Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican (2)

I went back to the Masculinities: Liberation through Photography exhibition at the Barbican for second helpings.

I spent another hour and a half going round again, but this time ignoring all the American photographers, and concentrating on everyone else from the rest of the world, the photographers I’d largely overlooked first time round, starting with the eight Brits.

First a few general points:

1. Liberation from heterosexual white men

Going round a second time, One Big Thing became much clearer: this exhibition isn’t even an attempt to represent what you could call ordinary or everyday masculinity. I hadn’t really grasped the significance of the title. When it says liberation it means gay liberation, women’s liberation and black liberation.

Liberation from whom? From heterosexual white men.

In the 1970s women, homosexuals and people of colour spontaneously generated nationwide and worldwide movements devoted to liberating themselves from what they felt was centuries of oppression, objectification and second class citizenship created and maintained by straight white men.

The fundamental impulse of this exhibition is to show how this worked through photography, through the work of gay, black and women photographers who rebelled against the straight white patriarchy.

This is an exhibition about the social and cultural liberation of these groups from heterosexual white male hegemony through photography.

This explains why Part One of the exhibition bombards us with a series of overblown, hypermasculine images – of American soldiers in Iraq (Wolfgang Tillmans), American cowboys (Isaac Julien and Collier Schorr) and American footballers (Catherine Opie). It’s a bit more mixed up than I’m implying but this first part of the exhibition establishes the images, concepts and behaviours of aggressive white masculinity which these groups are trying to flee.

So that Part Two of the exhibition shows us how these three key constituencies of progressive ideology – gay men, black men, and straight feminist women – achieved liberation from these toxic male stereotypes.

Photography is the medium, channel, gateway and door through which gay men, black men, and feminist women escaped from the grotesque, heteronormative hypermasculinity which we are bombarded with in the opening.

Huge though the exhibition is, it is not really about masculinity – it is about the escape from masculinity.

Which, for example, explains why the entire section on FATHERHOOD featured work by just four photographers (each of them good in their different ways) and this is the same number as the section devoted to FEMINIST photographers (and there are many more feminist photographers scattered round the show).

Simple maths shows you that, for the curators, feminist liberation from the patriarchy is more important, certainly more represented here, than what you or I might think of as a pretty a central element of any concept of masculinity – fatherhood.

Then again both feminists and father photos are swamped by the sheer number of gay artists and photographers.

I counted twenty gay snappers for definite, but had the impression that there were many more. Some were so popular with the curators that they featured more than once – notably gay Indian (score double) photographer Sunil Gupta, who was represented by three separate series of photographs, hung in different areas around the show:

  • Christopher Street – street photos of gay men in New York, 1976
  • Exiles – gay men in India, often forced to hide their true sexuality, 1987
  • Pretended Family relationships – a work lamenting the way gay couples had to disguise their relationships after the Section 28 legislation was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1988

The pretty obvious conclusion is that the image of masculinity the women curators, and the art world in general, is most comfortable with, is gay men. Almost all the images of heterosexual men were accompanied by labels criticising or chastising or scolding them.

2. Liberation from American masculinity

My first review ended up lamenting the way the exhibition is dominated by American photographers, American subjects, and American academic rhetoric.

But first time round I missed the significance of a big quote printed on the wall right at the start of the exhibition. It’s from the black, gay, American (score three points) writer, James Baldwin:

The American ideal, then, of sexuality, appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act – that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.

This is the Key Quote, right at the start of the exhibition, and it clearly signals the extent to which the curators really, deeply, and profoundly see the entire condition of masculinity through American eyes.

I read that quote and simply thought, well, this ‘American ideal of masculinity’ may have been a deeply problematic issue for Baldwin, for other Afro-American men, for other American gay men, and for a large number of American women who have to put up with it… But it has absolutely nothing to do with me’.

When I was a boy I wanted to be Michael Caine in The Battle of Britain or Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare, I wanted to be John Hollins who played left half for Chelsea, and like my mates idolised Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. I envied John Noakes off Blue Peter for all the brilliant adventures he had like climbing up Nelson’s Column. At school we all tried to do impressions of the excitable naturalist David Bellamy. On Saturday nights I watched Patrick Troughton as Dr Who, followed by Morecambe and Wise lying in bed together making jokes, or maybe Dad’s Army with its cast of hilariously ramshackle amateurs. I loved Sid James’s laugh in the old Carry On films, and a little later on I was bowled over by Monty Python, and when I was about 15 my favourite radio DJ was Kenny Everett.

