Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh (1932)

Black Mischief was Evelyn Waugh’s third novel, published in 1932. It very obviously recycles material from his six-month-long trip to Ethiopia and then along the East Coast of Africa which he had chronicled in the previous year’s travelogue, Remote People (1931).

The novel describes the efforts of Seth, the young English-educated Emperor of ‘Azania’, a fictional island off the East coast of Africa, based loosely on Zanzibar, to modernise his Empire, aided by the 28-year-old scapegrace and ne’er-do-well, Basil Seal.

Jaded author of jaded characters

Having just finished reading Vile Bodies and still reeling from its shockingly nihilistic ending, I think I can understand why Waugh leapt at the opportunity of fleeing rancid England. He had gone, as a temporary foreign correspondent for a London newspaper, to go and cover the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. The disgust and misanthropy which becomes slowly more obvious in Vile Bodies goes a long way to explaining why he felt the need to get clean away from the shallow party culture he describes in that book.

This hunch was confirmed a third of the way into the novel by the book’s leading character, Basil Seal, who is depicted as sick and tired of the posh, jaded, endlessly partying circles he moves in. Here he is talking to a crusty old colonel at his club:

‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘Eh?’
‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘No, I do not. Lived here all my life. Never get tired of it. Fellow who’s tired of London is tired of life.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Basil. ‘I’m going away for some time,’ he told the hall-porter as he left the club.

And a bit later, talking to Lady Metroland:

‘I want to go abroad. I’ve been in England too long.’

And, a little later, to his mother:

‘You see I’m fed up with London and English politics. I want to get away.’

So it’s repeated three times. Sick to death of London life and desperate to escape. No ambiguity about Basil’s motives, then.

Waugh’s recurring characters

Basil starts out in a London full of the same cast of characters we encountered in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, and who were expanded in the sequel, Vile Bodies – people like Lady Metroland (who played such a central role in Decline and Fall), her son Peter Pastmaster, Lord Monomark the owner of the Daily Excess, whose gossip columnists played a central role in Vile Bodies, Sonia Trumpington who keeps a genuinely bohemian menage with husband Alisdair and who Basil visits before his departure. In an atmosphere of loucheness significantly further down the line than anything in Bodies we find the couple in bed and their bedroom littered with drunk or passed-out young men whose names they don’t even know. It’s that kind of behaviour, which Basil himself is expert at, which he has grown sick of.

Thousands of Europeans for well over a century had fled to the colonies to leave behind unsatisfactory lives and reinvent themselves. Obviously Waugh didn’t become a settler or anything like, but the complete change of scene offered by this sudden opportunity to become an (albeit temporarily) freelance journalist, allowed him to apply his forensic gaze and lucid style in a new way. It gave him radically new subject matter and a drastic new variety of characters to depict. To mercilessly describe what he saw in the wildly different setting of a rundown, backward and sometimes barbarous African nation. And then, being a professional, to recycle the everything he’d seen into the humorous and satirical exaggerations of this novel.

Black Mischief’s prose more solid and descriptive

What is immediately and strikingly different is the abandonment of some of the modish techniques in Vile Bodies. That novel gives the impression of being mostly made up of dialogue, the brittle, mannered dialogue of febrile London society, sometimes page after page of only dialogue and, in particular, the telephone conversations of the shallow young couple, Adam and Nina which Waugh was, rightly, proud of.

On the first few pages you realise Black Mischief is a different thing entirely. Describing London, even with satirical intent, had been done to death. It had been done by Dickens and Conan Doyle and E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and a thousand lesser known writers. Waugh does it very well when he wants to, he can knock off beautifully lyrical paragraphs when they need to be deployed. But not often, and short.

Whereas a fictional African country gave Waugh the opportunity to write huge chunks of descriptive prose, much of it recycled or reworked from the travel book, which is genuinely fresh and unusual and flavoursome.

For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds — emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda — Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words — Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior — and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.

The prose itself is like a tropical fruit, sumptuous and full of flavour.

Civil war in Azania

In actual fact the opening chapter is a little confusing. It hardly reads like Waugh at all. He clearly decided to make the most complete break possible with the world of Decline and Bodies.

Instead the opening chapter of Black Mischief plunges the reader straight into the confusion and anarchy which prevails in, Matodi, the port town of its fictional island nation Azania, amid the civil war prompted by the death of the old empress. Young prince of the realm Seth should have inherited the throne but instead has faced a rebellion led by prince Seyid.

The enemy army has appeared camping on a hill outside the town. During a long night of fear and paranoia everyone, including the emperor, expects them to enter Matodi the next day and trigger a bloodbath.

There are some very unpleasant episodes in which a noted Armenian merchant is threatened with hanging by troops who want to discover where he’s hidden one of the last boats on the island so they can escape. The emperor’s canny Indian scribe, Ali, is first interrogated and then strangled to death, making an awful shrieking sound in the courtyard outside Seth’s chambers. The entire chapter, its setting, the mood and its details are utterly unlike Waugh. They feel much more modern. They reminded me of the John Updike novel, The Coup or the hard, violent atmosphere of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

But the next morning it turns out that the army camping in the hills outside town was not the enemy army, but forces loyal to the emperor led by the Irish mercenary, General Connolly. Early the next morning he rides into town on a donkey followed by his victorious army to tell the emperor he has won, the emperor’s crown is secure, Seyid is defeated.

Is Seyid alive, can he be brought before Seth? Er, no. Connolly regrets to inform the emperor that Seyid surrendered to a party of the hard core native tribe, the Wanda, and that they, er, killed and ate him. So far so gruesome. It is very Waugh that it is only at this rather startling moment, that we receive the further startling news that Seyid was Seth’s father (!)

‘They should not have eaten him — after all, he was my father . . . It is so . . . so barbarous.’
‘I knew you’d feel that way about it, Seth, and I’m sorry. I gave the headmen twelve hours in the tank for it.’

The reference is to the one and only tank which Seth had purchased in Europe, wishing to make his army more up to date. Seth wants everything in his country to be modern and European. However, Connolly informs him that the tank turned out to be completely useless in jungle warfare until he found an alternative use for it. Since it heated up so quickly in the tropical sunlight, it turned out to be a good punishment cell. Hence locking the offending headman up in it for 12 hours for eating Seth’s father, a fierce punishment.

(Connolly, we learn, was previously an Irish game-warden. He has taken a local wife, who he lovingly refers to as ‘Black Bitch’, which scandalises everyone in the novel, and will scandalise any young modern reader, but the point is they are genuinely in love, he defends her, is faithful to her and she sticks by him right to the end of the story.)

The British diplomats in Azania

Having thoroughly undermined our expectations and landed us in a strange and terrible foreign setting, the narrative then switches to an extensive description of the British diplomatic community in Azania, who have been hunkering down during this regrettable war.

They are a collection of ripe caricatures, posh, nonchalant, stiff-upper-lip types, showily obsessed with trivia and utterly indifferent to the progress of the war or the two opposing sides, the names of whose leaders they affect to forget, in that blithe, dismissive, posh English way (same as Lottie Crump introducing frightfully important people as ‘Lord thingummy-jig’).

‘His Britannic Majesty’s minister, Sir Samson Courteney’ is more concerned about the frequency with which the cook serves up tinned asparagus every day than the perishing war, and likes to relax by having a long bath in the morning and a spot of knitting in the evening.

Lady Courtenay is full of empty tittle tattle about the doings of the small British community, especially their children, which schools they’re going to, how they’re managing with their various ponies. Her main concern is securing cuttings from London to continue embellishing the splendid little English garden she’s been cultivating at the Legation.

The Courtenays have a frivolous daughter, Prudence, who is in love with more or less the only eligible young man available, William Bland, the honorary attaché and assistant to Sir Samson. Sometimes the rather earnest bishop pops round for luncheon but the legation buildings are an inconvenient seven miles out of town along a bad road so he always ends up staying the night, which turns into a trial for all concerned. With the handful of other posh Brits who work at the Legation, they play endless games of bridge or poker dice or bagatelle, or Happy Families or consequences.

Prudence is writing a deep and meaningful book titled The Panorama of Life and Waugh shares with us some of her witless, factually incorrect vapourings. It is a cast of jolly English innocents abroad.

It is a running joke that the little French diplomatic community, led by Monsieur Ballon, are fierce rivals with the British and live in paranoid fear that the Brits are getting one over on them, are scheming and plotting and up to something, a seething paranoia which is satirically contrasted with the actual activities of the Brits, which are sleeping late, having long baths, supping cocktails before a long lunch, fussing about their roses or gymkhana ponies, having a nap in the afternoon, before dressing for an elaborate dinner and then spending all evening playing bridge – completely oblivious of French paranoia.

The rivalry is exemplified in the way William translates a top secret cable from London and breathlessly  presents it to Sir Samuel (‘Kt to QR3 CH’) only to be told it contains the latest chess move young Percy is playing with a chap at the Foreign Office. Whereas the French – who are, inevitably, spying on the British and hacking into their cables –suspect this very same chess move of being an extra-secret code conveying some kind of diabolical Anglo-Saxon plot.

Enter Basil Seal

It is only at this point, maybe a third of the way into the text of the novel, that we are first introduced to  its protagonist, Basil Seal, who we first encounter in characteristically jaded, post-party mode:

For the last four days Basil had been on a racket. He had woken up an hour ago on the sofa of a totally strange flat. There was a gramophone playing. A lady in a dressing jacket sat in an armchair by the gas-fire, eating sardines from the tin with a shoe-horn. An unknown man in shirt-sleeves was shaving, the glass propped on the chimneypiece.
The man had said: ‘Now you’re awake you’d better go.’
The woman: ‘Quite thought you were dead.’
Basil: ‘I can’t think why I’m here.’
‘I can’t think why you don’t go.’
‘Isn’t London hell?’

‘On a racket’. 1930s slang. Basil traipses round various friends, pops into Lady Metroland’s party, then goes to see his mother, basically to cadge money off anyone who’ll lend him five hundred quid to go to Africa. Why? Because, as he puts it, history only happens in a few places at any one time, and it’s happening right now in Azania. And he needs a break from London. Badly.

In the event the older, married women he’s having an affair with, Angela Lyne, coughs up the money which allows Basil to pack and leave London, flying from Croydon airport to Le Bourget, catch the train south to Marseilles, and so by steamer across the Med, down the Red Sea to Djibouti (exactly the itinerary Waugh himself took on his three journeys out to Ethiopia – except for the flying, Waugh caught a train across France) to arrive at the fictional island of ‘Azania’.

As well as throwing away all the advantages he has been given in life (for example, he was handed a safe Conservative seat which would have allowed him to become a Tory MP with almost no effort, but managed to throw away the opportunity) Basil is a thief. At the interview with his mother in her boudoir he nicks her expensive emerald broach and flogs it for a fraction of its price at Port Said. He shares a cabin on the ship to Djibouti, and his cabin mate only realises a few days after Basil’s departure that he’s nicked his shaving soap, bedroom slippers and ‘fine topee’. Like all Waugh’s characters, Basil is a cartoon but a complex cartoon.

Basil in Azania

Basil’s first impressions of Azania are described in luxurious detail. See the long paragraph I quoted at the start. He travels from the coastal port of Motadi to the nation’s capital, Debra Dowa, in the centre of the island. Basil’s impressions and journey overlap with scenes showing Seth impatiently telling his advisers what he needs is a modern man, a European, to help him bring Progress and the New Age to Azania.

We never see the scene where the two men meet or converse or Seth realising Basil is the man for the job. Instead the narrative jumps to a new chapter in which we find Basil already in charge of the ‘Ministry of Modernisation’. His official title if High Commissioner and Comptroller General. While still in the coastal town of Modati (where the narrative opened) Basil had come across the services of the excellent Armenian, Mr Krikor Youkoumian, owner of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores in Motadi. It is a pleasant joke that Basil makes Mr Youkoumian his number two, and very able he proves to be.

(It is worth remembering that in Remote People Waugh says that of the hundreds of people he met, it was two Armenians who stood out as the most steadfast and dependable, and he gives a little dithyramb praising their nation.)

Anyway, Basil has been commissioned by the Emperor Seth to modernise his country. What does this mean in practice? Oh, lots of things. First they must undertake a complete ‘reform of manners’. The capital, Debra Dowa, must be torn down and rebuilt in the modern style. Instead of wiggly lanes lined by low shanties, there must be a grand square, named Seth Square, with broad avenues radiating outwards (one to be called Boulevard Basil Seal, another the Avenue Connolly). Seth asks if they can build an underground tube network. Er, no.

He becomes obsessed with the topic of birth control. (It’s fascinating that the idea that women in developing countries must be given free birth control and education so they can stop being baby machines and become modern women in control of their bodies, educated into working in offices at modern jobs – that all this was familiar enough to be included in a comic novel 90 years ago. Thus Seth demands that the Anglican cathedral must be torn down and the square it’s set on be renamed Place Marie Stopes.)

Seth generates an ever-growing list of demands for reforms he has read about in all the European books and magazines which pile up on his tables, all for the cause of Progress and the New Age. This comic thread climaxes in a note he sends Basil:

For your information and necessary action, I have decided to abolish the following: Death penalty. Marriage. The Sakuyu language and all native dialects. Infant mortality. Totemism. Inhuman butchery. Mortgages. Emigration. Please see to this. Also organize system of reservoirs for city’s water supply and draft syllabus for competitive examination for public services. Suggest compulsory Esperanto.

His next fad is money and he decides to produce a home-made currency (with his own portrait on them) which he enthusiastically prints by the thousand in contravention to all economic orthodoxy. Basil is, by now, too tired and harassed by the emperor’s endless fads, to even try to talk him out of it. The worthlessness of the new currency provides a recurring thread of comedy from then on.

Growing opposition

All these changes generate opposition across a wide range of society. First to go into opposition is General Connolly. He strongly resents Seth interfering with the army which preserved him in power. There’s an extended comic theme whereby Seth decides the army must have boots, modern boots, European boots, like a European army. General Connolly is furious, explaining that the natives’ feet are tough enough to tramp through jungle whereas Western-style boots will give them blisters, infections and trench foot. Nonetheless, there is an extended comic thread as Mr Youkoumia hunts around for an importer of European boots, finds one, has them delivered in a big pile at Connolly’s barracks.

Connolly storms into Basil’s office and we wonder if he’s going to announce a mutiny but instead tells Basil that… his men ate all the boots (and then claimed they tasted more nutritious than their standard rations).

Then the birth control campaign arouses the ire of the churches. They are led by the leading Christian in the country, the Nestorian Patriarch who rallies the Chief Rabbi, the Mormon Elder and the chief representatives of all the creeds of the Empire against contraception and in favour of the decencies of married life etc. (Nestorianism is a Christian ‘heresy’ i.e. a branch of Christianity which early on diverged from what later became recognised as orthodox belief, was stifled in Catholic Western Europe but continued to flourish in the Middle East, hence then Patriarch’s authority here in remote Azania.)

Finally the French. M. Ballon and the French contingent hate and fear whatever the English are doing so they are infuriated by the influence the scapegrace Englishman has over the emperor. Only French scapegraces should have influence over African emperors.

Basil and Prudence

Basil has affair with Prudence Courtenay. She is a fresh young English rose, he is a dashing, handsome scapegrace, who never shaves or looks presentable but is tall and strong and manly and powerful. Of course, in the real world women are never attracted to tall, dark, handsome and rather dangerous men.

The RSPCA

Into the mix are thrown two prim, proper and high-minded ladies who arrive from England, Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Sarah Tin, on a mission to support animal welfare.

Their arrival is signalled at the start of a new chapter which opens with a refreshing change of modality or medium, namely from authorial narrative, to the texts of Dame Mildred’s letters back to her hubby in England complaining about pretty much every aspect of Azanian life.

This starts with the slapdash and almost insolent behaviour of the young attaché (William Bland) who is sent to collect them from the train station but makes it pretty plain his first priority is the monthly mail bag (complete with brand new records and magazines) rather than the two misses.

There isn’t space in his little car for the mail bag, the ladies and Miss Tin’s large trunk, which he leaves at the station assuring them he’ll send for it later and it becomes a running joke that this trunk never is retrieved and Miss Tin spends the rest of her stay bitterly complaining about it and having to borrow clothes.

The contraception campaign

The emperor’s contraception and family planning campaign becomes more feverish. He cares not that it will overthrow all native culture, both black African and Arab, by insisting on enforced birth control and smaller families. There’s a comic passage about a modern poster he gets made up and put everywhere showing two families.

It portrayed two contrasted scenes. On one side a native hut of hideous squalor, overrun with children of every age, suffering from every physical incapacity — crippled, deformed, blind, spotted and insane; the father prematurely aged with paternity squatted by an empty cook-pot; through the door could be seen his wife, withered and bowed with child-bearing, desperately hoeing at their inadequate crop. On the other side a bright parlour furnished with chairs and table; the mother, young and beautiful, sat at her ease eating a huge slice of raw meat; her husband smoked a long Arab hubble-bubble (still a caste mark of leisure throughout the land), while a single healthy child sat between them reading a newspaper. Inset between the two pictures was a detailed drawing of some up-to-date contraceptive apparatus and the words in Sakuyu: which home do you choose?

The comedy comes in the way the entire native population fails to get the message and picks the wrong home:

See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good; sit eating meat: and rich man no good: he only one son.
See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children: one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.

It all leads up to the great Pageant of Contraception complete with floats depicting the Modern Woman, empowered by birth control to lead modern economically productive lives.

Achon the pretender

Meanwhile the emperor’s enemies have joined forces. The central trio of Connolly, Patriarch and Ballon  realise they’ll need someone to replace Seth when they overthrow him. They have heard rumours that a long-lost cousin of Seth’s, Achon, a son of the Great Emperor Amurath, was seized by Amurath’s daughter (the Empress whose recent death signalled Seth’s ascension) and sent away to be incarcerated for life in the remote monastery of St Mark the Evangelist.

He must be pushing 90 now, but the trio command the Earl of Ngumo, a comically traditionalist black chieftain, to journey through the jungle to the remote monastery and retrieve him. (The monastery itself, down to its layout and description of its ceremonies, is clearly based on the monastery of Debra Lebanos which Waugh visited on his 1930 trip and described in great (comic) detail in Remote People.)

There then follow long and canny negotiations between the Earl and the ancient Abbot about whether Achon was ever taken there, if so whether he’s still alive, if he’s still alive, how much it will cost to take Ngumo to him. This takes days, the stylised and formal discussions ringing very true and testifying to Waugh’s first hand experience of this kind of culture.

When finally revealed, it turns out Achon is pushing ninety and has been kept for decades in a cave chained to the wall. He can’t walk and can’t talk and has no idea what’s happening to him. So this is the walking skeleton the Earl of Ngumo brings back to the capital, where he is kept a secret by the trio of conspirators.

The pageant of contraception

And so the day dawns for the dramatic climax of the book, the great Birth Control Gala commences, a great festival day for the population of Debra Dowa. In a nice narrative decision Waugh doesn’t describe the thing as an omniscient narrator, but makes us see the entire thing from the point of view of Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, whose hotel room overlooks the town’s main street but is quickly so overrun by uninvited guests that they decamp up to the corrugated metal roof of the hotel, with its short concrete parapet, to enjoy the scene.

Unfortunately, what they witness is the chaotic coup staged by Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon. The procession of floats of the Modern Woman and Girl Guides carrying inspiring banners (“WOMEN OF TOMORROW DEMAND AN EMPTY CRADLE”, “THROUGH STERILITY TO CULTURE”) is suddenly interrupted by gunfire, the screaming of crowds, and then machine gunfire as troops move in.

