will go into the heart of Congo. He gets out at the end of the line, where there is a leper colony. It is Querry, a (supposedly) world-famous religious architect, whose picture was on the cover of Time, and who built a number of churches in the modern style. Now he gets permission to stay at the local Catholic seminary and gets to know the Superior, the various fathers, and Dr Colin who runs the leproserie – a clinic for the many local lepers.

It quickly emerges that Querry is at the end of his tether, having left both his mistress and his architectural practice. He no longer feels a vocation, he no longer feels desire, he feels nothing, he wants nothing. He sits around and chats about the meaning of life and how to get the generators working, with the Superior, with the various priests and with Dr Colin, who he develops a wary friendship with. They are both lapsed Catholics.

Catholicism

Of course, this being Greene, almost all the characters are Catholics who, therefore, all start talking at the drop of a hat about divine and earthly love, who worry about their rosaries or whether God is watching or whether they should or shouldn’t attend mass, etc. The immediate earnestness with which they debate these ‘Big Questions’ seems so remote and alien in the age of sexting and 50 Shades of Grey. I think of black and white TV programmes from the early 1960s with Malcolm Muggeridge and a bishop earnestly debating the Question of Faith, or some such. At one point, the exchange:

‘Remorse is a kind of belief.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t.’ (p.76)

made me laugh out loud. He’s behind you. Yah boo. Love is hate and God is pity but pity kills and man killed God but God kills man every day, but man kills God in  his image every day, blah blah blah. Along with much harping on Greene’s favourite theme that love is dangerous, it demands victims, that pity can kill, that all the supposed virtues lead to their opposites. Well – if you read Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, you see that they often did for Mr G, forever entangled in the tortuous affairs with numerous women he ‘loved’ and wounded. But not necessarily for everyone else…

‘Liking is a great deal safer than love. It doesn’t demand victims.’ (p.82)

Etc. I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the preacherman. As I read the leisurely discussions about ‘the vocation of saints’ and ‘the true meaning of love’ between Querry and the Superior, Dr Colin and Querry, and the Superior and the priests, and the priests and Querry, it occurred to me that Greene might have liked the Catholic church, apart from all the other reasons (like being saved and going to Heaven) because it gives you endless opportunities to pontificate.

The scope for preaching is vast and the system much larger and more coherent than the inadequate Anglicanism he was raised in. Much larger, much more intense, much more blood and pain and suffering and sacrifice, very appealing to a suicidal adolescent or a depressive young man. And, once you’re in, there is literally endless scope to ravel out vast skeins of verbiage and rhetoric, scores of pages, entire books, from its infinitely varied, easily disputable and garish theology.

From a purely practical point of view, if you are a writer struggling to support a family (and various mistresses and prostitutes) and are paid by the word, then having troubled characters explore the voluminous entrails of Catholic theology is an extremely attractive and practical strategy for generating copy. Is extreme humility just, in fact, an inverted form of extreme pride? Aha, good for a short story. Is the truest love the one which denies its own expression? Aha, might work up into a full novel. Repeat ad infinitum

‘You are a man of humility.’ ‘If you knew the extent of my pride…’ (p.91)

‘If you feel in pain because you doubt, it is obvious you are feeling the pain of faith…’ (p.92)

‘Perhaps a man can be judged by his rashness.’ (p.99)

‘Behind all of us in various ways lies a spoilt priest.’ (p.110)

‘We none of us really know ourselves.’ (p.111)

‘Perhaps it’s true that you can’t believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god.’ (p.114)

‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition.’ (p.122)

‘Love is planted in man now… Sometimes, of course, people call it hate.’ (p.124)

Suburban

This might have blossomed into some kind of existential meditation on life and death, on the developed and undeveloped world, on psychological illness (ennui) juxtaposed with the appalling symptoms of the physical ailment, leprosy, on the nature of colonialism in Africa.

But in Greene’s hands it becomes strangely suburban. The nearest town, Luc, is meant to be hundreds of miles away along disintegrating roads and yet we are quickly introduced to small-town, gossipy colonial life there, complete with raffish Monsignor (‘you may kiss my ring’), the insufferably self-centered Rycker – owner of a palm oil factory – and his poor young wife who he alternately tyrannises and wheedles into bed with him, the short, pompous governor and his wife, fussing about drinks at their cocktail parties. Before he knows it, Querry, who had hoped to find peace and anonymity in the depths of the jungle, is the nearest thing to a ‘celebrity’, his every move reported in the tiny world of unhappy colonists.