My point is that the chronically hyper-masculine, ridiculously macho and extremely violent world of the American Wild West or the corrupt streets of New York depicted in Starsky and Hutch or Kojak seemed, literally, thousands of miles away. Nothing to do with me or my life or my friends or my Dad or my uncle or my teachers. Nothing.

Thus the strange sense of disconnect as I walked round this Americanised exhibition for the second time, the sense of entering a wretchedly macho culture in which more or less the only way for a decent normal civilised man to escape the hyper-competitive, hyper-macho and hyper-violent world of American maleness is to be gay.

It struck me that it was a really profound mistake, and possibly a deceit and a lie, to view the entire concept of masculinity around the world through the prism of American masculinity.

Isn’t that a form of American imperialism? Judging everything according to American standards? Defining everything according to American ideas?

I was disappointed that the Barbican curators were such willing accomplices to American cultural imperialism.

Anyway, Fuck America and its bankrupt, corrupt and negative influence.

I went back specifically to ignore the Yanks and to pay more careful attention to everyone else, to the photographers from the rest of the world, starting with the Brits.

3. The Brits (8)

John Coplans – Frieze Number 2 (1994)

This is a grid of 12 large black-and-white prints of a big, hairy, overweight, naked man. They’re just some of the many self-portraits Coplans took of himself as – born in 1920 – he entered his 60s. in the 1980s. In fact this big grid is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition, and is one of the many ways the curators set out to puncture the exaggerated images of masculinity which they depict elsewhere.

The most obvious thing that struck me as I confronted this sizeable display is that all the photos are artfully posed so you don’t see his willy. In fact, I must say I was surprised at the relative scarcity of willies on display.

It is a… a touching image of the male body, don’t you think? A realistic depiction of the middle-aged, naked male body, a photographic parallel to all those unglamorised paintings of fat male nudes by Lucien Freud.

Jeremy Deller – So many ways to hurt you (the life and times of Adrian Street) (2010)

This is a 30-minute video showing the life and times of the wrestler, ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street who was born in 1940 into a Welsh mining village. Street is a brilliant subject because he combines hard-edged working class attitude, with a taste for dressing in wigs and make-up as part of the identity or brand which distinguishes him from the other amateur wrestlers on the circuit.

The video was playing on a fairly big monitor which was itself embedded in a huge wall-sized painting by Deller, depicting a naive, stylised portrait of Street in his cross-dressing wrestler’s outfit, set against a stylised depiction of a Welsh town and the hills beyond.

The film reflects on the performativity of gender.

Anna Fox – My mother’s cupboards and my father’s words (1999)

On my first visit I was so dazzled by the Herb Ritts and Arnold Schwarzenegger and American soldiers in Iraq and Andy Warhol and all the New York queers that I completely overlooked this small and brilliant display. In many ways it’s one of the best things in the exhibition.

My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words consists of a grid of 15 frames each containing a small, precise photo of the contents of the cupboards in the artist’s mother’s home, each one neat and tidy and filled with banal kitchen utensils and belongings.

And very neatly, in a florid calligraphy reminiscent of wedding invitations, opposite these nice neat drawers is printed the ferocious, vile, poisonous rants of Fox’s father, overflowing with bile and abuse, but laid out as elegant free verse poems. For example:

I’m going to
tear your mother
to shreds
with
an oyster knife

Or:

She wants
her bum
scraped
with
a rusty saw

He threatens to cut his wife’s bum off and feed it to her like slices of ham. He threatens to fry her in hot oil. It’s a kind of anti-poetry, or maybe the poetry of the damned.

The smallness of the images just as much as the prissy tidiness of their contents, and the satirically ornate calligraphy of her father’s drunken ranting, create an incredibly charged display, a screaming sense of claustrophobia and misery.

This, I thought, captures the true English misery, the misery of Philip Larkin, rainy afternoons in provincial towns where couples who hate each other are forced to spend long Sunday afternoons, or weeks, months and years in each other’s unbearable company.

Ten million miles away from bloody American cowboys and footballers and Mad Men jocks striding up Madison Avenue. The curators spoil the effect by translating it into their sociological jargon:

Fox invites the viewer to reflect on how notions of hegemonic masculinity are sustained within patriarchal structures.

Is that what this delicate, subtle and intensely charged work of art is doing?