After a long, confused and terrified afternoon trapped on the hotel roof in the blazing sun, as night finally falls the two women hear pukka English voices coming from down in the street. It is none other than young William from the Legation who has come to check they are OK. He is about to drive off when they chuck a whiskey bottle then a pillow down at his car which delays him long enough for them to run down the stairs and into the street and insist that he take them to the British Legation, despite his protestations and the knowledge that he’ll get it in the ear from his boss, Sir Sampson, who hates the even peacefulness of Legation life being disturbed in any way. Even by a coup.

The coronation of Achon

Again the omniscient narrator is ditched in favour of retailing the confused events of the next few days as they trickle through to the British Legation, isolated and fearful, 6 or 7 miles from the capital. Word comes through that Seth survived the coup but has fled.

Then we cut to the great ceremony, a week or so later, of the state coronation of Achon, who Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon’s various propaganda channels have been telling the populace is the true heir to the throne. Unfortunately, when the Patriarch places the elaborate crown of Azania on Achon’s head it snaps his feeble neck and he dies on the spot. Chaos ensues.

At the British Legation

Fear in the Legation. Basil turns up in native disguise with camels and African servants. He helped Seth escape from the capital in the chaos after the coup, accompanied by bodyguards etc and has arranged a rendezvous in a week’s times.

Then he’s come to the Legation to see if they need his help. He takes over security and sets a watch of armed guards in case the locals or Connolly’s troops try to attack, but there is no attack. Instead, after a few days, a plane flies overhead and drops a stone with a message tied round it telling them to pack their stuff, more planes will be along soon. A few hours later some planes land in open fields by the Legation and tell the gathered Brits they are being evacuated. All the characters gather up whatever can be stashed in a small suitcase, and scamper into the planes which taxi and take off.

Prudence just has time for a last scene with Basil, begging him to catch a plane with them. But he is determined to make a rendezvous in the jungle with Seth. Prudence is wearing a rather fetching red beret. Sadly she scampers back to the planes which were waiting for her before they all take off together.

The view from up in the air is frightfully ripping till her plane suddenly seems to be flying lower than the others, the pilot yells something back to his passengers, then he has to make an emergency landing in a clearing. ‘Should have it fixed in a jiffy,’ he quips. I expected maybe Basil, trekking through the jungle with his camels, might find and rescue her. Little did I know…

Basil’s trek

There’s then quite a long description of Basil’s trek through the jungle to the rendezvous point with Seth. One by one the natives abandon him. On the second day his servants intercept a messenger who’s carrying a piece of paper stuck in the traditional cleft stick. The message is from Viscount Boaz to the Earl of Ngumo and says a) he is loyal to the new emperor Achon b) he has with him the former emperor Seth c) should he take steps to relieve the new emperor of this embarrassment? I.e. murder Seth?

Immediately grasping that Seth’s life is at stake, Basil orders the reluctant messenger to turn round and run back to Boaz and tell him Achon is dead, the coup has failed, so Seth has been restored as the rightful emperor, and not to kill him.

A day later Basil arrives at the rendezvous but, to cut a long story short, discovers Seth is dead. If only the messenger had returned a day sooner he would be alive. Boaz, who had captured Seth and is responsible for his murder, makes up various excuses and tells a stream of fictions about how Seth met his end, accident, illness, suicide and so on. Whatever the cause, he is dead. They take Basil to see Seth’s body, which native women are sewing up in a shroud with herbs and spices.

Basil decides on the spot to do the decent thing and take the body back to Seth’s ancestral birthplace, in the heart of the Wanda people. There follows more trekking through the jungle with camels bearing the dead emperor’s body.

Eventually Basil arrives and is sadly welcomed and there is a long, detailed and genuinely moving description of the funeral rites the Wanda people give their dead leader. Basil makes a long and noble exequy, such as would befit the funeral rites of a dead hero in the Iliad or Beowulf. There is not a shred of condescension as Waugh describes with forensic accuracy the ritual feast in which Basil joins, as the assembled tribal notables eat from a large pot of stew, scooping up the chunks of meat with flatbread, along with the ritual drinking and other traditional funeral rites. Waugh endows it all with great beauty as it builds to its climax of an impressive funeral pyre.

Soon the pyre was enveloped in towering flames. The people took up the song and swayed on their haunches, chanting. The bundle on the crest bubbled and spluttered like fresh pine until the skin cerements burst open and revealed briefly in the heart of the furnace the incandescent corpse of the Emperor. Then there was a subsidence among the timbers and it disappeared from view.

I actually found this scene genuinely moving because it is described so precisely and without a shred of patronage or condescension, Waugh and his character taking it completely at face value as rites becoming a dead emperor.

All the more shocking, horrifying and bitterly nihilistic is the sequel. Walking away from the ongoing celebrations around the burning pyre Basil comes across a drunk old man in the shadows, nodding and drooling. Suddenly a flare of light from the pyre reveals the old man is wearing a red beret. Basil realises it’s Prudence’s. Is she here? Basil shakes the old man and asks where the owner of the hat is. The old man pats his tummy and says ‘Here. We’ve all just eaten her.’

Waugh achieves his best psychological or emotional effects by distancing them, like the casual deaths in Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. He doesn’t give Basil’s response or reaction or feelings. The chapter, and the entire Africa section ends on this genuinely shocking revelation.

Back in London

Next thing we know we are back in silly frivolous superficial London and Basil is ringing up his dissolute chums, owners of the bedroom where we first met him coming round from a drunken stupor, Sonia and Alisdair.

They inform him that while he’s been away there’s been some kind of ‘crash’ and everyone’s now beastly poor. It’s just too too dull. He pops round, they drink and play silly parlour games and every time he threatens to tell them anything about his African adventure they all tell him to shush. Nothing serious here, thank you very much. Later in the evening he goes round to see his mistress, the married woman Angela Lyne. The sense is of him picking up the shallow, cynical merry-go-round of London life exactly where he left off. Nothing has changed in the tone of eternal frivolity, the worship of superficiality,  the casual, depthless amorality. Except for Basil. He has changed, changed utterly.

Bleak endings

You often read people referring to the bleak ending of A Handful of Dust as an epitome of futility. I’d forgotten that the endings of Vile Bodies and Black Mischief are every bit as devastatingly nihilistic. Some people might find the killing and eating of Prudence funny, maybe I did when I was a callow youth, but now I am appalled by it and, like the death of vivacious Agatha Runcible, it casts a gloomy pall over everything which preceded it.

Epilogue

The League of Nations steps in and makes Azania a ‘protectorate’ to be jointly administered by France and Britain. We are swiftly introduced to the new generation of civil servants who are going to run the place, are building roads and hospitals and pretty little bungalows on the hill and gossip gaily about all the characters who have featured in the novel and have now departed. Sir Samson, his wife, the other Legation officials are old news now. Waugh shows with devastating accuracy how the gossip and common opinion about them has been twisted and distorted out of all recognition. It’s what happens to everyone all the time. Everything any of us does is quickly twisted and distorted out of all recognition by people who have never met us and don’t care.

The narrative focuses in on two young Brits who’ve joined the recently appointed Protectorate staff as they discuss the fate of old Colonel Connolly. They pride themselves on having gotten him expelled from the country and speculate that he might end up in Abyssinia, funny how he’s so attached to that native woman of his (Connolly’s ‘Black Bitch’ loyal to the last).

And then they agree how they all rely on the services of the estimable Armenian, Mr Youkoumian. Rulers may come and rulers may go but quick-thinking, flexible and adaptable merchants go on for ever.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

 At Archie Schwert’s party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?’ for they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.

I tend to prefer older novels to contemporary novels and poetry because they are more unexpected, diverting, free from our narrow and oppressive modern morality and better written. Go any distance into the past and the characters will have better manners and the narrator write a more grammatically  correct English than you get nowadays. There will also be old phrases which I dimly remember from my youth which have now vanished, swamped by all-conquering Americanisms. And, sometimes, you just get scenes which are odder and more unexpected than earnest, issue-led modern fiction can allow itself. Thus, at the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s beautifully written, impeccably well mannered, but ultimately devastating 1932 novel, Vile Bodies, we read:

High above his head swung Mrs Melrose Ape’s travel-worn Packard car, bearing the dust of three continents, against the darkening sky, and up the companion-way at the head of her angels strode Mrs Melrose Ape, the woman evangelist.

Not the kind of sentence you read every day.

Crossing the Channel

Vile Bodies opens on a cross-channel ferry packed with an assortment of Waugh-esque eccentrics, including a seen-it-all-before Jesuit priest, Father Rothschild, a loud and brash American woman evangelist, Mrs Melrose Ape, and her flock of young followers; some members of the fashionable ‘Bright Young People’ aka ‘the Younger Set’ (Miles Malpractice, ‘brother of Lord Throbbing’, and the toothsome Agatha Runcible, ‘Viola Chasm’s daughter’); two tittering old ladies named Lady Throbbing and Mrs Blackwater; the recently ousted Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P.; and a hopeful young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes, who has been writing a novel in Paris.

Although there are passages of narrative description what becomes quickly obvious is that Waugh is experimenting with the novel form in a number of ways. One is by presenting short snatches of conversation and dialogue between a lot of groups of characters briskly intercut. No narratorial voice gives a setting or description, there is only the barest indication who’s talking, sometimes no indication at all. You’re meant to recognise the speakers by the style and content of what they say. It’s like the portmanteau movies of the 1970s, like a Robert Altman movie, briskly cutting between short scenes of  busy dialogue.

The book as a whole is a concerted satire on the generation of ‘Bright Young Things’, the privileged young British aristocrats and upper-middle-class public schoolboys who were adolescents during the Great War and who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge in the early 1920s, throwing themselves into a lifestyle of wild abandon and endless partying in the rich man’s quarter of London, Mayfair.

As you might expect, we not only get accounts of their activities, but the point of view of their disapproving elders and betters. Here’s the former Prime Minister, who we often find in conclave with Lord Metroland and Father Rothschild:

‘They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade — and all they seem to do is to play the fool. Mind you, I’m all in favour of them having a fling. I dare say that Victorian ideas were a bit strait-laced. Saving your cloth, Rothschild, it’s only human nature to run a bit loose when one’s young. But there’s something wanton about these young people to-day.’

The younger generation’s frivolity is exemplified in the way Adam’s engagement with his fiancée, Nina Blount, is on again, off again, on again, their breaking up and making up punctuating the novel right till the end, in a running gag.

To start it off, Adam telephones Nina to tell her that the customs officials at Dover confiscated his novel and burned it for obscenity. She is sad but has to dash off to a party. In London he checks into the eccentric Shepheards Hotel (note the posh spelling), Dover Street, run by the blithely forgetful owner, Lottie Crump, who can never remember anyone’s name (‘”‘You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?’ said Lottie”). Lottie was, apparently, based, as Waugh tells us in his preface, on ‘Mrs Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel’.

Here Adam discovers the posh and eccentric clientele, including the ex-king of Ruritania (my favourite), assembled in the bar (the parlour) and wins a thousand pounds on a silly bet with a fellow guest. So he rushes to phone up Nina to tell her their wedding is back on again. She is happy but has to rush off to a party, as she always does.

Adam goes back to the group of guests, all getting drunk, and an older chap who calls himself ‘the Major’ offers the advice that the best way to invest his money is bet on a horse. In fact, he knows a dead cert, Indian Runner, running in the forthcoming November Handicap at twenty to one. So Adam drunkenly hands over his newly-won thousand pounds to the Major to put on this horse. The reader little suspects that this, also, will become a running gag for the rest of the book.

Then Adam stumbles back to the phone in the hallway and rings up Nina to ask her about this horse.  It is a comic premise of the novel that the world it portrays is minuscule and everybody knows everybody else, so it comes as no surprise that Nina just happens to know the horse’s posh owner and tells him it’s an absolute dog and will never win anything. When Adam explains that he’s just handed over his £1,000 to a Major to bet on it, Nina says well, that was foolish but she must dash for dinner and rings off. As usual.

Phone dialogue

A propos Adam and Nina’s conversations, Waugh prided himself that this was the first novel to include extended passages of dialogue carried out on the phone. Something about the phone medium offers the opportunity to make the characters sound even more clipped, superficial and silly than face-to-face conversation would:

‘Oh, I say. Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?’
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’

Beasts and beastly. Dreadful bores. Ghastly fellows. I say, old chap. That would be divine, darling. Everyone speaks like that, and focusing on the dialogue brings this out.

Gossip columns and the press

Vile Bodies is wall to wall posh. That was its selling point. Waugh tells us that the ‘Bright Young People’ were a feature in the popular press of the time, as the characters in Made In Chelsea or Love Island might be in ours. Hmm maybe the comparison with a TV show is not quite right. After all, the characters appear in the gossip columns of the papers and some of the characters are themselves part of the set who make a career on the side writing about their friends.

When I was younger there were gossip columns by Taki in the Spectator and Nigel Dempster in the Express and Daily Mail. I imagine the same kind of thing persists today. Obviously people like to read about the goings-on of the rich and privileged with a mixture of mockery and jealousy. That’s very much the mix Waugh was catering to. He’s well aware of it. He overtly describes the ‘kind of vicarious inquisitiveness into the lives of others’ which gossip columns in all ages satisfy.

But over and above the permanent interest in the comings and goings of the very rich, the subject of the dissolute younger generation just happened to be in the news at the time and so Waugh’s novel happened to be addressing a hot topic at just the right moment. He was instantly proclaimed the ‘voice’ of that generation and Vile Bodies was picked up and reviewed, and articles and profiles and interviews were spun off it, and it sold like hot cakes. His reputation was made.

Interesting that right from the start of his writing career, it was deeply involved in the press, in the mediaVile Bodies is, on one level, about the rivalry between two gossip columnists for popular newspapers, and feature scenes in newsrooms and even with the editor of the main paper. Two of his books from the mid-30s describe how he was hired by a newspaper as a temporary foreign correspondent, the two factual books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia. And he used the experiences and material from both books as material for his satirical masterpiece about the press, Scoop (1938). If we look back at Decline and Fall with this in mind, we notice that a number of key moments in that book are caused by newspaper reports, and that many of the events are picked up and reported by and mediated by the Press.

Waugh’s 1930s novels are famous for their bright and often heartlessly comic depiction of the very highest of London high society, but it’s worth pointing out how the topic of the Press runs through all of them, and the extent to which his characters perform their roles and are aware of themselves as performers (see below).

Bright Young People

Anyway, back to Vile Bodies, it is a masterpiece of deliberately brittle superficial satire, the text’s fragmentation into snippets of speech enacting the snippets of apparently random, inconsequent conversation overheard at a party, the world it comes from being one of endless parties, endless frivolity, which he captures quite brilliantly.

‘Who’s that awful-looking woman? I’m sure she’s famous in some way. It’s not Mrs Melrose Ape, is it? I heard she was coming.’
‘Who?’
‘That one. Making up to Nina.’
‘Good lord, no. She’s no one. Mrs Panrast she’s called now.’
‘She seems to know you.’
‘Yes, I’ve known her all my life. As a matter of fact, she’s my mother.’
‘My dear, how too shaming.’

It’s a set, a group, a clique. They all know each other and many are related, couples, parents, children, aunts, cousins. Waugh’s novels themselves partake of this cliqueyness by featuring quite a few recurring characters. Figures we first met in the previous novel, Decline and Fall, include Lord Circumference and Miles Malpractice, little David Lennox the fashionable society photographer. Lord Vanbrugh the gossip columnist is presumably the son of the Lady Vanbrugh who appeared in D&F and Margot Maltravers, formerly Mrs Beste-Chetwynde who was a central character in the same novel, also makes an appearance under her new name, Lady Metroland, hosting a fashionable party. (She confirms her identity by whispering to a couple of Mrs Ape’s angels that she can get them a job in South America if she wishes, the reader of the previous novel knowing this would be at one of Lady M’s string of brothels there). And quite a few of these characters go on to appear in Waugh’s later novels. The effect is to create a comically complete ‘alternative’ version of English high society, with its narrow interconnectedness.

Thus we know from Decline and Fall that Lord Metroland married Margot Beste-Chetwynde. She was heiress to the Pastmaster title. Therefore her son, Peter Beste-Chetwynde, in time becomes Lord Pastmaster. Margot caused a great stir in Decline and Fall by going out with a stylish young black man.  Here in Vile Bodies there is a sweet symmetry in discovering that her son is going out with a beautiful black woman. Hence Lord Metroland’s grumpy remark:

‘Anyhow,’ said Lord Metroland, ‘I don’t see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress.’
‘My dear, how rich you sound.’
‘I feel my full income when that young man is mentioned.’

Sociolect

The snobbery is enacted in the vocabulary of the text. Various social distinctions are, of course, directly indicated by possession of a title or one’s family. But also, of course, by how one speaks. Obviously there’s the question of accent, the way the upper class distinguish themselves from the middle and lower classes. But it’s also a specific vocabulary which marks one off as a member of the chosen, its sociolect – not only its slang but a very precise choice of key words which mark off a group, signal to other members one’s membership of the group and of course, signal to everyone else their very definite exclusion. Thus:

Divine Mrs Mouse thinks a party should be described as lovely. When her daughter describes the party she’s just been to as divine her mother tut tuts because that single word betokens the class above theirs, indicates that her daughter is getting above her station.

‘It was just too divine,’ said the youngest Miss Brown.
‘It was what, Jane?’

Because it is a word very much associated with the hardest core of the upper classiest of the Bright Young Things, represented in this book by the wild and heedless party animal, Miss Agatha Runcible.

Miss Runcible said that she had heard of a divine night club near Leicester Square somewhere where you could get a drink at any hour of the night.

Bogus This is another word much in vogue to mean simply ‘bad’ with the obvious overtone of fake:

  • ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, ‘this really is all too bogus.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.

In fact their use of ‘bogus’ is cited by Father Rothschild as one of the things he notices about the younger generation. He takes a positive view of it, suggesting to his buddies Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland that the young actually have very strict morals and find the post-war culture they’ve inherited broken and shallow and deceitful. (In this way ‘bogus’ for the 1920s was similar to what  ‘phoney’ was to be for Americans in the 1950s as popularised by Catcher In The Rye, ‘square’ was for hippies, and ‘gay’ is for modern schoolchildren).

Too ‘Too’ is an adverb of degree, indicating excess. Most of us use it in front of adjectives as a statement of fact, for example ‘This tea is too hot’. But the upper classes use it as one among many forms of exaggeration, indicating the simply superlative nature of their experiences, their lives and their darling selves. Used like this, ‘too’ doesn’t convey factual information but is a class marker; in fact its very factual emptiness, its semantic redundancy, highlights its role as a marker of membership:

  • ‘I think it’s quite too sweet of you…’
  • ‘Isn’t this too amusing?’
  • ‘Isn’t that just too bad of Vanburgh?’

‘It was just too divine’ contains a double superlative, the adverb ‘too’ but also the adjective ‘divine’ itself, which is obviously being used with frivolous exaggeration. The party was divine. You are divine. I am divine. We are divine.

Such and so Grammatically ‘such’ is a determiner and ‘so’ is an adverb. So ‘so’ should be used in front of an adjective, ‘such’ in front of a noun phrase. In this narrow society, they are both used in much the same way as ‘too’, to emphasise that everything a speaker is talking about is the absolute tip top. After listening to someone telling us they had such a good time at such a wonderful party and spoke to such a lovely man, and so on, we quickly get the picture that the speaker lives a very superior life. To get the full effect it needs to be emphasised:

  • Such a nice stamp of man.’
  • ‘It seems such a waste.’
  • Such nice people.’
  • Such a nice bright girl.’