George Orwell notoriously pointed out that the basic plot of The Heart of the Matter (police inspector has affair with younger woman) could have taken place in Surrey, not Sierra Leone. Here, also, although it is very hot and there are ‘boy’ servants (and lepers) everywhere, the plot could actually be reset in any remote part of the British Isles where a jaded man goes to escape his success but ends up becoming the subject of local gossip. Viewed from another angle, it could almost have been an Ealing comedy, starring Alec Guinness as the unassuming architect.

Comedy

In fact, there are numerous moments of quiet comedy scattered through the text. Loser Takes All and Our Man In Havana marked a new ability for comedy in Greene’s work, a new maturity – if we define maturity as the ability to laugh at the world’s absurdity rather than be adolescently tortured by it.

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. He had once been a brilliant theologian before he joined the Order and now he carefully nurtured the character of a film-fan, as though it would help him to wipe out an ugly past. (p.83)

And there’s a tension in this text between the melodramatic finale Greene forces on it and the numerous small ironies he quietly records between the characters, along the way.

Descriptions

The pace of the first half of the novel is as slow as the wide, muddy river which flows past the leproserie, allowing plenty of time for some wonderful descriptions.

On the other shore the great trees, with roots above the ground like the ribs of a half-built ship, stood out over the green jungle wall, brown at the top like stale cauliflowers. The cold grey trunks, unbroken by branches, curved a little this way and a little that, giving them a kind of reptilian life Porcelain-white birds stood on the backs of coffee-coloured cows, and once for a whole hour he watched a family who sat in a pirogue by the bank doing nothing; the mother wore a bright yellow dress, the man, wrinkled like bark, sat bent over a paddle he never used, and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano. (p.27)

The plot – part two

I don’t know why critics say Greene is political when he is entirely personal. Congo, where this novel is set, achieved independence in the year the novel was published, 1960. The lead-up to this momentous achievement must have been intricate and fascinating. None of this appears in the novel, only a few passing references to ‘riots in the capital’, which could be any capital, anywhere.

No, alas, after the slow amiable conversations of part one, part two descends quickly into a bedroom farce which Greene then forces to become some kind of tragedy.

Part two (the novel is actually divided into six parts, but very clearly falls into two halves) begins with the arrival of a fatuous (and fat) journalist named Montagu Parkinson, who has been alerted to Querry’s presence by the histrionic, self-dramatising Catholic factory owner, Rycker, back in Luc. Parkinson has looked Querry up in the files of his magazine and uncovered some dirt, mainly about past affairs and mistresses. Like Greene himself.

After a week or so he departs but a month or so later Querry hears that Parkinson has published the first of a sensational series about the successful architect who gave it all up to minister to lepers in the jungle, a Saint, a Figure For Our Times etc. Disgusted, Querry drives the long distance to give Rycker a piece of his mind, in fact to thump him. But he finds him ill in bed and his pretty young wife quickly confides how unhappy she is and she fears she is pregnant. Somehow Querry finds himself driving her off into Luc that night with a view to visiting a doctor the next day to get a confirmation, or not, of the pregnancy. He gets them seperate hotel rooms. She can’t sleep so he tells her a long parable about a young man who believes in an invisible king (a transparent allegory of his own Catholic faith). Next day they bump into the ubiquitous Parkinson, but Rycker turns up, enraged, histrionically convinced his wife has run off to have an affair with Querry. This is such rubbish, Querry simply walks away.

Several days later the priests at the seminary have a little party to celebrate putting the roof-tree onto the new school building Querry has designed for them. There is a heavy rainstorm with (Gothic) thunder and lightning. In the middle of all the bangs and flashes, the priests get a call from the convent down the road that Rycker’s wife, Marie, has arrived there, exhausted, after 3 days on the road alone. She is insisting not only that Querry is her lover, but that she is pregnant by him!

Ridiculous! Querry goes to talk to her but realises she is quite ready to lie her pants off because it will get her away from the husband she hates and, ultimately, back to Europe where she longs to return.

As the thunder and lightning crash around the seminary, the priests are discussing whether Querry can be allowed to stay with them – since there will inevitably be scandal, boosted by the vile journalist Parkinson – and Querry is brushing it off and discussing divine and earthly love and which building they need to build next with Dr Colin – when the infuriated, histrionically Catholic, ‘wronged husband’ Rycker arrives, blundering about in the tropical rainstorm shouting Querry’s name and waving a gun around.