Isaac Julien – After Mazatlan (1999) and Looking For Langston (1989)

Julien is black and gay and a film-maker so he presses a lot of art world buttons, so much so that he is represented by not one but two entries:

  • After Mazatlan – In 1999 Julien made a film titled Long Road to Mazatlán, which tells a cowboy story ‘brimming with frustrated homoerotic desire’ and shot in Saint Antonio, Texas. The first installation was a grid of four large stills from the film, titled After Mazatlán.
  • Looking For Langston is a 44-minute-long black and white homage to the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, set in scenes which move between a sort of 1920s speakeasy and a 1980s nightclub, with archive recordings of readings of their poems by Harlem Renaissance poets. As you might expect, the film ‘reflects on the relationship between gay culture and the gaze, with the white gaze, the racist gaze.’

Note how the ‘white gaze’ is elided with the ‘racist gaze’. This is, frankly, insulting.

Note also how both Julien’s films are in thrall to American culture and stereotypes and thus, in my formulation, a kind of cultural betrayal.

Hilary Lloyd – Colin #2 (1999)

There are two TV monitors on raised stands. Underneath them are ancient VHS tape players. On one screen a fairly buff young man takes off a red vest, very, very slowly. On the other screen he puts it back on, very, very slowly.

Lloyd’s penetrating gaze and carefully orchestrated presentation demand that the viewer move back and forth between the screens in a dance of observation and voyeurism.

Not really. The main feature of this piece for me was the ancient VHS recorder/players – I’m amazed you can find any which still work. Like a lot of other things in the exhibition, somehow this super-annuated technology made you realise how old and out-of-date a lot of the stuff here is.

(By the way Hilary Lloyd is a woman.)

Peter Marlow – Magnum photos 1980s-90s

Marlow (1961-2016) helped set up the London office of the famous international photographers’ agency, Magnum. Unusually for this exhibition he doesn’t seem to have been gay, and is represented by a selection of fly-on-the-wall photos catching different types of very ordinary English men in various matey, group situations. These include:

This is something like the masculinity I experienced growing up.

At school I was forced to play rugby and then take communal showers afterwards, it was always bloody freezing. Photos like this bring back the sound of studs clattering on an unforgiving concrete floor and those shapes of mud punctuated with the round stud holes which used to get stuck to your boots and everyone banged against the doorframe or changing room benches so that the floor was covered in them with slivers of mud punctured by perfectly round holes.

Marlow’s photos of the shitty, windswept shopping centre at Runcorn perfectly convey the misery of English provincial life and the great betrayal of post-war town planning and architecture which turned so many English towns into concrete wind tunnels.

For the curator Marlow’s photos of the rugby players taking a communal bath:

highlight how sport has become synonymous with masculine hegemony and male solidarity.

Clare Strand – Men Only Tower (2017)

Strand has taken 68 copies of the softcore publication Men Only and piled them one on top of each other to create a ‘tower’. She has ‘subverted’ the sexist basis of the magazines by inserting into twenty of them twenty ‘images of resistance’ tucked into black envelopes and slipped between the pages of the lucky magazines.

The gushing feminist commentary points out that Strand choosing to ‘erect them in a vertical pile is a satirical reference to the male phallus, while also being an obvious reference to Trump Tower’. Of course.

When I was a teenager the top-shelf porn magazines at the local newsagent were Mayfair and Men Only and Penthouse. The point is that they were large, glossy, magazine-sized magazines, so I was intrigued that the objects in Strand’s art work are small, square-bound, with almost plain beige covers. They look disconcertingly like the cheap communist party editions I own of the works of Marx and Engels, or a set of obscure poetry magazine.

When I looked closely I saw that the editions Strand’s chosen of Men Only start in 1947! and the most recent is 1963. For me, then, this work was much more about a delve way back into post-war history, than anything at all to do with porn or men’s magazines or what the wall label called women’s exclusion from ‘the corridors of power’.

Richard Billingham – Ray’s A Laugh (1996)

Like the Anne Fox piece this is a deep dive into the profound misery of the really poor – the sick and alcoholic and uneducated poor whose lives are filled with drink and anger and violence.

It consists of ten very big colour prints of ragged, spontaneous, unposed documentary photos of Billingham’s alcoholic dad, Ray, and his obese mother, Liz. both caught in the seedy, shabby and poky-feeling flat in one of the crappier parts of Birmingham.

The curators blithely comment that this is a rare pictorial insight into English working class life and the visitor can’t help feeling this is partly because what gains commissions, wins prizes and gets you known is stylish films about cowboys and the Harlem Renaissance.

God, could anything be further away from the blow-dried queers of Christopher Street or Castro.