There’s an element of risk in talking like this. Only a certain kind of person can carry it off. Trying it on among people who don’t buy into the entire elite idea, or among the real elite who know that you are not a member, risks ridicule.

So talking like this is a kind of taunt – I can get away with this ridiculous way of speaking but you can’t. The epitome of this verbal bravado is Miss Runcible, whose every word is littered with mannered vocabulary and superlatives, flaunting her superlative specialness, daring anyone else to compete.

Simply Paradoxically, for a very self-conscious elite, the pose is one of almost idiotic simplicity. Consider Bertie Wooster. His idiocy underpins his membership of the toff class. He is too stupid to do anything practical like have a job and his upper class idiocy is a loud indicator that he doesn’t need a job, but lives a life of privilege. Well one indicator of this attitude is use of the word simply.

  • ‘I simply do not understand what has happened’
  • ‘Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?’
  • ‘Now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it .’
  • ‘She’d simply loathe it, darling.’
  • ‘Of course, they’re simply not gentlemen, either of them.’

Darling Preferably drawled, a usage only the very confident and suave can get away with.

‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’ said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

Terribly Another denoter of frivolous giddy poshness, since the time of Oscar Wilde at least, via Saki and Noel Coward. Terribly and frightfully.

  • ‘No, really, I think that’s frightfully nice of you. Look, here’s the money. Have a drink, won’t you?’
  • ‘I say, you must be frightfully brainy.’

-making Many of these elements have survived the past 90 years, they continued into the equally frivolous Swinging Sixties and on into our own times, though often mocked, as in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 1996). A locution which is a bit more specific to this generation, or certainly to this book, is creating phrases by adding ‘-making’ to the end of an adjective. Thus:

  • ‘Too, too sick-making,’ said Miss Runcible.
  • ‘As soon as I get to London I shall ring up every Cabinet Minister and all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.
  • ‘Wouldn’t they be rather ill-making?’
  • ‘Very better-making,’ said Miss Runcible with approval as she ate her haddock.

The usage occurs precisely 13 times in the novel, mostly associated with the most daring character, fearless Miss Runcible, and Waugh pushes it to a ludicrous extreme when he has her say:

‘Goodness, how too stiff-scaring….’ (p.174)

This locution made enough of an impression that Waugh singled it out in his preface to the 1964 edition of the novel for being widely commented on, and even taken up by a drama critic who included it in various reviews: ‘”Too sick-making”, as Mr Waugh would say.’ Did people actually say it, or was it a very felicitous invention?

Cockney

In my review of Decline and Fall I noted how much Waugh liked describing Cockney or working class characters and revelled in writing their dialogue. Same here. Thus a taxi driver tells Adam:

‘Long way from here Doubting ‘All is. Cost you fifteen bob…If you’re a commercial, I can tell you straight it ain’t no use going to ‘im.’

This turns out not to be a personal foible of Waugh’s. In Vile Bodies we learn that mimicking Cockney accents was highly fashionable among the creme de la creme of the Bright Young Things.

  • ‘Go away, hog’s rump,’ said Adam, in Cockney,
  • ‘Pretty as a picture,’ said Archie, in Cockney, passing with a bottle of champagne in his hand.
  • ‘Look,’ said Adam, producing the cheque. ‘Whatcher think of that?’ he added in Cockney.
  • ‘Good morning, all,’ she said in Cockney.

At university I knew very posh public schoolboys who had a cult of suddenly dropping into very thick Jamaican patois which they copied from hard-core reggae music (the extreme Jamaican pronunciation of ‘nay-shun’ kept recurring). Same kind of thing here – upper class types signalling their mockery and frivolity by mimicking the accents of the people about as far away from them on the social spectrum as possible.

Alcohol

Everyone’s either drunk, getting drunk or hungover. Their catchphrase is ‘Let’s have a drink’.

‘How about a little drink?’ said Lottie.

The American critic Edmund Wilson made the same comment about the literary types he knew in 1920s New York, and in general about ‘the Roaring Twenties’, ‘the Jazz Era’. Everyone drank like fish.

They went down the hill feeling buoyant and detached (as one should if one drinks a great deal before luncheon). (p.173)

Everyone was nursing a hangover. Everyone needed one for the road or a pick-me-up the next morning, or a few drinks before lunch, and during lunch, and mid-afternoon, and something to whet the whistle before dinner, and then onto a club for drinks and so on into the early hours. At luncheon with Nina’s father:

First they drank sherry, then claret, then port.

It goes without saying that these chaps and chapesses are not drinking beer or lager. Champagne is the unimpeachable, uncritisable, eternal choice for toffs and all occasions.

  • (Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie’s parlour.)
  • Archie Schwert, as he passed, champagne bottle in hand, paused to say, ‘How are you, Mary darling?’
  • Adam hurried out into the hall as another bottle of champagne popped festively in the parlour.

Drinking heavily and one more for the road and still partying at dawn are fine if you’re in your 20s (and well off and good looking). Give it 40 years and you end up looking and talking like the Major in Fawlty Towers as so many of these bright young things eventually did.

Ballard Berkeley as Major Gowen in Fawlty Towers

The extended scene at the motor races (Chapter Ten) contains a very funny description of four posh people becoming very drunk. Their progressive inebriation is conveyed entirely via their speech patterns, which become steadily more clipped and the subject matter steadily more absurd, so that when a race steward comes round to enquire where the  driver of the car they’re supporting has gone to (his arm was hurt in an accident so he’s pulled into the pits and his car is empty) they immediately reply that he’s been murdered. When the steward asks if there’s a replacement driver, they immediately reply, straight faced, that he’s been murdered too.

‘Driver’s just been murdered,’ said Archie. ‘Spanner under the railway bridge. Marino.’
‘Well, are you going to scratch? Who’s spare driver?’
‘I don’t know. Do you, Adam? I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if they hadn’t murdered the spare driver, too.’

Since they each drink a bottle of champagne before lunch, the three posh friends start to come down at teatime and Waugh is as good on incipient hangovers as on inebriation.

The effect of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance handbooks, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay. (p.177)

More on this scene below.

Politics

The satirical point of view extends up into political circles, one of the jokes being that several of the most extreme and disreputably hedonistic of the Bright Young People are, with a certain inevitability, the sons and daughter of the leaders of the main parties and, since one or other of them is in power at any given moment, children of the Prime Minister.

In fact the mockery extends to the novel’s cheerfully satirical notion that the British government falls roughly every week. In the opening chapter we meet the Prime Minister who’s just been ousted, Outrage, and in the same chapter the supremely modish Miss Runcible. Only slowly does it become clear that she is, with a certain inevitability, the daughter of the current Prime Minister (Sir James Brown).

Half way through the book this Prime Minister is ousted because of stories about the wild party held at Number 10 which climaxed with his half-naked daughter, dressed as a Hawaiian dancer, stumbling drunkenly out the front steps of Number 10 and straight into the aim of numerous press photographers and journalists. Disreputable parties held by Tory toffs at Number 10? Well, it seems that in this, as so many other aspects of British life, nothing has really changed since the 1930s.

Moments of darkness

The best comedy, literary comedy as opposed to gag fests, hints at darker undertones. Shakespeare’s comedies tread, briefly, close to genuine cruelty or torment as, for example, in the hounding of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Comedy generally is an unstable genre. For a generation or more we’ve had the comedy of cruelty or humiliation or embarrassment. I find a lot of modern comedy, such as The Office too embarrassing and depressing to watch.

Waugh’s comedy goes to extremes. It often includes incidents of complete tragedy which are played for laughs, or flicker briefly in the frivolous narrative as peripheral details, which are glossed over with comic nonchalance but which, if you pause to focus on them, are very dark.

It’s there in Decline and Fall when little Lord Tangent has his foot grazed by a shot from the starting gun at school sports day, the wound gets infected and he has to have the foot amputated. A lot later we learn, in a throwaway remark, that he has died.

Flossie’s death

Something similar happens here when a young woman, Florence or Flossie Ducane, involved in a drunken party in the room of one of the posh guests at the posh Shepheard’s Hotel attempts to swing from a chandelier which snaps and she falls to the floor and breaks her neck. Adam sees a brief report about it in the newspaper:

Tragedy in West-End Hotel.
‘The death occurred early this morning at a private hotel in Dover Street of Miss Florence Ducane, described as being of independent means, following an accident in which Miss Ducane fell from a chandelier which she was attempting to mend.

1. All kinds of things are going on here. One is the way moments of real tragedy provide a foil for the gay abandon of most of the characters. Each of these momentary tragedies is a tiny, flickering memento of the vast disaster of the First World War which looms over the entire decade like a smothering nightmare – all those dead husbands and brothers and fathers who everyone rushes round brightly ignoring.

(There’s a famous moment in the story, when Adam is hurrying to Marylebone station to catch a train out to the country pile of Nina’s father [Doubting Hall, Aylesbury], when the clock strikes 11 and everyone all over London, all over the country is still and quiet for 2 minutes because it is Remembrance Sunday. Then the 2 minutes are up and everybody’s hurly burly of life resumes. When I was young I read the handful of sentences which describe it as an indictment of the shallowness of Adam and the world, barely managing their perfunctory 2 minutes’ tribute. Now I see it as a momentary insight into the darkness which underlies everything, which threatens all values.)

2. On another level, the way Adam reads about Flossie’s death in a newspaper epitomises the way all the characters read about their own lives in the press; their lives are mediated by the media, written up and dramatised like performances. They read out to each other the gossip column reports about their behaviour at the latest party like actors reading reviews of their performances, and then, in turn, give their opinions on the columnists/critics’s writing up, creating a closed circle of mutual admiration and/or criticism.

3. On another, more obviously comic, level, what you could call the PR level, Adam smiles quietly to himself at how well the owner of the Shepheard’s Hotel, Lottie Crump, handled the police and journalists who turned up to cover Flossie’s death, smooth-talking them, offering them all champagne, and so managing to steer them all away from the fact that the host of the party where the death occurred was a venerable American judge, Judge Skimp. His name has been very successfully kept out of the papers. Respect for Lottie.

Simon Balcairn’s suicide

Then there’s another death, much more elaborately explained and described. Simon, Earl of Balcairn, has his career as a leading gossip columnist (writing the ‘Chatterbox’ column in the Daily Excess) ruined after he is boycotted by Margot Metroland and blacklisted from the London society through whom he makes his living. He gets Adam to phone Margot and plead to be admitted to her latest party, one she is giving for the fashionable American evangelist, Mrs Ape, but she obstinately refuses. He even dresses up in disguise with a thick black beard and gatecrashes, but is detected and thrown out.

Convinced that his career, and so his life is over, Simon phones in one last great story to his newspaper, the Daily Excess, a completely fictitious account of Margot’s party in which he makes up uproarious scenes of half London’s high society falling to their knees amid paroxysms of religious guilt and renunciation (all completely fictitious) – then, for the first time completely happy with his work, lays down with his head in his gas oven, turns on the gas, inhales deeply, and dies. It is, and is meant to be, bleak.

This feel for the darkness which underlies the giddy social whirl, and the complicated psychological effect which is produced by cleverly counterpointing the two tones, becomes more evident in Waugh’s subsequent novels, Black Mischief (1932) and A Handful of Dust (1934). In this novel he describes it as

that black misanthropy…which waits alike on gossip writer and novelist…

And it appears more and more as the novel progresses, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam. Nina starts the novel as the model of a social butterfly, utterly empty-headed and optimistic. After she and Adam have a dirty night in Arundel i.e. sex i.e. she loses her virginity, she ceases being so much fun. She finds the parties less fun. She starts to squabble with Adam. About half way through the novel she is, uncoincidentally, the peg for an extended passage which sounds a note of disgust at the book’s own subject matter (which is where, incidentally, the title comes from):

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris–all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies…)

Waugh cannily sprinkles among the witty dialogue and endless parties a slowly mounting note of disgust and revulsion.

Comedy is adults behaving like children

From the moment of her deflowering Nina grows steadily more serious, almost depressed. You realise it’s because, in having sex, she’s become an adult. Things aren’t quite so much bright innocent fun any more. At which point I realised that the appeal of the Bright Young Things is, in part, because they behave like children, drunk and dancing and singing (OK, so the drinking is not exactly like young children) but at its core their behaviour is childish, persistently innocent and naive.

The Bright Young People came popping all together, out of some one’s electric brougham like a litter of pigs, and ran squealing up the steps.

Much comedy is based on adults behaving like children. It’s a very reliable way of getting a comic effect in all kinds of works and movies and TV shows. It occurs throughout this book. There’s a funny example when, at Margot Metroland’s party, the ageing ex-Prime Minister, Mr Outrage, gets caught up in the exposure of Simon Balcairn infiltrating the party in disguise but, because of the obscure way the thing is revealed with a variety of pseudonyms and disguises, the PM becomes increasingly confused, like a child among adults and he is reduced to childishly begging someone to explain to him what is going on. The comic effect is then extended when he is made to confess he experiences the same bewildering sense of being out of his depth even in his own cabinet meetings.

‘I simply do not understand what has happened…. Where are those detectives?… Will no one explain?… You treat me like a child,’ he said. It was all like one of those Cabinet meetings, when they all talked about something he didn’t understand and paid no attention to him.

Mr Chatterbox

Balcairn’s suicide creates a vacancy for a new ‘Mr Chatterbox’ and Adam happens to be dining in the same restaurant (Espinosa’s, the second-best restaurant in London) as the features editor of the Daily Excess, they get into conversation and so, with the casualness so typical of every aspect of these people’s lives, he is offered the job on the spot. ‘Ten pounds a week and expenses.’

Adam’s (brief) time as a gossip columnist turns into a comic tour de force. Just about everyone Simon mentioned in his last great fictitious account of Margot’s party (mentioned above) sues the Daily Excess (’62 writs for libel’!) with the result that the proprietor, Lord Monomark, draws up a list of them all and commands that none of them must ever, ever be mentioned in the paper again. This presents Adam with a potentially ruinous problem because the list includes ‘everyone who is anyone’ and so, on the face of it, makes his job as gossip columnist to London’s high society impossible.

He comes up with two solutions, the first fairly funny, the second one hilarious. The first one is to report the doings of C-listers, remote cousins and distant relatives of the great and good, who are often ailing and hard done by. The column’s readers:

learned of the engagement of the younger sister of the Bishop of Chertsey and of a dinner party given in Elm Park Gardens by the widow of a High Commissioner to some of the friends she had made in their colony. There were details of the blameless home life of women novelists, photographed with their spaniels before rose-covered cottages; stories of undergraduate ‘rags’ and regimental reunion dinners; anecdotes from Harley Street and the Inns of Court; snaps and snippets about cocktail parties given in basement flats by spotty announcers at the B.B.C., of tea dances in Gloucester Terrace and jokes made at High Table by dons.

This has the unexpected benefit of creating new fans of the column who identify with the ailments or  afflictions of these ‘resolute non-entities’.

The second and more radical solution is simply to make it up. Like a novelist, Adam creates a new set of entirely fictional high society characters. He invents an avant-garde sculptor called Provna, giving him such a convincing back story that actual works by Provna start to appear on the market, and go for good prices at auction. He invents a popular young attaché at the Italian Embassy called Count Cincinnati, a dab hand at the cello. He invents Captain Angus Stuart-Kerr the famous big game hunter and sensational ballroom dancer.

Immediately his great rival gossip columnist, Vanbrugh, starts featuring the same (utterly fictional characters) in his column, and then other characters begin to mention them in conversation (‘Saw old Stuart-Kerr at Margot’s the other day. Lovely chap’) and so on. This is funny because it indicates how people are so desperate to be in the swim and au courant that they will lie to themselves about who they’ve seen or talked to. It indicates the utter superficiality of the world they inhabit which can be interpreted, moralistically, as a bad thing; but can also be seen as a fun and creative thing: why not make up the society you live in, if the real world is one of poverty and war?

But Adam’s masterpiece is the divinely slim and attractive Mrs Imogen Quest, the acme of social desirability, to whom he attributes the height of social standing. She becomes so wildly popular that eventually the owner of the Daily Excess, Lord Monomark, sends down a message saying he would love to meet this paragon. At which point, in a mild panic, Adam quickly writes a column announcing the unfortunate news that Mrs Quest had sailed to Jamaica, date of return unknown.

You get the idea. Not rocket science, but genuinely funny, inventive, amusing.

Father Rothschild as moral centre

Adam and Nina are invited to a bright young party held in a dirigible i.e. airship.

On the same night their more staid parents, politicians and grandees attend a much more traditional party for the older generation at Anchorage House. The main feature of this is the Jesuit Father Rothschild sharing with Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland a surprisingly mild, insightful and sympathetic view of the behaviour of the young generation. They have come into a world robbed of its meaning by the war, a world where the old values have been undermined and destroyed and yet nothing new has replaced them. A decade of financial and political crises ending up in a great crash. No wonder they make a point of not caring about anything. Genuinely caring about someone or something only risks being hurt. Hence the vehemence of the display of aloofness, nonchalance, insouciance, darling this and divine that and frightfully the other, and refusing point blank to ever be serious about anything.

In fact, Father Rothschild is given an almost apocalyptic speech:

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’

And this was written a few years before Hitler even came to power. Everyone knew it. Everyone sensed it. The coming collapse. The bright young things are laughing in the dark.

A touch of Auden

W.H. Auden often gets the credit for introducing industrial landscapes and landscapes blighted by the Great Depression into 1930s poetry, but it’s interesting to notice Waugh doing it here in prose. In a plane flying to the South of France, Nina looks down through the window:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children.

One episode in the sad and dreary strand of English poetry and prose through the middle half of the twentieth century, E.M. Foster’s lament for the cancerous growth of London in the Edwardian era, D.H. Lawrence’s horrified descriptions of the mining country, John Betjeman’s comic disgust at light industrial towns like Slough, Philip Larkin’s sad descriptions of windswept shopping centres. But during the 1930s it had an extra, apocalyptic tone because of the sense of deep economic and social crisis.

Other scenes

The movie

Adam goes back to visit Nina’s father for a second time to try and borrow money, but is amazed to walk into the surreal scene of a historical drama being filmed at her father’s decaying country house (Doubting Hall, set in extensive grounds) by a dubious film company The Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain, run by an obvious shyster, a Mr Isaacs. (Worth noting, maybe, that Waugh has the leading lady of the movie, use what would nowadays be an unacceptable antisemitic epithet. Waugh himself has  some of his characters, on very rare occasions, disparage Jews, but then they disparage the middle classes, politicians, the authorities and lots of other groups. Their stock in trade is amused contempt for everyone not a member of their social circle. Waugh comes nowhere near the shocking antisemitism which blackens Saki’s short stories and novels.)

Isaac is such a shyster he offers to sell Adam the complete movie, all the rushes and part-edited work for a bargain £500. Adam recognises a crook when he sees one. But his prospective father-in-law doesn’t, and it’s a comic thread that, towards the end of the novel, old Colonel Blount has bought the stock off Isaacs and forces his reluctant neighbour, the Rector of his church, to stage an elaborate and disastrous showing of what is obviously a terrible film.

(It is maybe worth noting that Waugh had himself tried his hand at making a film, with some chums from Oxford soon after he left the university, in 1922. It was a version of The Scarlet Woman and shot partly in the gardens at Underhill, his parents’ house in Hampstead.)

The motor race and Agatha

Adam, Agatha Runcible, Miles Malpractice and Archie Schwert pile into Archie’s car for a long drive to some remote provincial town to watch a motorcar race which a friend of Miles’ is competing in. It’s mildly comic that all the good hotels are packed to overflowing so they end up staying in a very rough boarding house, sharing rooms with bed which are alive with fleas. Early next morning they do a bunk.