Farce or tragedy

Go on. Guess what happens next. Rycker shoots Querry dead. How did you guess? Oh yes, because it was crashingly inevitable. — Greene is so aware that a novel which could have offered fascinating insights into Congo on the eve of independence or about the treatment of leprosy and medicine in the developing world or about one man’s quest to escape the world – has turned into yet another novel about adultery, just like The Heart of the Matter and The End of The Affair, and a rather ludicrous one at that, that he has one of the priests point out that it’s all a bit like a French farce.

Rycker made for the door. He stood there for a moment as though he were on stage and had forgotten his exit line. ‘There isn’t a jury that would convict me,’ he said and went out again into the dark and rain…
[Father Jean said] ‘…It’s a little like one of those Palais Royal farces that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out.’ (p.190)

Quite. Greene visited some amazing places at just the right historical moment – London during the Blitz, Freetown 1942, Vienna 1948, Vietnam 1952, Cuba 1955, Congo 1959 – and sets novels in each of them. But novels of adventure? Novels of profound political insight? Novels which shed light on the great movement of post-colonial independence which swept the world in the decades after World War Two? Nope. Novels about unhappy upper-middle class professional men who steal other men’s women or have their women stolen by other men. The key characters are always Greene-proxy – woman – other man.

If only Greene could have devised a comic resolution to what is in so many ways a straightforward comic situation. But no. Bang bang. ‘The horror the horror,’ Querry dies quoting Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… actually he doesn’t, his dying word is the 1950s existentialist buzzword, ‘absurd’. But just quoting the buzzword of fashionable existentialism doesn’t make your entire work an existentialist novel. It is too urbane, too relaxed, right up till the end too untroubled for that.

Envoi

With crashing inevitability there is a final conversation between the Superior and sad Dr Colin designed to make us empathise even more with the tragic hero.

‘They would never have left him alone.’
‘Who do you mean by “they”?’
‘The fools, the interfering fools, they exist everywhere, don’t they? He had been cured of all but his success; but you can’t cure success, any more than I can give my mutilés back their fingers and toes. I return them to the town, and people look at them in the stores and watch them in the street and draw the attention of others to them as they pass. Success is like that too – a mutilation of the natural man.’ (p.197)

Poor Graham. Rich, successful, famous. Wives, mistresses and lovers coming out of his ears. Still so unhappy. Still such a grievance against the world.

In the end the plot boils down to a farcical joke: middle-aged philanderer is shot down by the jealous husband of the one woman he hasn’t bedded. Bitter irony. Life isn’t fair. The world is absurd. Geddit?

Style

All that said in criticism of the plot and the bucket theology, the novel is very pleasurable to read. His style, though not flashy or ostentatious, is dry and suave. Greene had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. He knows how to achieve a host of little effects by juxtaposing people’s thoughts or words with their opposite in reality or other people’s minds, sly little dramatic ironies to be found on every page.

You almost feel the bucket Catholicism is part of a contractual obligation he feels required to deliver in each novel; whereas it is the ‘wisdom’ embodied by these small verbal strategies, the sense they give of listening to a man of the world, who is alert to all the little comedies of social life, of being alive and alert to human ironies, which is the real pleasures of the text. Not even the characters, as such, but the words that create the characters, and the way they move and dance against each other.

After reading Modesty Blaise and the Quiller spy novels, it was an enormous relief to read a text which is so sophisticated, urbane, reflective, mature.

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Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999)

Can’t remember the last time a book made me physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by Belgian rubber companies in the forced labour system set up by king Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885-1909), I thought I might spew.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold, aloof, shy king of the Belgians who conceived a great ambition to own one of the chunks of the developing world being claimed as colonies by all the other European nations – with detail of how, once he’d settled on the Congo, he commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up; and then created a system of concessions to commercial companies which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot, or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or more over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but nothing compared to Leopold’s take. The book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

This loot Leopold spent on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16 year old, Caroline Delacroix when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its over-analysed relation with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially the non-conformists. It is reasonably well-known that what eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English businessman-turned-crusader-for-justice ED Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement. Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, through fundraising and lobbying, they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world.

And Hochschild says their campaign was the most important and sustained crusade of its type between the mid-Victorian abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

But above and beyond Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Model called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic which also includes detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble, 1880-1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing, and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start. He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called civilising mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin rhetoric and, in doing so, he misses the complexity to which these rhetorics, these discourses, were put. Many people believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the savages. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism. The slave trade was rampant in east Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out.

Pakenham’s book, maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world and of the made scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read.

But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will). And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War with the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau et al. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

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