Brief summary

So that’s the work of the eight British photographers and artists and film-makers included in Masculinities: LIberation through Photography. I’m really glad I went back a second time and focused just on them, because taken together they do amount to a sort of sketch of British masculinity, a million miles away from the macho jocks or ‘faggots’ (I’m quoting James Baldwin) which dominate American culture.

The Peter Marlow photos are very good, but for me the top two were the grim and unrelenting insight into the lowest of lowlife existences in Ray’s A Laugh; but maybe the best is the hyper-charged, controlled explosion of Anne Fox’s sequence. Wow.


Europe (11)

Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)

I’m too sad to tell you is a black and white art film from 1971 in which performance artist Bas Jan Ader filmed himself crying.

Knut Åsdam (Norway)

Åsdam made a short art film titled Pissing showing a close-up of the slacks or sensible trousers of a man who proceeds to let himself go and wee himself.

While the film reflects on masculinity’s position in relation to the patriarchal order, it also highlights the significance of the phallus as a signifier of male power.

Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)

Dijkstra has a set of four fairly big colour photos of Portuguese bullfighters or forcados shown after they’ve finished the fight and exited the arena, looking elated and marked with blood

Dijkistra’s Bullfighters explores aspects of homosociality, a term coined by theorist Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick to describe ‘the structure of men’s relations with other men’.

Thomas Dworzak (Germany)

Dworzak is the guy who found a trove of photos taken by family photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, improbably showing them posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)

Eijkelboom is represented by two distinct photographic projects.

In With My Family from 1973 he went knocking on doors of a middle class suburb during the day when the husbands were away working, and asked if he could pose as the father in family photos with the wives and children of the absent men.

The result is pretty creepy and you suspect he’d get arrested if he tried that today. 1973 is quite a long time ago, nearly half a century ago. The curator comments:

With my family operates as a critique of the nuclear family as well as exposing outdated gender roles that demanded that women stay in the home caring for children while the father went to work and earned a living.

In The Ideal Man from 1978 Eijkelboom asked women to describe their ideal man, and then fashioned himself in self-portraits to fit the descriptions.  Mildly amusing.

Karen Knorr (Germany)

Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Annette Messager (France)

Talking of creepy, Messager is represented by a series from 1972 called The Approaches in which she took photographs of men’s crotches in the street using a concealed camera. I suppose it’s not quite upskirting, but if you tried this nowadays I wonder if you could be arrested.

In The Approaches, Messager trails men through the street and snaps photos of their crotches without permission. In this, she turns the tables on the traditional artistic norm of the male gaze, and in showing how uncomfortable and invasive this is, critique the viewing of women in a similar way, such as in gossip magazines. ‘It was a way of treating men as objects when it’s usually women who are treated as objects,’ Messager explained. ‘Men never stop checking out women’s bottoms, breasts, everything.’

Well that put paid to the male gaze, didn’t it. No longer a problem.

Richard Mosse (Ireland)

Artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)

The Soldiers, The Nineties (1999-2020) is an installation of newspaper front pages and photos, blown up and arranged into different size images across the wall which show NATO soldiers in a variety of conflict zones – Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Gulf – in a number of poses – resting, smoking, reading, partying – accessed from different sources – press clippings, magazines, newspapers, TV screenshots.

Tillmans presents the viewer with images of hypermasculinity rubbing shoulders with male apprehension, camaraderie and vulnerability while also embedding the queer gaze and homoeroticism in military space.

Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)

A series of black and white photos Weinberger took all the way back in the early 1960s of homosexual men dressed up in leather jackets, caps and other clichéd outfits in what was, back then, very much Zurich’s hidden, secret gay underground.

Horseshoe Buckle 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger. Courtesy Esther Woerdehoff

Marianne Wex (Germany)

Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures from 1976-9 is a series of large frames in which Wex arranged sets of contemporary magazine photos depicting a row of men sitting in public places, in the park etc with their legs wide open, and in a row underneath photos of women sitting with their knees primly together. Manspreading.

According to the wall label:

These differences in posture are, Wex concludes, products of a social conditioning that defines one sex as strong and the other as weak, perpetuating a hierarchical distinction between the sexes in the form of patterns of physical behaviour.

Latin America (1)

Ana Mendieta (Cuba)

A series of seven large-ish colour photos from 1972 titled Facial Hair Transplants in which Mendieta glued fragments of her fellow student, Morty Sklar’s facial hair to her own face.