The car race is described at surprising length, with various comic details (in the pits Agatha keeps lighting up a cigarette, being told to put it out by a steward, and chucking it perilously close to the open cans of petrol; this is very cinematic in the style of Charlie Chaplin).

There is a supremely comic scene where Miles’s friend brings his car into the pits and goes off to see a medic – one of the competitors threw a spanner out his car which hit our driver in the arm. A race steward appears and asks if there’s a replacement driver for the car. Now, in order to smuggle his pals into the pits in the first place, Miles’ friend had handed them each a white armband with random job titles on, such as Mechanic. The one given to Agatha just happened to read SPARE DRIVER so now, drunk as a lord, she points to it and declares: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm.’ The race steward takes down her name and she drunkenly gets into the racing car (she’s never driven a car before) her friends ask if that’s quite wise, to drive plastered, but she replies: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm’ and roars off down the course.

There then follow a sequence of comic announcements over the race tannoy as it is announced that Miss Runcible’s car (‘No 13, the English Plunket-Bowse’) has a) finished one lap in record time b) been disqualified for the record as it is now known she veered off the road and took a short cut c) has left the race altogether, taking a left instead of a right turn at a hairpin corner and last seen shooting off across country.

Our three buddies repair to the drinks tent where they carry on getting drunk. When ‘the drunk major’ turns up, promising to pay Adam the £35,000 that he owes him thanks to the bet he promised to make on a racehorse, they each have a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Eventually it is reported that the car has been spotted in a large village fifteen miles away, town where it has crashed into the big stone market cross (‘ (doing irreparable damage to a monument already scheduled for preservation by the Office of Works)’).

Our threesome hire a taxi to take them there and witness the car wreck, mangled against the stone post and still smoking. Villagers report that a woman was seen exiting the car and stumbling towards the railway station. They make their way to the railway station and the ticket seller tells them he sold a ticket to London to a confused young woman.

(It may be worth noting that this entire chapter, with its extended and detailed description of competitive car racing, was almost certainly based on a real visit to a car race Waugh made, to support his pal David Plunket Greene. The real life race, which took place in 1929, is described, with evocative contemporary photos, in this excellent blog.)

Agatha’s end

To cut a long story short, after interruptions from other strands, we learn that Agatha sustained serious enough injuries in her car smash to be sent to hospital. But that’s not the worst of it. She had concussion and has periodic delusions, so she is referred on to ‘the Wimpole Street nursing home’. Here, in Waugh’s telegraphic style, we are given impressionistic snippets into her nightmares in which she is driving always faster, faster! and the comforting voice of her nurse trying to calm her as she injects her with a tranquiliser.

There’s a final scene in this strand where several of her pals pop round to visit her, bringing flowers but also a little drinky-wink, then some other appear and before you know it there’s a full scale party going on in her room, someone brings a gramophone, they all dance to the latest jazz tune. They even bribe the staid nurse with a few drinks and things are getting rowdy when, inevitably, the stern matron arrives and kicks them all out. Carry on Bright Young Things.

But, long story short, the excitement exacerbates Agatha’s shredded nerves and, towards the end of the narrative, we learn in a typically throwaway comment from one the characters, that Agatha died. Adam:

‘Did I tell you I went to Agatha’s funeral? There was practically no one there except the Chasms and some aunts. I went with Van, rather tight, and got stared at. I think they felt I was partly responsible for the accident…’

The fizzy bubbles mood of the opening half of the novel feels well and truly burst by this stage. Characters carry on partying and behaving like children but it feels like the moral and psychological wreckage is mounting up like a cliff teetering over them all.

Nina’s infidelities

The on again, off again relationship between Nina and Adam comes to a head when she declares she’s in love with a newcomer in their social circle, a man who speaks in even more outrageous posh boy phrases than anyone else. In fact, she casually informs Adam, she and Ginger got married this morning. Oh.

But this is where it gets interesting because Nina is such an airhead that she can’t really decide, she can’t make up her mind between Adam and Ginger. She goes off on a jolly honeymoon to the Med with him, but doesn’t like it one bit, he’s off playing golf most of the day. If you recall, Adam and Nina had had sex, at the hotel in Arundel, so there’s a more than emotional bond between them. Anyway, long and the short of it is she agrees to see him, to come and stay with him and, in effect, to start an affair with him as soon as she gets back to London.

It is all done for laughs but Waugh doesn’t need to draw the moral, to go on about psychological consequences, to editorialise or point out the moral implications for Nina and her set. All of this is conspicuous by its absence. It is left entirely to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Waugh’s text has the chrome-covered sleekness of an Art Deco statuette, slender, stylish, quick, slickly up to date.

He is the English F. Scott Fitzgerald, giving a highly stylised depiction of a generation in headlong pursuit of fun, drinks, drinks and more drinks, endless parties, with the shadow of the coming psychological crash looming closer and closer over his narratives.

The completely unexpected ending

The cinema show

Comedy of a sort continues up to the end, with the scene I mentioned before, of gaga old Colonel Blount, accompanied by Nina and Adam who are staying with him for Christmas, insisting on taking his cinematographic equipment round to the much put-upon local Rector, spending an age setting it up, and then blowing his entire household fuses in showing the terrible rubbish film which the director Isaacs has flogged to him.

It is a great comic scene if, to my mind, no longer as laugh out loud funny as the early scenes, because my imagination has been tainted by a silly death (Flossie), a suicide (Simon Balcairn), the nervous breakdown and death of pretty much the leading figure int he narrative (Agatha).

Anyway, after the power cut, the Colonel, Adam and Nina motor back to Doubting Hall for Christmas dinner and are in the middle of boozy toasts when the Rector phones them with the terrible news. War has broken out. War?

The last world war

In an extraordinary leap in subject matter and style, a startling break with everything which went before it, the very last scene discovers Adam, dressed as a soldier, amid a vast landscape of complete destruction, a barbed wire and mud nightmare derived from the grimmest accounts of the Great War and stretching for as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is the new war, the final war, the war Father Rothschild warned against, the war they all knew was coming and which, in a way, justified their heartless frivolity. Nothing matters. Jobs don’t matter, relationships don’t matter, sobriety or drunkenness, wild gambling, fidelity or infidelity, nothing matters, because they know in their guts that everything, everything, will be swept away.

Waugh’s humour continues till the end, but it is now a grim, bleak humour. For floundering across the mud landscape towards Adam comes a gas-masked figure. For a moment it looks as if they will attack each other, the unknown figure wielding a flame thrower, Adam reaching for one of the new Huxdane-Halley bomb (for the dissemination of leprosy germs) he keeps in his belt. God. Germ warfare. The utter ruined bottom of the pit of a bankrupt civilisation.

Only at the last minute do they realise they’re both British and then, when they take their masks off, Adam recognises the notorious Major, the elusive figure who took his money off him at Shepheard’s all those months (or is it years) ago, to bet on a horse, who he briefly met at the motor racing meet, and now gets talking to him, in that upper class way, as if nothing had happened at all.

‘You’re English, are you?’ he said. ‘Can’t see a thing. Broken my damned monocle.’

Now the Major invites him into the sanctuary of his ruined Daimler car, sunk past its axles in mud.

‘My car’s broken down somewhere over there. My driver went out to try and find someone to help and got lost, and I went out to look for him, and now I’ve lost the car too. Damn difficult country to find one’s way about in. No landmarks…’

It is the landscape of Samuel Beckett’s post-war plays, an unending landscape of utter devastation, dotted with wrecks of abandoned machinery and only a handful of survivors.

Once they’ve clambered into the car’s, the Major opens a bottle of champagne (what else?) and reveals a dishevelled girl wrapped in a great coat, ‘woebegone fragment of womanhood’. On closer examination this turns out to be one of Mrs Apes’ young girls, the laughably named Chastity. When quizzed, Chastity ends the narrative with a page-long account of her trials. It turns out that Margot Metroland did manage to persuade her to leave Mrs Ape’s religious troupe and go and work in one of her South American bordellos –so this fills in the details of the 3 or 4 girls we met during Decline and Fall who were being dispatched to the same fate.

Only with the outbreak of war, she returned to Europe and now presents in a breathless paragraph the story of her employment at a variety of brothels, being forced into service with a variety of conquering or retreating troops of all nations. The Major opens another bottle of champagne and starts chatting her up. Adam watches the girl start flirtatiously playing with his medals as he drifts into an exhausted sleep.

So, Waugh is pretty obviously saying, all of Western civilisation comes down to this: a shallow adulterer, a philandering old swindler, and a well-worn prostitute, holed up in a ruined car in a vast landscape of waste and destruction.

Aftershocks

Vile Bodies is marketed as a great comic novel and it is, and is often very funny, but as my summary suggests, it left me reeling and taking a while to absorb its psychological shocks. The deaths of Flossie, Simon and Agatha, and Nina’s slow metamorphosis into a thoughtless adulterer, all steadily darken the mood, but nothing whatsoever prepares you for the last chapter, which is surely one of the most apocalyptic scenes in the literary canon.

I had various conflicting responses to it, and still do, but the one I’m going to write down takes a negative view.

Possibly, when I was young and impressionable and first read this book, I took this devastating finale to be an indictment of the hollowness of the entire lifestyle depicted in the previous 200 pages. Subject to teenage moodswings which included the blackest despair, I took this extreme vision of the complete annihilation of western civilisation at face value and thought it was a fitting conclusion to a novel which, from one point of view, is ‘about’ the collapse of traditional values (restraint, dignity, sexual morality).

But I’m older now, and now I think it represents an artistic copout. It is so extreme that it ruins the relative lightness of the previous narrative. All the light touches which preceded it are swamped by this huge sea of mud.

And it’s disappointing in not being very clever. Up to this point any reader must be impressed, even if they don’t sympathise with the posh characters, by the style and wit with which Waugh writes, at the fecundity of his imagination, and the countless little imaginative touches and verbal precision with which he conveys his beautifully brittle scenarios.

And then this. Subtle it is not. It feels like a letdown, it feels like a copout. It’s not a clever way to end a noel which had, hitherto, impressed with its style and cleverness. It feels like a suburban, teenage Goth ending. It’s not much above the junior school essay level of writing ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’.

A more mature novel might have ended with the funeral of Agatha Runcible and recorded, in his precise, malicious way, the scattered conversations among the usual characters, momentarily brought down to earth and forced to confront real feelings, before swiftly offering each other and drink and popping the champagne. In this scenario the Major might have turned up as a fleeting character Adam still can’t get to meet, Nina unfaithful thoughts could have been skewered, Margot Metroland’s society dominance reasserted despite heartbreak over her dead daughter, Lord Monomark appointing yet another bright young thing as Mr Chatterbox, the ousted Prime Minister Mr Outrage still utterly confused by what’s going on, and maybe a last word given to sage and restrained Father Rothschild. That’s what I’d have preferred.

Instead Waugh chose to go full Apocalypse Now on the narrative and I think it was a mistake – an artistic error which became more evident as the years passed and the world headed into a second war, which he was to record much more chastely, precisely, and therefore more movingly, in the brilliant Sword of Honour trilogy.


Credit

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1930 by Chapman and Hall. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

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

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

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

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

A novel about a novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His beloved is so special

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Graham Greene paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the bourgeois novel

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

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

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

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two: Ireland and England

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

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

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

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

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

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

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

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

Dead prose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catastrophist

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

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

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

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The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher (1965)

Christopher Samuel Youd

John Christopher was just one of the half dozen noms de plume of Christopher Samuel Youd (1922 to 2012), who was a prolific English writer of science fiction novels for adults and children, as well as writing in other genres under his numerous other noms de plume, including several cricketing novels. In all Youd wrote a staggering 57 books. His breakthrough came with his second science fiction novel, The Death of Grass in 1956, after which he published two or three novels a year for decades.

Probably a) his sheer volume of output and b) the fact that he wrote under so many names and c) that he wrote both adult and teen fiction, explain why he never establishing a clear brand and became a ‘big name’, unlike his better-known drinking buddies at the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.

A Wrinkle In The Skin

A Wrinkle In The Skin was Youd’s ninth novel writing as John Christopher and follows the same narrative pattern as two of his most popular previous novels, 1956’s Death of Grass and 1962’s The World In Winter, in that he imagines a massive worldwide disaster and then works through its impact on a small group of middle-class English people.

The disaster in this case is an epidemic of earthquakes which ripple right round the planet, from New Zealand to California, China, Russia and Europe.

As in the other novels, the opening scenes depict some characteristically nice, middle-class characters enjoying a fine dinner washed down with classic wine and discussing the latest quakes which have been reported in some remote part of the world. Just as in The Death Of Grass, they think it could never happen here. One character describes the catastrophic quakes which have hit the Far East as like the small wrinkles on the skin of an orange, to which another character replies:

‘Well, as long as our bit of orange doesn’t wrinkle. It would be awful if it did.’
(Sylvia Carwardine, page 11)

Matthew Cotter

Notable among the middle-class characters is Matthew Cotter who grows tomatoes under greenhouses on Guernsey. Matthew used to be a journalist which explains his middle-class education and inquisitive and factual frame of mind. He is divorced from his wife, Felicity (page 13) and his grown-up daughter Jane has gone to study at university on the mainland.

Matthew’s friends, the Carwardines, are always trying to fix him up with eligible widows or divorcees, as, indeed, they do on the evening of the pleasant dinner party which opens the novel. At the end of the evening Matthew drives home and goes to bed in his comfortable tomato-grower’s farmhouse. In the middle of the night he’s woken by squawking from his chicken run and goes outside armed with his shotgun to frighten off the dog or fox or whatever is worrying his chickens.

He’s half way down the garden path when a massive earthquake strikes. More than one quake, it is a series of vast convulsions and the earth doesn’t just shift, it rises, buckles, shakes and throws him into the air and across the garden. He manages to brace himself in the structure of canes which support his tomatoes and is flexible enough, now, in the chaos of the endless quaking, to act as a kind of shock absorber. In the middle of yet another huge shock he is aware of a vast roaring sound nearby and assumes it is the blood in his ears or impending death.

Survivor

When he regains consciousness, Matthew is greeted with a scene of utter devastation. His house is a pile of rubble from which it is difficult to extract any of his former belongings. He sets off to find other survivors but for quite a while it seems as if there are none. The earth has been lifted and reshaped, familiar landmarks no longer exist and every human dwelling has been razed to the ground. He sees plenty of dead people mashed to bits in heaps of masonry before he discovers a donkey up at the old donkey sanctuary kept by Miss Lucie (page 24) which is still alive by virtue of having been flung into the branches of a tree. Lonely and stricken by sympathy for another living being, Matthew labours hard to rescue the donkey, before continuing his trek across the ruined landscape.

These first chapters establish the sense of utter ruination and Matthew’s complete isolation and loneliness as the scale of the disaster starts to sink in, as he wanders across the ruined landscape in search of survivors and finds only dead bodies mangled in destroyed buildings.

The English Channel has become a drained dry stretch of land

He comes to a clifftop and experiences one of the great shocks of the book – the English Channel has disappeared. That roar he heard amid the huge earth-shaking? The entire land level has been lifted and the sound he heard was a vast tsunami as all the water in the entire English Channel poured westward, decanting off the raised land and leaving the seabed high and dry in the daylight, a vast expanse of seaweed, sand and shingle and deep dark slime.

Billy Tullis aged 11

Still processing this stunning revelation, Matthew eventually hears a voice coming from a wrecked house and digs a boy out of rubble, going on to establish that his parents and sister have all been crushed to death. The boy tells him his name is Billy Tullis (page 34) and he will become Matthew’s inseparable companion until the end of the novel.

Billy has broken his arm. Matthew remembers enough from the army to set it and make splints from sections of wood he cuts from a tree and then ties to Billy’s arm with ripped fabric. He feeds and waters Billy, they reclaim such tinned food as they can find in ruined shops and houses, then make their way into open country and make the best shelter they can against the elements. This is the first of many, many, many descriptions of what it is like to sleep rough, in the open, in England, where it rains and the cold wind blows and the temperature drops at night.

Living through these bleak, shelterless experiences with the book’s characters makes you appreciate why civilisation arose in hot climates around the Mediterranean and what a lot of energy – coal, gas and oil – it takes to make our rainy windswept islands inhabitable.

St Peter Port has been utterly swept away by the tsunami

Next day Matthew takes them to St Peter Port hoping to find rich pickings for the foragers they have become but is staggered to discover that the entire town was washed away by the Channel tsunami. The land has been swept clean leaving roads going down into an empty canyon. He looks over what was once the sea and is now drying seabed, gazing out across the rocky outcrops of what were once the islands of Herm and Sark, while he tries to get his head round the scale of the destruction.

They meet a survivor, a man who has been utterly traumatised and quotes bits of the Bible because he sees the entire thing as a result of God’s anger. Initially heartened at finding another survivor, Matthew and Billy quickly want to get rid of him.

Joe Miller’s gang

Then they meet a small gang of survivors who quickly become the focus of this first part of the novel. Three females (mad Mother Lutron in her 60s, 20-something blonde slattern Shirley, and an 11 or so year old girl) and four men (Harry, de Porthos, Andy with a broken leg and ‘simple’ Ashton). This little band is led by Joe Miller (page 52).

Miller is educated up to a point. He’s smart enough to grasp the new situation, to have established himself as leader, he can see the need for planning. But Christopher carefully distinguishes Miller from Matthew –a very decent middle-class chap – by his accent, his selfishness and, above all, by his attitude towards women. Miller makes it crystal clear that the slatternly blonde young woman, Shirley, is his. Matthew says, fine, fine and finds himself being assimilated into the gang. Makes sense to stick together.

Over the next few days there is a lot more foraging and we get to know the other characters in Miller’s gang and to explore his hold over them. He treats the shambling men in his gang harshly, punching and kicking them if they fall short, and slaps Shirley if she doesn’t do what he says. But he is practical and clear-headed, he has a plan and clear priorities – create a new community, find as much food and drink as possible, establish a base and assert his unquestioned authority.

The reader is invited to assess, along with Matthew, whether Miller is a brute or a shrewd man who has fully grasped the nature of the new situation they’re all going to have to survive in.

They find a youngish woman in a wrecked building, screaming and dying in agony. They find some aspirin to grind up and feed her mixed into gin until she dies. They find another middle-aged man named Mullivant standing stupidly outside the utter wreckage of his house which contains the bodies of his wife and two children (page 58). In other words we meet a selection of the types of survivor you might expect from a disaster like this.

The dynamic between Miller and Matthew is explored. Miller immediately knows Matthew is intelligent and an asset to the group, is open to frank discussion with him but makes sure his say prevails. The two men have quiet conversations in the evenings about what must have happened on the mainland – if no rescue planes have flown over or helicopters come, it must mean it’s as bad there as here on Guernsey. Matthew realises Miller is being lining him up as his lieutenant and confidante, a role he is happy to acquiesce in, for the time being.

Irene and Hilda are added to Miller’s gang

They find a cow that needs to be milked. They realise the madman for St Peter Port is following them. They find two young women who had been sleeping in a basement flat. The women need digging out but are essentially alright. Matthew immediately sees that Irene will look very attractive once she’s cleaned up, and indeed she is.

Irene was a very good-looking girl…Shirley was a very ordinary little slut against either of them… (page 76)

This creates tensions immediately among the menfolk and it is fascinating to see this described through a 1960s mentality. Miller asks Irene to come with him for a chat – she refuses and so he asks Matthew to come along too – but his point is not to rape her (as, we discover later, many men have been simply raping the women they encounter), it is to discuss arrangements in the camp.

Basically, he tells Irene that he is going to tell the other men that she is now his woman. It doesn’t matter whether she is or not, but they must believe she is. This will make her off-limits and prevent competition over her developing into fights. This is what he’s worried about; that the group will be weakened if the men fall to fighting over the most attractive women. He explains all this to Irene and that it doesn’t mean she has to be ‘his woman’, but it will also offer her protection from unwanted attentions.

Matthew, as ever, is impressed by Miller’s shrewdness, but he also realises Irene is no pushover. She is educated and clever too. After pausing to consider it, Irene agrees. Miller is visibly relieved. He isn’t in control of the situation, but he is definitely the nearest thing the little gang have to a leader.

Five days after the quake the weather breaks and it starts to rain, giving us plentiful descriptions of how utterly miserable it is spending nights out in the cold and the wind and the rain. One night at the campfire a stranger appears. He is named Le Perré and has walked the nine miles across the ocean floor to Guernsey. Later Matthew takes him aside and asks him what the ocean floor is like to walk on. Patchy, is the answer, some sand, some shingle, some weeds, some gloopy mud. But he made it.

Throughout all the preceding passages Matthew has periodically thought of his daughter, Jane, at uni in Sussex, hoping longingly that she is alive. When he mentions his intention of walking across the sea floor to the mainland, Matty thinks he’s mad then becomes threatening. Their little band needs every good worker they can get. He refuses to let Matthew leave. From now onwards Matthew starts making a secret stash of provisions.

Walking across the dry seabed

A few days later Matthew is woken by one of the countless minor tremors and shocks they are continuing to experience, in the makeshift ‘tent’ he shares with Billy. He quickly dresses, slips on his shoes, takes his shotgun, takes his haversack and jerrycan filled with water and slips out of the base.

He makes his way to the coastal cliffs and by slippery paths down to the beach and across and out into what used to be the English Channel. Thus begins his surreal journey across the dry seabed. As the sun comes up and he sees the wide dry ocean floor stretching out in all directions, he discovers the worst enemy is anxiety, his sense of nagging unease, as if this is so against nature, so unnatural. His unconscious expects the sea to come rushing back at any moment.

Thus it’s a relief when Matthew hears a voice calling and returns its calls. It takes a while for him to realise that it’s Billy. His departure had woken Billy who watched him leave, then slipped into his own shoes and clothes and has followed him. Matthew knows the future can only hold uncertainty and danger and tries his best to send Billy back. But Billy was rescued, had his arm set in a splint, and fed by Matthew. He is now, in effect, his father.

Alderney is riven in two

Matthew navigates by the sun to guide them towards Alderney, hoping there might be food, a spring of freshwater and even survivors. But as it comes into view he and Billy see it has been struck by an even more severe calamity – the entire island has been lifted up and split in two, is now divided by an immense fissure starting in the ocean floor and quite splitting the island in half.

The container ship with the mad captain

Matthew knows he ought to take Billy back to the safety of Miller and the little community on Guernsey but he is driven on by his obsession with finding his daughter. After spending the night near ruined Alderney they head off north again. They see shipwrecks on the ocean floor, maybe Elizabethan galleons.

Then they are stupefied to come across a vast modern container ship, which somehow got stuck in the V of some reefs and so is sitting on the ocean bed completely upright. Mystifyingly there is a rope ladder down from the deck near the control tower. They climb it and discover the ship is in excellent condition throughout. They are staggered to find the corridors and cabins are fully lit and then discover the kitchen, which contains fresh bread and working fridges and freezers packed with food, and set about gorging themselves.

They are interrupted by a ‘short, fat, swarthy man’ in a gold-braided peak cap who introduces himself as Captain Skiopos (page 116). Skiopos is hospitality itself, forcing more food and drink on them, giving them a tour of the entire ship and explaining how it was his first command. Slowly they realise he is deranged. Every day he gets up early, shaves and dresses, makes all the beds, scrubs the floor in the kitchen and keeps the ship shipshape. When Matthew points out that eventually the oil will run out and the generator will stop working, Skiopos blinks and shakes his head to shake away the thought. ‘Nothing to worry about, everything will be fine,’ he insists.

They are astonished to discover the ship has its own private projection room, in effect a cinema, but disconcerted when Skiopos insists on playing a succession of films regardless of our guys’ protests that they’re exhausted, and by the way the captain talks to the figures upon the screen.

Next morning Skiopos is a different man, uncommunicative, in fact he ignores them as they go about making breakfast. Billy is scared but Matthew realises he is what he defines as a ‘psychotic’. Our guys select food from the fridge (half a roast chicken etc) load it into their bags, along with drinks and exit the crew area and walk across the deck to the rope ladder.

They are disconcerted when they see Skiopos approaching it, still ignoring them. Matthew makes the big, big mistake of volunteering to tell the captain that they are taking some of his food, he hopes he doesn’t mind. Oh but he does. The captain flies into an insensate rage and insists they give it all back which Matthew, reluctantly does. Once satisfied Skiopos bundles up the chicken etc, ignores our guys and walks back towards the bridge.

Keen to get away, Matthew bundles Billy over the bulwark, down the rope ladder, onto to the ocean floor and away.

Arriving in ruined England

Four days later they sight the coast of England. Matthew figures they are where Bournemouth should be but the entire town was scoured and washed away by the Channel tsunami leaving blank rocks and mudslides. On the ocean floor they come across all kinds of seaside wreckage. They clamber ashore into ‘a wrecked and meaningless world’ (page 136). Rubble and wreckage everywhere. They find some abandoned fires, realise most of the buildings have been foraged already, so there are at least some survivors.

One misty morning they see New Forest ponies loom out of the mist. They spot two women who turn and flee when they shout to them. They carry on along a road Matthew thinks is the A31.

Lawrence and April’s group

A little later they see a different kind of woman, calm, stationary, self-possessed watching them. As with Irene and Hilda, Matthew’s first reaction is to her physical attractiveness.

She was in her middle thirties, he judged, of medium height and with a good figure… [in her face] intelligence and courage but not beauty. (page 143)

She introduces herself as April and is astonished and angry when Matthew tells her they’ve come from the Channel Islands. Quite quickly she makes clear that life on the mainland is much more dangerous. She is acting as lookout to her group who she now takes them to. This consists of Lawrence, a 50-something doctor, George, Archie and Charlie, a young girl Cathie, and Sybil. Matthew/the narrator assess Sybil in the sexualised way we’ve come to expect:

Sybil was about twenty-eight, a cowed-looking, not very attractive girl, hiding a thin figure under badly fitting blue overall trousers… (page 145)

Several things emerge. April used to live in the big house whose ruined garden the group now use as a base. Her husband and two children were killed in the quake. She dug them out and buried them herself. She is tough. She encountered Lawrence who was the local doctor and who, having grasped the scale of the apocalypse, was on the verge of killing himself with an overdose when he heard her calling. He is kindly, intelligent and weak. These are the two representatives of the ‘educated’ class; the others are working class (page 148).

April and Lawrence tell Matthew that the countryside is overrun with what they call the ‘yobbos’, the uneducated, chavs, gangs who steal whatever April’s group have foraged and found. Don’t kill them or hurt them, just steal everything. Hence April standing as lookout. They take Matthew and Billy back to their base.

Here Lawrence expounds on the kind of neat little theory the educated like to come up with, which he has called the Anthill Syndrome (page 153). This is that, if you disturb or destroy an anthill up to a certain point, the ants will rally round their queen and rebuild it, no matter what it takes. But if the destruction goes beyond a certain threshold the ants will descend into chaos, running round with no plan or goals, attacking each other and undermining the colony’s very survival.

At their ‘base’ – April’s ruined house with its formal gardens, vegetable garden and fields – they show Matthew the secret stash they’ve created in a cellar whose entrance they carefully cover with a huge heavy table and then wreckage. It contains not only the usual tins but such medicines as Lawrence has salvaged and some bottles of fine wine and brandy. They tell him they’ve spotted a bull, which would make an excellent meal. Matthew has his gun.

Next morning Matthew goes to wash at the nearby stream they’ve shown him and comes across April naked from the waist up (pages 162 to 163). He had noticed the shapeliness of her body from the first moment. Now his mouth dries out with desire. Not just that. Beauty. He’s forgotten what beauty was like in a world of ugliness and death. Eventually she notices him but doesn’t mind. Unashamedly towels herself down and walks over to talk with him.

Later that morning all the men bar Ashton set out on the bullock hunt. They succeed in cornering the bull and Matthew shoots it, blasting away half the animal’s face. Disgusted, he goes away while the others saw up the body. But on returning to the base they hear cries and screams. Sneaking up carefully they discover their base has been discovered by a small group of five yobbos, who have tied Archie up, pulled down his trousers and are torturing him with a wax taper. Those were the screams. They are torturing him to find out where the group’s stash is.

Blinded by anger Matthew leaps out from the bushes where he’d been hiding and blasts a shot at the two men holding Archie, which appears to catch both of them, and turns to get the apparent leader of the group, a tall, strong, bronzed, blonde man who makes a lunge at him but Matthew shoots him at virtually point blank range, obliterating his chest and face.

Two of the five have scarpered. Now April goes up to the other two wounded men and tells them to hop it. When they don’t she hits one with the shotgun butt and kicks the other viciously. They limp off bleeding, probably to die.

Matthew twisted his ankle turning to shoot at the leader of the yobbos. Now April bandages it calmly and professionally. She says she is proud of him. Matthew finds his heart bursting with desire and love. The others tend to poor sobbing Archie, then build a fire and begin to cook the hand-carved steaks. Billy asks Matthew if they can stay. He likes Cathie and Lawrence has promised to show him how to be a doctor. Remember Billy is only 11.

The group discuss plans.

  1. April says the yobbos had tortured Archie because they couldn’t believe they didn’t have a stash. Therefore what they should do is create a diversionary stash which they can admit to under duress and so satisfy the next band of yobbos.
  2. The shotgun cartridges will run out. Matthew notices some lengths of steel in the cellar. He speculates that they could try making bows and arrows.
  3. Most momentously, he, April and Lawrence discuss heading for the hills. It’ll be easier to create a fortified encampment, maybe farm animals have survived in the hills, it’ll be easier to pen and farm them.

Rape and rapists

Next day, with lookouts posted and no immediate threat, Matthew goes strolling and comes across April in the grounds of her ruined house. They walk across fields to an old oak tree. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, she tells him her boys used to love climbing this old oak tree. He feels very close to her and heavy with love/lust/emotion. She puts her hand on his sleeve, he thinks he’s going to explode with desire.

However, this idyllic lovers’ walk takes a disastrous turn for the worse when they start talking about the incursion of the yobbos the day before and Matthew lets slips remarks which imply he’s relieved that nothing worse happened to the women in the group i.e. April herself, Sybil and young Cathy.

April withdraws her hand and is disbelieving, then angry. Is he so thick that he doesn’t realise that she was raped, her three times, and Sybil twice, before the menfolk arrived back. And that she has been raped again and again by gangs of yobbos since the catastrophe, and that even 11-year-old Cathy has been raped? Didn’t he realise that’s why she kicked and hit the wounded men? Because they raped her!

Matthew’s face reveals his horror and also, despite himself, his disgust, so she goes on to tell him about the man who spat in her face while he was still ‘inside’ her. How Lawrence comforted her after the first time it happened but, more practically, inserted ‘coils’ into the three women to prevent them getting pregnant, though she wonders if any of them have contracted venereal disease. And then Lawrence so obviously, pitifully wanted to have comfort sex that she let him sleep with her. And Charley too, the young man in the group.

Now it all comes tumbling out, her contempt for men, her cold fury, her disgust… and her disgust with him (pages 192 ff.)

‘Sex and motherhood are the centres of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear. (page 195)

The conversation has wandered right out of control and now she says she doesn’t want him to stay. If he wants to pursue his stupid, foolish fantasy quest to look for his daughter Jane, then by all means go. If he doesn’t leave, she’ll have to, he has reminded her too much of everything she lost.

It’s a brilliant passage, the reader had been lulled into the false sense of security just like Matthew, so April’s revelations are genuinely shocking. But also the way their lovers’ walk is so close to falling in love and then he wrecks it beyond repair by a small remark which reveals the gulf in understanding which separates them. Christopher’s books are problematic in many ways but he has this knack for getting inside (middle class) relationship, as witness the lengthy description of the middle class affairs which open The World In Winter.

Quest for Jane

And so Matthew and Billy load up with provisions and water and embark on the next stage of their quest, heading East along the coast to find Matthew’s daughter. There follows a long, gruelling description of their horrible trek along the ruined coast, past what used to be Portsmouth, amid ruins and detritus. At one point a man waves at them from the shore and comes bounding towards them, turning out to be a harmless religious nut who is convinced the disaster is the work of God and quotes liberally from the Bible but is genuinely kindly, takes them back to the shack he’s built, gives them hot food and shelter for the night.

After this pleasant interlude they struggle on to the East. They pass the ruins of what Matthew thinks must have been Littlehampton. Here, for a moment the narrative becomes Ballardian. They see a sports car standing upright, its bonnet gripped in the earth which had opened and clasped it, with the skeletons of two bright young things rotting in it. At the same time Christopher was writing his apocalypse novels i.e. the start of the 1960s, so was J.G. Ballard. Suffice to say the reason Ballard’s are known and Christophers’ a lot less so is because:

  1. Ballard’s books convey the real psychological damage the collapse of civilisation would cause in a brilliant and completely original way, illuminated by countless weird and disorientating tableaux.
  2. Line for line, as a writer, Ballard’s sentences are full of vivid and exciting analogies, similes and metaphors; reading them is like taking acid – Christopher’s scenarios and sights are often vivid and shocking but the prose he describes them in is very workaday and practical.

The trek goes on for days. Billy falls ill with a fever, which gets steadily worse. He goes off his food. He has feverish dreams. Matthew feels guilty for taking him away from the safety of Guernsey, or Lawrence’s happy group. He imagines he can hear April’s voice accusing him of stupid, vainglorious fantasies of finding his daughter. Billy gets more and more ill but doggedly insists on going on. They advance up a long, long, long slope towards the horizon. As they finally get to the top, expecting to look out over the Sussex landscape Matthew is stunned to find himself looking out over… the sea! So this is where the sea went. The south-east of England has sunk deep enough to drain the English Channel and create a new sea. It is all under water. Nothing could have survived.

And at this moment he hears April’s voice in his head accusing him of obsession in following his fantasy of a Happy Ending.In his feverish mind they argue. Matthew says April had the chance to bury her dead, but he hasn’t. He had to do everything he could to find her. But now the scales have fallen from his eyes. It is over.

He looked, and knew himself, and understood… He had taken his fantasy to the bitter end and seen it drown… (page 215)

The journey back

So they turn right round and go back. Billy is very ill, Matthew begins to think he’ll die. There’s no medicines and no shelter. Sometimes they sleep in blankets in the pelting rain. Matthew beds Billy down in a hay barn and goes to pick some half-ripe potatoes but when he gets back a gang of foragers have found Billy and his haversack. Matthew makes up a story on the spot about having a plague which has killed off two of their companions, but the tall Northerner leading the gang takes Matthew’s much-travelled shotgun and delivers Matthew a mighty punch into the bargain.

Matthew keeps Billy’s spirits up by telling him they’ll find the religious man with the shack around Portsmouth and then press on to reunite with Lawrence and his people and go to the hills with them. But when he finally rounds some rocks and looks for the religious man’s hut, he sees at a glance that it’s been burned down. It starts to rain and Matthew tries to make Billy comfortable in the remains of the burned and vandalised hut. He goes foraging inland and discovers the preacher man’s body. Looks like he threw himself at one of the foragers and had managed to strangle him before he was himself pole-axed by an axe (page 228).

Lawrence and April have gone

Matthew is beyond desolate now. Everything is destroyed, everyone is dying. He makes a kind of rack and straps Billy’s wasted feverish body to it and then staggers on westwards. If only he can make it back to Lawrence. Half deliriously he has conversations in his mind with April, saying he has learned his lesson, and he wants to learn more from her. His progress becomes ever more painful and slow. They cease for the night and rest in a ditch in the seabed. It rains. Billy moans and fevers. Matthew is overcome by a vast sense of loneliness and failure (page 231).

Next day he staggers on bearing the rack with Billy’s wasted body tied to it. They encounter a small group who see how wasted he is and simply ignore him, laughing at his request for condensed milk for Billy. Finally, he reaches the main road he stumbled along all those weeks before and then the mound where he first saw April, staggers through the woods and comes to the stream where he saw April bathing and then on to the wrecked house where they’d made their base.

They’re not there. No sign of April, Lawrence, Cathy, Archy et al. Silence. He tries to keep Billy’s fever down with stream water and tells him the others will soon be back. He visits the graves in the rose garden which April dug for her husband and sons and notices someone has carefully placed a rose on each one.

After an enormous effort Matthew manages to budge the huge oak dining table just enough to squeeze down into the cellar where, once his eyes become accustomed… He realises they’ve taken everything practical and portable. They’ve gone to the hills as they had discussed. He will never find them. He is doomed.

He tends to Billy who is having fever dreams all the time. He gives him aspirin crushed into milk, then later in the night Billy fights hard to get up and escape. Matthew knows he’s dying now. He cuddles the skinny, feverish boy to him for warmth and falls asleep under a ragged blanket. The reader is convinced he will die, too. Where else can it go?

When he wakes the next morning Billy is quite still and Matthew is convinced he’s dead. But he touches his pale gaunt skin and discovers he isn’t. He wakes up and talks rationally. The fever has broken and he is well. He can’t remember how he got here or any of the nightmare journey. Matthew explains the others must have headed for the hills and greater safety. He starts to prepare, resting up, eating properly, sheltering them both from the rain, gathering supplies. He tries grinding the steel rods to make arrows but gives up. He loads the rucksack with provisions.

He walks the route he took with April what seems like months earlier and hears her voice mocking him. She says his plan to head for ‘the hills’ in order to find her and Lawrence is yet another quixotic fantasy. How much longer will he drag poor Billy round with him? Till they both drop dead?

Next morning they wake and Billy asks if it’s the day they’re going to set off for the hills. No, Matthew says. They are going back to Guernsey. It will be safe. He realises now he should never have left.

Back to the Channel and a happy discovery

The last chapter cuts to them walking across the dry channel seabed. They are both much rested and recovered, Matthew had time to repair their shoes and find new clothes. They skirt the vast container ship and wonder what’s become of Captain Skiopos. They won’t head for Alderney, knowing it is ruined. They make camp for the night and Matthew holds the boy in his arms. He hears April’s voice in his head but no longer mocking him. She is distant. Her and his hopes for them are in the past. Miller will be pleased to see him back and to hear news of how lucky they are to be on Guernsey.

Next morning it is thick fog. Matthew gets Billy to climb to the top of some reefs. From there he thinks he sees water, a lot of water. For a moment I thought the sea was slowly returning. But they’ve come a different route from their outward passage and so have discovered a large salty lake. It’s three quarters of a mile across, too far to swim, and they and the food and blankets would get wet, anyway, so they have to go round it.

It is a long detour, maybe ten miles before they reach the head of the lake and round it to resume their trudge south. And there to their utter amazement, they hear a familiar voice and come across Archie, Archie from the Lawrence-April group, happily fishing. In his simple-minded way Archie tells them the group decided against the hills and, inspired by Matthew’s tales of the security of Guernsey, had set out for the islands themselves.

They had come to Alderney and, Archie tells them, the island has chickens, there are fish down in this small sea, there are no yobbos, they are enjoying a healthy diet. Matthew can’t express what he is feeling, after all this time, after the agonised imaginary relationship with April. And now here she is, along with the gentle old doctor. ‘Reckon they’ll be glad to see you,’ says Archie. Not as glad as Matthew will be to see them.