Africa (4)

Liz Johnson Artur (Ghana)

Tableau vivant… if you cool the sun always shines (2002) a large embroidery with images of black people sewn or attached to it, around the central image of an embroidered version of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)

70s Lifestyle, 1975-78.

By day Fosso ran a commercial studio photographing the residents of Bangui while at night he created highly performative black and white self-portraits in which he adopted a series of male personas, alluding to the idea that gender is an artificial proposition.

Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)

Represented by one piece, an absolutely enormous wall-sized photo The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction (Act I), 2017.

This is ‘Act I’ of a five-part series. the flamboyant figure in the centre is modelled on Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic president of Zaire. Kia Henda’s work:

reimagines the politics and history of Africa within shrewdly conjectured fictional scenarios.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)

Stunningly posed, crystal clear studio art photos of black men’s bodies arranged in intriguing shapes and wonderfully aesthetic poses.

According to the wall label:

The work of the pioneering photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode calls attention to the politics of race, representation and queer desire.

Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)

I Was Looking Back is a large installation of 18 photos in which he revisited every photo he’d ever taken,

in an attempt to formulate a new narrative that actively exposes and deconstructs white masculine power, a defining feature of Subotzky’s experience as a white, privileged, South African male.

They include photos of blacks being beaten up and intimidated by the police, photos from inside prisons or from grim wasted slums. The photos are, apparently,

an attempt to expose and destabilise the systems of hegemonic male power that enable and normalise these acts of violence.

Middle East (2)

Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)

Civil War 1977-86 a photo record of daily life in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath, including the series features here of militiamen posed against battle-scarred buildings.

Adi Nes (Israeli)

Soldiers a series in which Nes photographed young men posing as soldiers in the Israeli Defence Force i.e. they are not real soldiers. Nes is, naturally, gay.

Nes not only infuses his images of the military with homoeroticism but also reveals the strong homosocial bonds that exist between soldiers, as well as inscribing the queer body into the military imagination.

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

Akram Zaatari (Lebanon)

Zaatari found damaged negatives of bodybuilders in the archive of the Lebanese studio photographer Hashem El Madani and blew them up far beyond their original scale to emphasise the damaged, degraded effect, conveying a poignant sense of the passage of time.

According to the curator the photographs:

examine the construction of Middle Eastern masculinity and virility while also reflecting on Western, Orientalising perceptions of masculinity.

Asia (3)

Masahisa Fukase (Japan)

Two series:

Memories of my father (1971-90) – photographic record of the artist’s father, Sukezo, through life and death

Family (1971-90) – over two decades a series of formal posed photos of Fukase and his family but in each one of them a young woman is present, often half dressed, in stylised or parodic poses, so that they:

meditate on the ways in which women are still systematically subordinated to men.

Is that what you see in this photo?

Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyajo, 1985, from the series Family 1971-90 by Masahisa Fukase © Masahisa Fukase Archives

Sunil Gupta (India)

  • Christopher Street – street photos of gay men in New York, 1976
  • Exiles – gay men in India, often forced to hide their true sexuality, 1987
  • Pretended Family relationships – a work lamenting the way gay couples had to disguise their relationships after the Section 28 legislation was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1988

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Australia

Tracey Moffatt – Heaven

This playful film from famed director and photographer Tracey Moffatt turns the tables on traditional representations of desire to examine the power of the female gaze in the objectification of men’s bodies. HEAVEN begins with surreptitiously filmed documentary footage of brawny surfers changing in and out of bathing and wet-suits. While the soundtrack switches between the ocean surf and male chanting, Moffatt moves closer to alternately flirt with and tease her subjects, who respond with a combination of preening and macho reticence. This witty piece is a potent and hilarious meditation on cinematic and everyday sex roles, voyeurism, power, and the thin line between admiration and invasiveness.

Russia (0)

China (0)

Summary

1. Lots of feminist women photographers (in the sense that all the women photographers were making points about men which were, as far as I could see, were entirely negative. None of them celebrating any aspect of maleness.)

2. At least half, if not more, of the male photographers are gay i.e. if the exhibition as a whole is about one particular type of masculinity, it is about gay masculinity.

3. No photographers and no photographs from Russia or China. Hmm. Because they don’t have men there? Or no photographers there? Or because not enough of them are gay (either the subjects or the photographers themselves)? Or because the curators don’t think Russia and China matter?

55 photographers in all, 23 from America, lots of the others covering American subjects – but none from Russia or China.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

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

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

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

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

Edwardian humour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten years later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pump Street fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last battle

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

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

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

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

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

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A hint of modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blankness upon blankness. And:

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

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


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