And so, after 250 gruelling pages, feeling thoroughly exhausted by the relentless physical assault of the elements, the starving, the violence and the emotional extremes, with the rest of the world in ruins, somehow, the book manages to have a happy ending.


Themes

Obviously the over-riding theme is what happens when civilised society is completely destroyed and a handful of survivors are thrown back on their own resources – which is that they resort to Dark Age barbarism, only with tinned food and shotguns. But within the overarching idea, several other themes stood out for me.

Class

One was how very clear the narrator is about the distinction between ‘the educated’ and ‘the yobbos’.

The educated, such as Lawrence the doctor, can immediately be recognised by their accent (their ‘recognition of someone who talks the same language’, page 157), and will invariably be polite, well mannered, cultured, curious and respectful.

The yobbos, on the other hand, can be expected to be stupid (although often characterised by low cunning), violent to women (key sign of yobbishness) and often rapists. The educated talk, like talking, enjoy conversation, have lots of ideas and perceptions to talk about. The yobbos look after number one, constantly tell people to shut up and obey their peremptory orders. They live in their bodies, enjoying eating, getting drunk, sex and demonstrating their violent prowess.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, you wonder how much English society, deep down, has changed from this bleak duality.

Gender

Inevitably, most of the women are converted by the collapse of civilised society into sex objects and breeders. This is how Miller regards every fertile woman who joins his band, although he at least has a plan, namely to father a new generation, which entails protecting women for their function as mothers. Pure ‘yobbos’, in line with their lack of long-term thinking and slaves to immediate physical appetites, just rape women and abandon them. This may be objectionable to most female readers, but appears to reflect the real world. As soon as war breaks out anywhere and social norms are abandoned, rape becomes common. It appears to be the basic state of Homo sapiens unless moderated by social forces, conventions and authority.

Anyway, the narrating voice uncomfortably reinforces this objectifying tendency by assessing every new female character by their attractiveness. After a while I found this a bit creepy and oppressive. Shirley, Miller’s initial girlfriend, is referred to not only by Miller but by Matthew and the narrator as a ‘slut’, content ‘in her sluttish way’, and so on and so on.

But, to balance this, it also needs to be emphasised that Christopher goes out of his way create strong female characters. Quite quickly Irene steps up to become Miller’s number two, asserting her authority without really having to, and cows Miller himself. Just as April emerges as a very strong, tough-minded woman who has survived the death of the rest of her family and repeated rapes to become an unillusioned survivor, stronger than Lawrence.

The difference between John Wyndham and John Christopher

They were friends and colleagues and both wrote apocalypse, end-of-the-world science fiction stories but their works leave a very different taste in the mouth. Basically, Christopher’s books are a lot more cynical and violent, and feature really gruelling physical trials.

I’m very influenced by reading Amy Binns’s excellent 2019 biography of John Wyndham in which she brings out the way the succession of shrewd, clever, resourceful, strong women in his novels and stories are all versions of his lifelong beloved, Oxford graduate, teacher and left-wing activist, Grace Wilson. Having read that biography I understand better why Wyndham’s novels, even at their bleakest, are nonetheless anchored or underpinned by a fundamental sense of decency. The male narrators or protagonists ultimately feel safe because there is a strong woman sharing their ordeals. This contributes to the strange sense of comfort or reassurance they have, even in the bleakest moments.

Whereas in Christopher’s novels, although there are strong female characters (Carol in World In Winter, April in Wrinkle) the relations of men and women are much more troubled. Couples get divorced, fall in love but then break up, argue, realise they are incompatible. This leaves them feeling profoundly alone and isolated. Characters in a Christopher novel fall more easily into utter despair than in any Wyndham novel, as Andrew Leedon finds himself weeping uncontrollably on a Nigerian beach for the world he has lost in World In Winter and Matthew at several points feel overwhelmed with utter despair and ‘hopeless misery’ (page 99).

He was conscious only of their wretchedness, their vulnerability. (page 108)

And the reader experiences that despair for themselves. I think it’s this much harsher emotional climate of Christopher’s novels which makes them a much grittier, often more unpleasant read, than Wyndham’s.

Triffids is easily Wyndham’s bleakest novel but even there, by a quarter of the way through the story, the protagonist has met the lovely Josella who becomes his lover, his friend and support, offering the male protagonist (and the reader) a sense of feminine consolation. And Wyndham’s other three big novels all have strong women underpinning and supporting the male protagonist (Phyllis in Kraken, Rosalind in Chrysalids, the narrator’s wife Janet and Ferrelyn Zellaby in Midwich Cuckoos). What makes Wyndham’s apocalypse novels ‘cosy’ is the warm emotional climate which suffuses them; even at their most scary and bleak there is always a strong woman there, or in the protagonist’s thoughts, to help and support him (and, by extension, the reader).

There isn’t in Christopher’s novels. There are just as many female protagonists but they are, themselves, as imperilled, as compromised, as lost, as the male leads, which contributes to his novels’ sense of cold, gritty, unforgiving brutality. Maybe this is one reason for Christopher’s lack of popularity and relative obscurity.


Credit

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965. All references are to the 2000 First Cosmos paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

‘I say, sir, this is a bit of a facer, isn’t it?’ said Alan
‘I’m afraid it is,’ Zellaby agreed.
(The Midwich Cuckoos page 80)

John Wyndham’s husband-and-wife teams

The Midwich Cuckoos opens as if it’s going to be another husband-and-wife story, much like The Kraken Wakes. Having read the 15 short stories in Jizzle I can now see that Wyndham is, by inclination, a whimsical and humorous writer. He slips into a homely, drawing room style whenever he writes about nice middle-class couples, in which the woman is invariably the stronger, more determined one and the slightly-henpecked, narrating husband wryly acknowledges her superior qualities. The entire attitude is epitomised in one of many similar exchanges from Kraken:

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

Like Kraken (whose couple are named Mike and Phyllis), Midwich (couple named Richard and Janet) is littered with throwaway jests about this or that aspect of married life, along with sardonic jokes about his or her jobs, stereotyped social attitudes to marriage, pregnancy and so on.

A village story

That said, after the opening scenes, Midwich Cuckoos quite quickly opens up to cover a far larger canvas than just a husband and wife. Indeed Richard and Janet disappear from the text for long stretches, as it focuses more on the household who live at Kyle Manor, namely the thoughtful but long-winded old author, Gordon Zellaby, his (second) wife, Jennifer, their fragrantly pukkadaughter Ferrelyn, and her fiancé, dashing Second-Lieutenant Alan Hughes, currently serving in the army.

But it’s more than just these half dozen upper-middle-class types; the novel opens out to also include a large cast of characters and to give a kind of intimate portrait of an English village in the mid-1950s. Thus there are quite large speaking parts for the vicar and his wife, the village doctor and his wife, the landlord of the village pub (The Scythe and Stone), the village baker, half a dozen labourer families, and various pretty village girls and their sweethearts, not forgetting the striking inclusion of a pair of village lesbians, Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb.

Cast list

One aspect of the large cast of characters is the sense the novel gives you of the gentle but persistent class divide between the (presumably privately) educated, upper-middle-class types (the Gayfords and the Zellabies), the middle-to-lower-middle class professionals who service them and the community (vicar, doctor, police chief, fire chief) and ‘the rest’, the ruck of villagers and rustics, ranging from small shopkeepers (pub landlord, baker, grocer), local farmers down to the manual labourers and their harassed wives, with a floating population of pretty young things who are no better than they should be.

The Posh

  • Gordon Zellaby, who Janet jokingly refers to as ‘the sage of Midwich’ (p.101), working away on his latest book, facetiously referred to as the ‘Current Work, lives at spacious Kyle Manor with his second wife, Jennifer
  • their posh daughter Ferrelyn
  • her fiancé Lieutenant Alan Hughes
  • the initial narrator, writer Richard Gayford and his wife Janet
  • Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research Station located in the Grange (p.52)
  • Tilly Foresham, jodhpurs and three dogs

It’s worth noting that the Zellabies employ a cook and maybe other domestic staff, as breakfast, luncheon, tiffin, dinner and late supper all appear as if by magic, prepared by unseen, unnamed hands.

The admin class

  • the Reverend Hubert Leebody, the vicar (p.91) and his wife, Dora Leebody (who has a breakdown and is sent away to a rest home)
  • Miss Polly Rushton, their pretty young niece
  • Dr Charley Willers and his wife, Milly (p.89)
  • Nurse Daniels

The lower-middle class

  • Miss Ogle, an elderly gossip who runs the village post office and telephone exchange
  • Mr Tapper, the retired gardener
  • Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb the village lesbians (pp.82)
  • Wilfred Williams, landlord of the Scythe and Stone
  • Harriman the baker

The working classes

  • Mr Brant the blacksmith and his wife
  • Alfred Wait
  • Harry Crankhart
  • Arthur Flagg labourer
  • Tom Dorry, rating in the Navy
  • Mr Histon

As we hear more about all these figures and are given little vignettes about them, the village comes to seem more like an Ealing Comedy than a disaster movie. There are quite a few bits of dialogue which come straight from the lips of pukka chaps in 1950s movies (‘I say, I’ll have to step on it. See you tomorrow, darling’) or you can imagine being voiced by Joyce Grenfell in one of the original St Trinian’s movies (which appeared over exactly the same period as Wyndham’s novels):

  • The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
  • Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
  • The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)

There are two schools of thought about this aspect of Wyndham. One is the well-known Brian Aldiss criticism that his novels portray all-too ‘cosy catastrophes’ in which decent middle-class types respond with improbable decency and moral rectitude to global catastrophes, never going to pieces or being corrupted. There’s a lot of truth in this rather brusque putdown.

But there’s the equal and opposite interpretation, that the catastrophes he describes are made all the more realistic and scarey for not having technicolor special effects and not having characters go into psychotic states as per J.G. Ballard’s stories, but remain stiff upper lip, pukka Brits in the face of complete social collapse (Triffids and Kraken in particular). Having met so many public school types, now, I’m inclined to think most of them would survive a world apocalypse very well, and put their experience of the officer training corps, running big organisations, and huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ to very effective use in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Either way, The Midwich Cuckoos is obviously a science fiction yarn, but it’s useful to flag up the way it is also a fascinating piece of 1950s social history.

Wyndham’s fateful nights

Of Wyndham’s four Big Novels, three start with ‘fateful nights’ when the world changes forever!

In Day of the Triffids, it’s the night of Tuesday 7 May when the whole world watches the spectacular meteor shower and, as a result, goes blind.

In The Kraken Wakes, it’s 11.15pm on the night of 15 July when Mike and Phyllis, on a honeymoon cruise, see the first fireballs fall into the sea.

And in The Midwich Cuckoos the narrator and his wife are up in London celebrating him having signed a contract with an American publisher, which means they’re not present in the nondescript, quiet little village on the fateful night of 26 September!

(Actually, once you realise that The Chrysalids is set in the aftermath of a calamitous nuclear war, you realise it’s likely that that, too, took place on a specific day, maybe night, although, centuries later no-one has any way of knowing when.)

Brief plot summary

The Midwich Cuckkos is 220 pages long in the old Penguin classic edition I own, a comfy, sensible length for an adventure novel. The text is in 21 chapters divided into 2 parts, 15 in the long part one, five in the short part two.

The story is fairly well known, not least from the terrifying 1960 movie adaptation, Village of the Damned, so successful at the box office that it prompted a sequel.

During the ‘fateful night’ of 26 September all the occupants of the village of Midwich pass out. Everyone trying to enter a perfectly circular radius around the village also passes out, presumably due to what used to be called a ‘force field’. The authorities get wind of it and the village is sealed off. 24 hours later the mystery condition disappears and everything returns to normal. Except that, a few months later, all the women of childbearing age report that they are pregnant (which causes difficulty among couples who have stopped having sex, or for single women).

Nine months later the pregnant women all give birth. Their babies are all perfectly healthy but, as they develop, have an eerie similarity of appearance, with platinum blonde hair and piercing golden eyes. The inhabitants knew something strange has happened, and realise the children aren’t natural. And as they grow it becomes clear that the Children can impose their wishes on their parents through some form of telepathy or mental control, which is eerie enough. But it’s only towards the end of the story that one of the leading figures, retired author Gordon Zellaby, comes to appreciate just how much of a threat they pose to all human life, and decides to take drastic action.

Detailed plot summary

Chapter 1 No entry to Midwich

Sets the scene, describes Midwich in the county of ‘Winshire’ (p.34) as an average English village with a handful of the usual historical episodes, including the dissolution of the local monastery, Cromwell’s men stopping over en route to some battle, a notorious 18th century highwayman, and so on.

The initial narrator of the story, author Richard Gayford, has lived in the village for just over a year (p.11) with his wife Janet. They are out of the village, up in London celebrating him signing a contract with American publishers on ‘the fateful night’ of 26 September.

On returning they find the village sealed off by the Army. Being naughty, they drive away from the roadblock but then double back, park at the entrance to a field and try to cut across fields to their cottage. Janet is making her way across a field when she suddenly drops to the ground unconscious. Richard runs forward and similarly blacks out.

Chapter 2 All quiet in Midwich

Quick overview of the village and what all its characters were up to on ‘the fateful night’ i.e. bickering in the pub, listening to the radio, trying to get a new-fangled television set to work, on the phone to a friend in London, relaxing in front of a nice roaring fire.

Chapter 3 Midwich rests

Briefly describes how a succession of early morning visitors to the village disappear, are heard from no more, including the baker’s van, local bus, an ambulance sent to find out what’s going on, a fire engine which goes to investigate reports of smoke, and so on.

Chapter 4 Operation Midwich

The army gets involved. Lieutenant Hughes finds himself consulting with the chiefs of the local fire brigade and police who are establishing a cordon round the village. Alan has the bright idea of getting a soldier to drive off to find a pet shop and requisition a canary in a cage which they can tentatively push forward into the ‘zone’ to see if it collapses. Then another soldier paints a white line on the ground and another indicates the perimeter on a map.

Richard and Janet are dragged by soldiers using a long hook a few yards from where they’re lying prone to just outside the ‘zone’ and immediately wake up and feel fine. They are driven along to the pub in the next door village, which they find packed with journalists, radio and TV people, and Richard is delighted to be hailed by Bernard Westcott, a colleague of his from back in the army days, who, it becomes clear, is now something in Military Intelligence.

Military Intelligence? Yes, they’re here not only because it’s an anomalous event, but because of The Grange. The Grange?

The Grange Upon investigation, it turns out that Midwich is not quite such a boring, average, run-of-the-mill village as the narrator initially implied. It is also home to an old grange building which has had a modern extension added which contains laboratories, amounting to a Research Station, supervised by Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research. What kind of research goes on there? Well, a little surprisingly, we never really find out. And the entire question is, I think, a red herring, thrown in to complexify the early part of the story and make readers wonder whether the mysterious event is some kind of attack on the grange by ‘the enemy’. But by half way through it’s become clear that it wasn’t and the existence of the Grange is more or less irrelevant to the story.

But not here at the start. There is an impressive gathering of military and civil administrator types – army, air force Group Captain, chief policeman, head fireman and so on – who have a summit conference about how to deal with it. An airplane flies over and takes photos of the village. That and the patient perimeter work with the canary establish that the ‘zone’ comprises a perfect circle two miles in diameter., and at the dead centre sits a large object, which has a metallic appearance and looks like a convex spoon (p.36).

The Russians As in The Kraken Wakes there is much speculation about whether the event is an attack by the Russians, by ‘the other side’, by ‘those Ivans’ (p.38). This turns out to be irrelevant to the plot but it is a fascinating indication of how heavily the Cold War rivalry, and the threat from the Soviet bloc, and the constant fear of what new trick they might pull, weighed on the imagination of the West, or of western writers, or of western writers of science fiction, or of John Wyndham, anyway.

Chapter 5 Midwich reviviscit

And then suddenly everybody wakes up. The advantage of Wyndham’s realistic style is he gives a very vivid description of what it feels like to wake up after 2 days suspended animation, in an unnatural position on the sofa or the floor, how you are utterly numb, the pain when the feeling slowly starts to return to your limbs and extremities.

Chapter 6 Midwich settles down

Describes how everyone concerned comes to cope with it, this strange event, which comes to be called the Dayout (p.47). No fewer than 11 people perished, several when their houses caught fire, several from exposure from lying out in the open for two days and nights (there’s a list on page 47).

Bernard Westcott pays a couple more visits to the village, specifically to check up on the Grange but drops into the Gayford cottage for chats. They invite Bernard for dinner and he asks Richard and Janet if they’ll be informal eyes and ears i.e. spy on the village. Janet is at first sceptical, what’s the need? Bernard points out there may be lingering after-effects: after all X-rays, radiation and so on are invisible. There’s no sign of those in the village, they’ve tested, but who knows what other after-effects there may be…

Chapter 7 Coming events

About two months later, in late November, Ferrelyn, after much nervousness, summons up the courage to tell Angela Zellaby, over posh breakfast at the Manor, that she’s pregnant. Angela astonishes Ferrelyn that shs is, too. What worries Ferrelyn, though, is that it isn’t Alan’s. It isn’t anyone’s. She’s a virgin. How can she be pregnant and she bursts into tears.

Briefly, the narrative explains how, over the next few days, women come forward to confide to the vicar, Mr Leebody, or the village doctor, Willers, that they are pregnant – from the oldest to the youngest, all fertile women in the village are pregnant!

Chapter 8 Heads together

Dr Willers calls on Gordon Zellaby to break the news that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Zellaby, in his detached intellectual way, considers the options, giving them smart Greek names:

  • parthenogenesis
  • some form of artificial insemination
  • xenogenesis

It is suggestive that the fertile women who spent the Dayout unconscious in the village bus are not pregnant because the bus was, for the duration, in plain sight of people outside the zone. Maybe whatever was done to the women inside the zone was not to be observed.

The Thinker Several points: Zellaby fulfils something of the same role as Bocker performs in Kraken Wakes and, up to a point, Uncle  Axel, in The Chrysalids – he is a figure peripheral to the main action, who can comment and analyse it. Exactly as Bocker is the first to realise that the fireballs in Kraken might come from another planet and is the first to grasp the threat they pose, so Zellaby in Cuckoos is the first to articulate the theory that the pregnancies are the result of conscious and co-ordinated action, the first to establish the Children’s telepath, and the first to grasp what a serious threat they pose.

But the role of all three characters (Bocker, Alex, Zellaby) is not only to crystallise the reader’s suspicions and move the plot forward, but to express intellectual ideas prompted by the book’s events. Thus Bocker not only warns about what is happening to earth, but speculates about what kind of intelligence has arrived on earth and interesting ideas about whether two intelligent but very different species can ever share a planet. (No, is the short answer).

Similarly, the central theme of The Chrysalids is ‘What is normality and what is deviance?’ and Uncle Alex is the mouthpiece of the author’s interesting ideas on the subject. For example, when Alex made his long sea voyage he discovered lots of communities which were ‘deviant’ in one way or another but each one regarded themselves as normal and all the others as the mutations. On a different but related trajectory, it is Alex who shares the speculation that, maybe David’s family and community, by trying to keep plant, animal and human lineage ‘pure’ and how they were before the nuclear holocaust, maybe they are setting themselves against biological change, when, in fact, evolution and change is the one constant of Life. So that maybe David’s mutation (he is a telepath) is an inevitable next step in human evolution and his family are trying to prevent the inevitable.

And so it is retired author and easily distracted Gordon Zellaby, his mind wandering on strange elusive patterns, who fulfils the same role in Cuckoos not only crystallising the action (I mean drawing together scattered events, making sense of them, as he explains them to Richard or Alan) but going on to express ideas and implications arising from the book’s premise.

Chapter 9 Keep it dark

This is a very interesting chapter because of the way the subject matter is treated. The plot level it is straightforward. Gordon and the doctor decide they must hold an Emergency Meeting of all the village’s womenfolk to explain to them what they think they’ve discovered, to bring it into the open and to air it.

What’s interesting is the extreme care they take to make it a women’s event – to invite only the women, and to ensure that the actual presentation is made by Angela Zellaby. It is a meeting for women, organised by women, and led by a woman. After she has made the initial presentation of the facts, she is emotionally shattered but insists to Gordon and the Willers (waiting in a room off to one side) that the next bit is the most important – it is absolutely vital that the women be given the space and time to talk about it, to talk it through and cultivate a feeling of communal solidarity.

Before and after Zellaby is given speeches, in his conversations with the village doctor, about how strange it is to be a woman and know your body is designed for childbirth, at the best of times, about the uncanniness of being so obviously an animal with a basic animal function of producing offspring, and yet fully human at the same time. A duality which men simply can’t understand, never fully.

This is also the chapter, at the meeting, where Miss Latterly, one of the pair of village lesbians gets up to storm out, outraged at the idea that she – who has never had anything to do with men – could be pregnant, only to be forced to stay when her lesbian partner, Miss Lamb mutely remain, dramatising in a surprisingly sensitive and effective way a) that the latter is pregnant b) her shame c) her partner’s mortification. It’s a good example of the way Wyndham’s terribly British way of handling these things conveys subtle shades of emotion.

Chapter 10 Midwich comes to terms

The Emergency Meeting leads to several outcomes. One is secrecy. No-one will tell anyone outside about it, not even the neighbouring villages, because Angela Zellaby made quite clear how hellish life would become if the world’s press were alerted and came to observe and report on every development during the remainder of the pregnancies.

The other is mutual support. Angela had made it plain that it is happening to all the women, regardless of married status, and so went out of her way to defuse stigma and shame and get all the other women to agree. Instead she led in setting up a programme of social activities and support and we are told the Zellabies themselves help out with money for the less well-off and for single mums.

Religion. In Triffids there was a conference of the survivors of the Great Blinding, held in a lecture room in Senate House during which a Miss Durrell expressed the Christian view that the catastrophe was God punishment of an immoral world. Similarly, in this novel, Mrs Dora Leebody, the vicar’s wife has a sort of breakdown and takes to preaching at the village war memorial that all the pregnant women have been cursed by God. A few days later she is found in the market square of the neighbouring town, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, preaching about God’s punishment. She is quietly brought home, sedated and then sent off by her husband to a rest home

But rather like the concern with the Russians expressed early in the novel, this brings home to the reader how prominent a factor in British culture Christianity was in the 1950s, in a way it probably wouldn’t be in the multicultural 2020s UK.

This comes out even more clearly in the final chapters where Zellaby engages in extended debates with the vicar about the morality of dealing with the Children, as they grow ever-more threatening.

Chapter 11 Well played, Midwich

Nerves hold up well through the spring until, in May, some of the heavily pregnant women start to crack under the uncertainty of not knowing what they are carrying in their wombs. Resilient and intelligent Angela Zellaby is given a speech declaring that men can never understand what it is like to be a woman, and not to have the faintest idea of the nightmare strain the pregnant women of Midwich are under (p.87).

Funnily enough, the first to have her baby is the lesbian Miss Lamb, who stumbles on a milk bottle on her doorstep, takes a fall and goes into labour. Hours later, having delivered the baby, the village doctor returns to his anxious wife and declares the baby is perfect in all respects. Over the coming month all the other babies are delivered, physically perfect specimens, but with golden eyes and blonde hair. 61 in total, 31 males, 30 females.

Chapter 12 Harvest home

The vicar falls into a stroll with Zellaby and assures him all the women have now had their babies. He is uneasy. Can’t shake the feeling it’s some kind of test. Zellaby makes remarks repeating his sense that, as men, they are hors du combat, outside the zone and cannot hope to understand what the women are going through.

Walking on Zellaby observes Mrs Brinkman pushing a pram and is a little surprised when she abruptly stops, takes the baby out, sits on the war memorial, unbuttons her blouse and starts suckling it. She is embarrassed when Zellaby draws abreast and explains that the baby made her do it. Walking up to the lodge, there’s a beep and Ferrelyn is in a car behind him. She too, flushed and upset, and says the baby made her come. Aha.

Chapter 13 Midwich centrocline

A centrocline is: ‘An equidimensional basin characteristic of cratonic areas, in which the strata dip to a central low point.’

Over the coming weeks every single mum who’d moved away from Midwich (for example most of the women researchers from the Grange who had been on secondments and gone elsewhere for their pregnancies and births) find themselves compelled to return

The text quotes a report Dr Willers submits to his superiors, outlining the sequence of births, the compulsion all the mothers felt to return and other matters, above all emphasising that some kind of official study should be being made of the children’s births, weights, development and so on.

Bernard turns up, goes for a chat with Zellaby, then comes for dinner with Richard and Janet, repeating some of Zellaby’s speculations. Apparently, Zellaby wonders whether it was a mistake that Homo sapiens is so very different from all other animal species, if our culture would be improved if we had to deal with at least one other intelligent life form on the planet. (This is one of the ideas floated in the Kraken Wakes.)

Chapter 14 Matters arising

Precisely half way through the book, Alan pays a call (he is currently stationed by the army a long way away, in Scotland, and can only get leave to visit Midwich occasionally).

Gordon takes him for a chat out in the garden of the manor. In garden chairs on the fine lawn under the old cedar tree, Gordon expounds his theory that the women have borne alien children. Earlier generations would have recognised them as changelings (p.106) – ‘deformed or imbecilic offspring of fairies or elves substituted by them surreptitiously for a human infant’. We moderns, Zellaby says, might think of them as cuckoos (p.106), laid in another species’ nests, force the mothers to work themselves to death to feed them, then exterminate all the true fledgelings.

That’s why he’s asking Alan to persuade Ferrelyn to leave the baby in his care and depart Midwich, go with him to Scotland. Nobody knows what it means or what might happen, but Zellaby introduces the idea that, if you were going to attack a civilisation and had plenty of time to plan it, might it not be a good idea to introduce a fifth column to work against the host nation from within. Maybe that’s what the babies are.

Chapter 15 Matters to arise

Months pass. The Grange is emptied and all its staff leave, but leaving four babies behind, in a new nursery. Over the winter pneumonia carries off some of the parents and three of the babies, leaving 58.

A dessicated couple called the Freemans move into the cottage vacated by Crim, and turn out to be officials sent to monitor developments, but they do it in a very ham-fisted way and become known as the Noseys.

Early in the summer Gordon pays Richard and Janet a visit and asks them to come with him to witness an experiment. The Children (everyone refers to them with a capital C, now) are barely a year old but look like healthy 2-year-olds. Gordon drops in on a family with one, asks the mum’s permission, then presents the child with a cunning Japanese wooden box with a sweet inside. The child struggles for a while, then Gordon shows him how to unlock it, relocks it. Given it again, the child unlocks it easily, but that’s not the point. Gordon takes them to see several other children and they all unlock it easily. Once one knows, they all know. Gordon presents his interpretation: they may have different physical bodies, but what if the Children compose one mind! He has christened it collective-individualism’ (p.123)

With typical intellectual sprezzatura Gordon speculates that maybe Homo sapiens is stagnating, the race limited to individuals with just the one mind, all jostling. Maybe the next breakthrough in evolution would be to combine the powers of individual minds into a collective. Maybe they are the progenitors of a new race. That’s why, he says, looking vaguely out the window at a bumble bee hovering over the lavender, he keeps thinking the collective boys and the collective girls should be renamed – Adam and Eve.

On the last page of Part One, Richard gets a job in Canada, leaving at once, and Janet follows soon after. She expresses relief to be shot of Midwich and its weird atmosphere and God, so grateful they were out of the village on ‘the fateful night’ and so she never bore one of those monster children.

Part two

Chapter 16 Now we are nine

Eight years pass. Richard and Janet live in Canada now, but occasionally pop back to the old country. On one such trip, Richard bumps into Bernard, who is now a colonel. They go for a drink and the subject of Midwich comes up. Richard has almost forgotten about it, says how are things going, Bernard says he’s scheduled to pop down for a visit next day, would Richard like to come?

The reader thinks this might be the first of several episodic visits, but in fact it turns into one continuous visit which leads to the climax of the story.

On the drive down Bernard tells Richard the Grange has been converted into a special school for the Children. Zellaby was right, what one boy learns they all learn, what one girl learns, ditto. The Children have developed at twice normal speed and now look 17 or 18. The news blackout has continued to be a success, the neighbouring communities regarding Midwich as ‘touched’ by the event, and the inhabitants retarded. The word they use is ‘daytouched’ (p.133). They consider the entire community a kind of open asylum. Some of the mothers were reluctant to let their children attend the new school but one by one the Children went of their own accord, to be together.

Bernard is driving down for a post-mortem on a local young man, Jim Pawle. Richard attends. It is a tense affair, with a very bad mood among the villagers attending, although nothing out of the ordinary is done or said. Zellaby greets Richard as if they’d only said goodbye the day before, invites him and Bernard to the Manor, describes what happened. He was an eye-witness. The local boy was driving his car along a lane when he hit one of a group of four Children by mistake. Zellaby watched as the other three focused their mental force on making the unhappy driver get back into his car and set off at top speed towards a wall, hitting it head on and dying.

Others saw it too. It gave Zellaby a very bad shock. Now he shares his feelings with Bernard and Richard. What if it had been him or Angela or Ferrelyn driving? He tells them Dr Willers died a few years earlier, suicide, overdose of barbiturates (p.143). Richard is surprised, he didn’t seem the sort. Gordon agrees, and wonders now whether… Whether the Children made him do it? Richard completes the thought. My God. Now for the first time, Zellaby says he is scared, thinking he should send Angela away.

Angela appears from the house, comes onto the veranda, joins the conversation, and mentions the incident of the dog – which bit one of the Children and promptly ran in front of a tractor – and the bull – which attacked one of them and promptly ran through several fields and drowned itself in a mill pond. She is in no doubt the children cause the deaths of anyone or anything which harms them.

The mother of the driver of the car wanted to attend and denounce the Children, but her other son and husband prevented her. What good would it do? The entire village is now living in fear.

Bernard and Richard say their goodbyes and leave, driving very carefully. They come on a group of four Children and Bernard slows down to let Richard appreciate just how much they have grown. Their golden eyes make them look like semi-precious stones. Both are stunned when a gunshot goes off and one of the Children falls to the ground. Richard gets out, a Child turns to look at him and he feels a gust of confusion and weakness flood through him.

Then they are aware of a high moaning keening sound and realise it is the other Children, a way off, expressing the same pain the shot one is feeling. And then they hear whimpering and another shot fired and screaming. Pushing through the hedge they come across a young man who has blown his own head off and his girlfriend, Elsa, next to him, hysterical. It’s the brother of the young man whose inquest they attended. He was taking revenge on the Children by shooting one of them and now they’ve killed him, too.

Local labourers come running, lift up the girl, take her home, the ones Richard hears vowing revenge against ‘the murderin’ young bastards.’ Richard and Bernard motor back to the Manor where Gordon hears the full story over a fortifying drink. Hmm. This is how blood feuds begin…

Chapter 17 Midwich protests

Shaken, Bernard and Richard return to Kyle Manor where the Zellabies graciously offer to put them up and invite them for dinner. They have barely withdrawn to the living room (the cook and other invisible servants having, presumably, cleared away the meal things) than the vicar, Leebody, enters in a fret. He warns that the situation is escalating.

Leebody and Zellaby engage in quite a high-flown debate about the morality of the Childrens’ activities. Leebody says they have the appearance of humans but, if they are not human inside, in their souls, then the laws of the Bible and conventional morality do not apply. Zellaby gives his view which is that the laws devised by one species to regulate its societies do not apply to a completely different species.

This high-flown talk is interrupted by Mrs Brant, who makes her apologies to ‘is worship Mr Zellaby, and then physically drags Leebody to the door, saying the Midwich men had been gathered in the pub, working themselves up into a fury, and have now set off in a body to burn the Grange to the ground and murder all the children. Only Mr Leebody can stop them, and she drags him, fluttering and stammering off into the night.

Zellaby, Bernard and Richard are about to follow, but Angela slams the door shut and stands in front of it, absolutely implacable. She knows there is going to be trouble and absolutely forbids any of them to leave. And they meekly accept her orders.

Chapter 18 Interview with a child

The Chief Constable of Winshire looked in at Kyle Manor the next morning, just at the right time for a glass of Madeira and a biscuit.

That gives you a sense of the sedate, well-mannered, upper-middle-class milieu we are operating in. We quickly learn that the attempt to torch the Grange backfired disastrously, as the Children made the attackers attack each other with the result that three men and a woman are dead and many others injured. Angela was quite right to prevent her menfolk going along.

What quickly transpires is the chief constable knows nothing about the Children, their special history or ability, and Zellaby, Bernard and Richard struggle to convey it to him.

The mildly comic scene where the phlegmatic policeman becomes more and more frustrated is interspersed with vignettes from the village. Passengers attempting to enter the village bus find their feet unable to move. Polly Rushton seeking to drive back to London finds herself stopping at the village perimeter and turning back. In other words, the Children have set up a kind of psychic boundary which the villagers can’t escape.

The Chief Constable goes up to the Grange where the current administrator, Mr Torrance, arranges an interview with one of the Children. This boy announces in forthright tones that the Children did make the village men attack each other in self defence because they knew the men had come to burn down the Grange. Well, why not just turn them back? asks the policeman. Because they needed to make an example to warn off other would-be attackers.

The Chief Constable is so appalled at the boy’s arrogance and the casual way he mentions the murder of four civilians that he starts abusing him and goes to stand, when he suddenly freezes, choking, then falls to the floor gasping and whimpering, vomits and passes out. Bernard watches all this in terror. He and Torrance call some of the police officers and have the CC carried to a car and taken away, still unconscious, then Bernard returns to the Manor.

Richard tries to leave but finds himself unable to, unable to shift gear or push the accelerator and so reluctantly turns back. Looks like he’s trapped along with the others.

Chapter 19 Impasse

Bernard returns to the Manor, has a couple of strong whiskeys and recounts what he saw. Gordon and Angela, Bernard and Richard sit down to another fine luncheon prepared by cook (p.178), and their conversation includes some major revelations. These last 40 pages of the novel become very wordy. There is more and more theorising and less and less action – up until the abrupt climax, that is.

Now, at this meal, Zellaby and Bernard both agree that they think the children are the result of the intervention of non-terrestrial aliens (p.188). But Bernard now makes the revelation of the book: that during the three or so weeks surrounding the Dayout, radar detected an unusual number of unidentified flying objects and that Dayouts happened at other communities.

He knows about incidences in the Northern Territory of Australia where, for reasons unknown, all the children died on birth. In an Eskimo settlement in northern Canada where the community was so outraged at the incident that it exposed the babies at birth. One at a remote community in the Irkutsk region of Mongolia where the local men considered their women had slept with the devil and murdered not only babies but mothers. And another in Gizhinsk. This is the important one.

For here the children were allowed to grow by the Soviet authorities who, after initially suspecting a capitalist trick, decided the children’s powers may be of some advantage in the Cold War. However, the Soviets eventually concluded their Children were a threat not only to the local community but to the state itself and – here’s the point – struck the town with atomic weapons. The town of Gizhinsk no longer exists.

And the other guests are electrified to learn that this happened only the previous week, just before the Children murdered Pawle. They knew. Somehow they knew about the murder of their peers in Russia and, from that moment, have escalated their actions, retaliating for even mild slights with immediate disproportionate violence.

After luncheon Bernard announces he is going back up to the Grange for a proper conversation with Torrance. He walks. However on the way he stops by two Children sitting on a bank. They are looking up. Bernard hears the drone of a jet plane passing high overhead. He sees five dots appear from it. For a moment I thought they were bombs and that’s how the book might end, but instead they are parachutes. The Children have made the five crew on the plane bail out, the plane will fly on till it crashes somewhere.

Bernard tells them that’s a very expensive plane, they could just have got to the pilots to turn back. The children calmly logically reply that that might have been put down to instrument failure. They must make their message plain.

‘Oh, you want to instil fear, do you? Why?’ inquired Bernard.
‘Only to make you leave us alone,’ said the boy. ‘It is a means; not an end.’ His golden eyes were turned towards Bernard, with a steady, earnest look. ‘Sooner or later, you will try to kill us. However we behave, you will want to wipe us out. Our position can be made stronger only if we take the initiative.’
The boy spoke quite calmly, but somehow the words pierced right through the front that Bernard had adopted. (p.196)

The Children explain in terms way beyond their years (and reminiscent of Zellaby who has, after all, been teaching them for years) that it is a clash of species. They explain that they know about the murder of the Children of Gizhinsk. And then they proceed to give a merciless analysis of the political and moral situation here in England. In Soviet Russia the individual exists to support the state and individuals can be arrested, imprisoned or liquidated if their existence or thoughts, words or actions threaten the state.

By contrast, here in the West, the State exists to support the wish for self-fulfilment and freedom of vast numbers of heterogenous individuals. No government could unilaterally wipe out a settlement like Midwich with all its innocent civilians. That’s why they’ve erected an invisible barrier and no-one can leave. The civilians are hostages. Any government which wipes Midwich out will never be re-elected. Meanwhile all kinds of mealy-mouthed do-gooders and experts on ethics will wring their hands about the Childrens’ rights. And they will use this time to get stronger.

Bernard becomes aware that he is sweating, panicking at hearing such cold-blooded sentiments coming out the mouth of a teenager. The Child moves beyond a shrewd analysis of the Realpolitik of the situation to a deeper, biological or Darwinian interpretation.

‘Neither you, nor we, have wishes that count in the matter – or should one say that we both have been given the same wish – to survive? We are all, you see, toys of the life-force. It made you numerically strong, but mentally undeveloped; it made us mentally strong, but physically weak: now it has set us at one another, to see what will happen. A cruel sport, perhaps, from both our points of view, but a very, very old one. Cruelty is as old as life itself. There is some improvement: humour and compassion are the most important of human inventions; but they are not very firmly established yet, though promising well.’ He paused, and smiled. ‘A real bit of Zellaby, that – our first teacher,’ he put in, and then went on. ‘But the life force is a great deal stronger than they are; and it won’t be denied its blood-sports.’ (p.200)

Chapter 20 Ultimatum

Meanwhile Zellaby takes Richard for a turn round his favourite Thinking Walk. Here he propounds at length his speculation that, we maybe describing the Children as aliens, but what if the human races are also alien interlopers? Impregnated into low-intelligence Neanderthals by the aliens, to create a step-change in evolution?

His evidence is the remarkable lack of fossil evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens combined with the huge gap between us and any other living thing. What if we too were planted here by a Maker or a team of extra-terrestrial scientists carrying out experiments in evolution and the earth is their testbed? (p.205)

Bernard arrives back from his conversation with the two Children. They had concluded by presenting an ultimatum, hence the title of the chapter. More accurately, a demand. They want to be transported to somewhere where they will be safe. They will supervise all aspects of the transportation. They want Bernard to escalate it to his superiors and, ultimately to the Prime Minister.

Zellaby is not surprised. In the latest of his many speculations and formulations, he amuses himself by saying the they now face a ‘moral dilemma of some niceness’:

‘On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours. On the other hand, it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities, not to mention the practical obstacles to such a solution.’ (p.208)

If you like moral dilemmas, this is the one at the core of the book. Do we have the right to ‘liquidate’ the apparently harmless, if we have good suspicions they will eventually come to pose a threat to us?

If absolute moral values can’t help us decide, then Zellaby invokes the classic Utilitarian argument for making decisions based on their practical outcomes.

‘In a quandary where every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with the least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at that conclusion. In nine years I have grown rather fond of them…’ (p.208)

And that is what he does. Bernard says his goodbyes and sets off to London to convey the Children’s ultimatum. Richard stays on at the Manor.

Chapter 21 Zellaby of Macedon

Next morning Gordon asks Angela to get a jar of bullseyes, the Children’s favourite sweet, from the shops in Trayne. He is preparing to give them one of his regular film shows, about the Aegean Islands. When Richard joins him on the veranda before luncheon, Zellaby calmly says life goes on, he’s happy to give the Children another film show and lecture, they enjoy it, he likes them despite everything. The key thing is they trust him.

Early that evening Richard helps load his projector gear into the car, a surprising number of surprisingly heavy boxes and then drives Gordon to the Grange, helps the Children unload and carry the equipment into the building. Richard asks to stay, since he is still recently enough returned to be fascinated by the Children but Gordon suavely asks him to go back to the Manor and be with Angela, her nerves are so high strung, poor thing. So Richard reluctantly drives off.

He has barely parked, entered the Manor, poured a drink and begun chatting to Angela who is expressing her fears about what the children will do next, when there is a flash, a colossal bang and then a shock wave hits the Manor and shatters all its windows. When Richard picks himself up and runs to the french windows he sees detritus all across the lawn, creepers ripped off the facade of the Manor, and flames rising from the Grange up on the hill.

Gordon had packed the projector boxes with explosive and has set it off, killing himself and all the children. From the endless stream of speculations and musings which dominate the final chapters, it appears there were real conclusions and a practical outcome endless. It was a war of species. The Children needed to be liquidated in order to preserve our species. And if moral speculation was no use, then utilitarian considerations provided a basis for action. Which he took, knowing that the Children’s trust was a unique quality which he alone of maybe the entire human race had. And so he abused it to murder them all. If it was murder (see the long discussion with the vicar about the morality of inter-species killing).

The Midwich Cuckoos is a gripping, thrilling read, which is strangely inflected between, on the one hand its almost insufferably pukka, upper-middle-class, English characters and, on the other hand, the frequent and very thought-provoking debates about morality, the rights and wrong of eliminating a racial threat, the possibility that the entire human race is a galactic experiment, and other quietly mind-bending topics.


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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

Policemen attacking defenceless women around the world in 2021

Belarus

Belarus Protests

Belarus police and militia men arrest a woman protesting peacefully in Minsk, Belarus

Myanmar

Armed and helmeted policemen arrest a woman protester in Myanmar

Iran

Armed policemen arrest Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran

Russia

It takes four armed and helmeted Russian policemen to arrest one woman protester in Moscow

Hong Kong

Hong Kong violence breaks out again in shopping centres | Hong Kong | The Guardian

Two armed policemen force a woman protester to the ground and handcuff her in Hong Kong

England

Metropolitan policemen manhandle, force to the ground and arrest a woman attending a peaceful vigil in South London for Sarah Everard, murdered last week by a serving Metropolitan policeman.

Two Metropolitan policemen wrestle Patsy Stevenson to the ground as they arrest and handcuff her for attending the peaceful vigil (CREDIT: James Veysey/Shutterstock)

Watch respectful women holding a quiet and moving vigil for the murdered woman being attacked and sworn at by furiously violent male police.

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

This is a much more interesting and genuinely horrifying book than I expected.

I thought I knew the story well enough from fond memories of the 1962 Cinemascope film version, but I was wrong. Like all films, the movie version requires action and so, in the film, the triffids are much more prominent and horrifying from the start. However the book, like all books, has the space to be more thoughtful and psychological than any movie or TV series, and so it came as a surprise to discover how much less of a part the triffids play in it, and instead how full the novel is with moral and philosophical speculations. The lead character:

  • spends a lot of time meditating on the nature of ‘normal society’, how fragile and contingent it is
  • has numerous conversations about the morality of deciding who to save and who to abandon in a disaster scenario

In addition, there’s a surprisingly persistent discussion of the nature of ‘class’ in 1950s England, which comes to revolve around the ambiguous character of Coker.

Above all, focusing on the monsters underplays the extent to which the book is more grippingly a terrifying vision of an entire world gone blind. It’s that, the advent of universal blindness and all its implications, far more than the monsters, which absolutely terrified me. J.G. Ballard gave his novel about global warming and melting ice caps the bluntly descriptive title, The Drowned World. For the first two-thirds of the book, when the triffids are mostly peripheral to the protagonist and his adventures, the novel could have been more accurately titled The Blinded World or Planet of the Blind.

John Wyndham

Wikipedia sums Wyndham up well:

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (July 1903 to March 1969) was an English science fiction writer best known for his works published under the pen name John Wyndham, although he also used other combinations of his names, such as John Beynon and Lucas Parkes. Some of his works were set in post-apocalyptic landscapes. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

After attending the unorthodox public school, Bedales, Wyndham didn’t go on to university but had a succession of jobs while he tried to launch a career as a writer. He sold science fiction stories to American magazines while also writing detective stories. He was 36 and not at all successful when the Second World War started, in which he initially served as a censor, was a fire warden in London, and then saw action as a corporal cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, taking part in the Normandy landings.

After the war Wyndham continued to struggle as a writer until, at the end of the 1940s, he made a conscious decision to alter his style and treat subjects in a more realistic, less Americanised and pulp manner. The first book he wrote in this new voice was The Day of The Triffids which remains his best-known and most successful work to this day.

His reputation rests on the first four novels he wrote under the name John Wyndham during the 1950s – The Day of the TriffidsThe Kraken WakesThe ChrysalidsThe Midwich Cuckoos – each of which conceives an astonishingly powerful scenario depicted with tremendous imaginative immediacy. He also wrote quite a few short stories, some novellas and later novels, but none match the haunting power of these big four fictions.

The Day of The Triffids

Chapter 1 The end begins

The first-person narrator, William ‘Bill’ Masen (p.17) is nearly 30-years-old (pp.53 and 147). He is ‘a very mediocre biochemist’ (p.243).

The narrative opens as Bill wakes up in a strangely silent hospital. He’s in because of a vicious sting he got across his eyes, whose treatment required his eyes to be swathed in bandages. That’s why he missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the amazing natural firework display of the night before, as earth moved through the debris of a passing comet, creating thousands of shooting stars and green flashes across the sky. He heard all about it on the radio and the nurses who came to check on him told him how wonderful it was to see.

The following morning he wakes to a strange silence, not only in the hospital but in the usually busy streets outside. Intrigued and then worried, he eventually decides to undo the bandages over his eyes himself, first carefully feeling his way to the window to lower the blinds so his room is dark. To his relief, his eyes appear to be working fine though he gives them an hour or so to acclimatise to full daylight before venturing out into the hospital.

Here he discovers, to his growing horror, that everyone has gone blind. Doctors, nurses and patients are all stone blind. Some have fallen down stairs and hurt themselves. He helps a smartly dressed consultant to his office who, after trying the phone and finding it dead, throws himself out the fifth floor window. Going downstairs to the lobby, he finds it a sea of moaning blind people milling about trying to find the doors, crushing the weak against the wall, in helpless confusion.

Too many for him to help. He finds the service stairs, makes it down to a back alley and across the road to a pub, the Alamein Arms. It is open but empty and he discovers the landlord, very drunk, getting drunker. Landlord tells him that this morning, when his wife discovered she was blind and then that the kids were, too, she turned on the gas and lay on the bed. They’ll all be dead by now. He didn’t have the guts.

By now Masen and the reader are thoroughly harrowed. I found this opening chapter genuinely scary, a terrifying vision of the entire world struck blind. Masen downs another double brandy to stop his hands shaking, then leaves the pub to face this brave new world.

Chapter 2 The coming of the triffids

Chapter two takes us back into the past to tell us Masen’s backstory and explain the backdrop to the opening chapter. It is told from the contemporary, post-catastrophe situation and so is sprinkled with the idea that everything he is going to describe is from the old world, the world before the cataclysm, the world when people could see.

It contains passages where he laments that nobody back then, back in the Old World, really understood how interconnected all the goods and services they took for granted were. You turned on the tap and water came out; you went to the shops and they were full of food; you picked up a phone, turned on the radio or TV, and everything worked, as the result of the collaborative interaction of hundreds of thousands of people scattered across the globe. Now all that has finished, forever, and that is the basic, fundamental thrill that all post-apocalyptic novels give.

He tells us about the origin of triffids, the derivation of their name which refers to their three legs. In quite a convoluted passage he explains that they appear to have been bred in Soviet Russia in a genetic experiment associated with the name of the discredited biologist Lysenko. He goes into quite a convoluted, cloak-and-dagger story about a dodgy middleman, Umberto Christoforo Palanguez, who approaches a Western fish oil company and says he has a product which will revolutionise the market. He is referring to the oil which can be harvested from these ‘triffids’.

Umberto then commissions a Russian working in some kind of experimental lab to smuggle out some seeds of these new genetically-modified organisms, which are collected by a light airplane which is going to fly them to Umberto in the West. However, the plane is involved in a mid-air collision and millions of triffid seeds, light as air, float around the world with the trade winds.

At first they were treated as a rare novelty and in a slightly too pat coincidence it turns out that the narrator was one of the first to see them in England, as he discovers a specimen growing in his garden in the suburbs of London. That is until he is bending over it one day when its loose swinging ‘arm’ clobbers him, at which point his father uproots and destroys it.

But Masen goes on to defy his father’s wishes that he get a sensible degree and a secure profession and instead studies biology and finds himself a few years later working in an experimental triffid farm. By this point it has become well-known that the triffids produce cheap oil and other foodstuffs. The downside is we learn that the plans not only grow to a huge size but can uproot themselves and walk forward on their three stumpy ‘legs’. Worst of all, they possess a really long flexible arm, like a whip, which is covered in poison sacs. One whipping blow from a full-grown triffid and the poison lashed into a human’s flesh is fatal. And so all the workers at the triffid farm take elaborate precautions and wear outfits a little like a beekeeper’s, covering every inch of the skin in leather protection, and wearing a metal grille mask.

A colleague of Masen’s at the triffid farm, Walter Lucknor (p.46) has spent a lot of time observing the plants and developed some idiosyncratic theories. He thinks the triffids use the odd bunch of sticks down at the front of their ‘bodies’ to communicate. He thinks they can talk to each other.

In a disturbing conversation down the pub one day, after work, Lucknor dwells on the triffids’ tremendous survival effectiveness. It worries him that they know just where to sting a person, namely on the unprotected face and across the eyes – rendering their prey blind. Lucknor makes the worrying point that, if forced to choose between a blind man and a triffid, he’d bet on the triffid every time (p.48), just part of a casual conversation but which, to the narrator, later on, comes to seem grimly prophetic.

These two opening chapters create an awesomely complete setup. The narrative is so tightly bound, every part contributes to every other part. It has the fully-formed feel of a myth or legend.

And then comes the day when Masen and Lucknor are working in one of the compounds of farmed triffids and Masen is bent over one when, without warning, it lashes its sting against his mesh mask with such force that some of the poison sacs burst and spatter into his eyes. It’s only because Lucknor acts promptly to wash his eyes and then provide the antidote to the poison that his sight was saved, but still an ambulance comes, they bandage his eyes and off to hospital he goes, missing out on the great meteor shower in the sky which took place on the fateful night of Tuesday 7 May

Chapter 3 The groping city

Masen decides to head into central London. Like The War of The Worlds the thrill, the horror, comes from reading about places you’re familiar with, and the streets of the capital which most people have visited at some point, now empty of all traffic and strewn with blind people pitifully feeling their way along walls and railings, occasionally bumping into each other.

Masen records what you might call the standard thoughts about the collapse of civilisation. Slowly he sees people becoming angrier, more violent, covetous, stealing parcels off each other in case they contain food, increasingly prepared to smash windows and grope around inside in case it’s a food shop. Initially he is reluctant to behave the same way. He takes food from a delicatessen which a car has ploughed into, but leaves the correct money on the counter.

But as Masen continues his odyssey along Piccadilly, stopping for free brandy at the Regents Hotel, before walking through Soho, it begins to sink in that all the values and morality of the old world have evaporated. Only people ruthlessly focused on their own survival will survive.

Several times he comes across children or toddlers who can see in the care of blind mothers. Quickly they attract crowds of the blind who need their help and the children start crying in fear. Once Masen encounters the leader of a gang of blind men, all drunk, he’s promising to take them to the Café Royal for a piss-up and when one of them mentions women, the leader reaches out to a blonde young woman fumbling blindly by and hands her to his follower. Masen, being a decent chap, intervenes to stop this and, the next thing he knows, is waking up on the pavement having obviously been punched very hard.

My head was still full of standards and conventions which had ceased to apply. (p.59)

Now Masen begins to refer to the fact that he is writing all this from the vantage point of ‘years later’, long after the events, long after civilisation as we know it has ended. As he watches the crowds of looting leaderless, blind people he realises:

There would be no going back – ever. It was finish to all I had known. (p.60)

Chapter 4 Shadows before

In Soho watching the crowds Masen has much the same thoughts as crop up among the characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, namely – if only a handful of people are going to survive this catastrophe, who should it be? And who should choose? Should you try to help everyone? Or is it only practical to restrict your help to a small group? In which case, who? How on earth do you decide who?

Masen comes across a brutish blind man in a side alley viciously beating a young woman cowering on the ground who’s tied with rope round the wrists and held by a leash. Masen beats the man and cuts the cord, releasing the girl, and they both nip out of the blind man’s reach.

Masen takes her to a nearby pub, where she recovers and tells her story. She’s Josella Playton (p.66) who lived at a posh house in St John’s Wood with her mummy and daddy and servants. She’d been to a big party on Monday night and had such a bad hangover she’d gone to bed early on Tuesday afternoon, having taken a sleeping draught and thus missed the comet.

They find an abandoned car in Regent Street and drive between the scattered pedestrians through Regents Park across to St John’s Wood and to Josella’s nice house. They haven’t walked far up the drive before they see the body of a man on the gravel, with a red welt across his face. In a flash Masen realises it’s a triffid sting. He sees the triffid hiding in the undergrowth. They skirt around it and into the house where they find Josella’s father dead in the living room – but not before another triffid has a go at them from the halway; they hurriedly slam the door shut. Then one comes lumbering across the garden. Masen hurries Josella into the car and they drive off as she bursts into tears.

Chapter 5 A light in the night

Masen drives them towards Clerkenwell, to a factory he knows which makes anti-triffid masks and weapons. By King’s Cross there’s a huge crowd blocking the way and they hurriedly exit the car before they’re pulled out by the mob. They make it on the foot to the factory, load up with weapons, then scout around and find a ritzy tower block, go up some stairs and break into a luxury apartment.

Once they’ve established it’s quite safe, Masen goes on a sortie for food. As he exits, a door further down the corridor opens and a young couple, obviously blind, leave their flat. The man navigates to the big window opposite, embraces his sweetheart and then steps through, plunging them to their deaths.

That’s two suicides Masen has seen, Josella being beaten up, people being crushed to death, the landlord who told him about his wife gassing herself and the children, young women getting parcelled out to rough men to abuse, children crying in the streets which are full of pitiful whimpering crowds. Brian Aldiss made the unjust criticism that Wyndham’s novels depicted ‘cosy catastrophes’, but this doesn’t feel at all cosy. It feels utterly harrowing.

Masen and Josella use an oil stove to fix up a fine meal and drink all the apartment owner’s sherry and wine. Afterwards, looking out the window, Josella notices a light pointing directly up into the sky, presumably a beacon, presumably set by someone who can see. But the thought of making their way across London’s increasingly lawless streets in the pitch black deters them.

Chapter 6 Rendezvous

Next day Masen and Josella drive towards the University of London building, see a crowd milling round the fence, park up Gower Street, make their way through back gardens to see a crowd laying siege to the gates. They watch the leader of the blind mob arguing with some kind of representative of the sighted people within. When this ‘leader’ seizes one of the insider’s arms and the mob turns ugly, those on the inside disperse it with sub-machine gun fire.

Once the mob has cleared, Masen and Josella present themselves at the locked gates and, as sighted people, are immediately let in. They discover a community of 30 or so people who have barricaded themselves into Senate House, most sighted although they have brought a few blind partners along. They are introduced to ‘the Colonel’, a plump chap trying to keep up a military bearing, and a colleague, Michael Beadley, who explains that they plan to load up with as much food and resources as they can, then leave London as soon as possible.

Masen is tasked with going to collect foodstuffs from various warehouses. When he returns, the others raise an eyebrow at him half filling a lorry with anti-triffid weapons. It turns out none of them have seen one, none of them have had anything like the experience Masen and Josella had at her parents’ house. But, having seen the movie half a dozen times, we, the readers, know better.

This chapter sees the inauguration of the theme of class in Britain. As Masen listens, he finds the man leading the mob difficult to place within England’s stratified class system because his voice veers between the educated and the common.

His voice was a curious mixture of the rough and the educated, so that it was hard to place him – as though neither style seemed quite natural to him, somehow. (p.118)

Indeed we will meet this man, Coker, later in the London episodes, and beyond and his amphibian nature, a man between two worlds, becomes a sort of symbol of the plot, or of all the characters, raised in one world, but having to face a completely different one.

Chapter 7 Conference

Having settled in with the Senate House community, Masen and Josella are called to a conference of the community in a lecture hall. A succession of speakers outline the need to leave London. It falls to a sociology professor from Kingston University, Dr. E. H. Vorless, D.Sc., to give a long speech saying times change and values with them. Everyone is going to have to work in the new world, and he predictably upsets the women present by pointing out the simple truth that they are going to have to breed, a lot, no more 2.4 children per breeding pair. If their children are to stand any hope of recreating anything like civilisation there are going to have to be a lot of them.

A number of women forcibly object – feminists because they don’t want to be treated like chattels; from the other end of the spectrum, a spirited Christian woman makes a speech from the floor saying she and others will not bow to this godless immorality, and gives the Christian interpretation that this entire catastrophe is God’s punishment for modern immoral society, a claim which can be made about more or less any society at any point in history.

Masen and Josella listen, smiling at the controversy. After the meeting they go out into the square behind Senate House and sit on a low wall. Masen is surprised when Josella suddenly says she’ll be happy to pair off with him. And then stunned when she says that he will also have to take responsibility for two blind women as well. It’s only fair. They will breed while he hunts, guards and so on. The new tribalism.

Chapter 8 Frustration

In the middle of the night, Masen is woken by shouting and the smell of smoke. People are yelling ‘Fire! Fire!’ He gets dressed in a flash and runs downstairs only to trip and fall and be knocked out. When he awakes he is in a small room, bare of everything but a bed and his hands are tied. A rough cockney geezer unlocks the door and gives him some food, but doesn’t untie his wrists.

Coker comes in. He is the ringleader of the mob who were baying at the gates of Senate House. He explains they broke into the building, started some small scale fires and set up tripwires at the bottom of stairs. It’s one of those that Masen tripped over. Then Coker’s gang rounded up the sighted people, tied them up or carried their unconscious bodies to the new location.

He gets out a map. He has a plan. He has divided London into sectors. Each sector will be assigned one sighted person and a group of the blind. Masen is assigned Hampstead. First he is tied to very tough blokes, no way he can jump them. So he’s given a group of blind people and he drives a lorry full of them to Hampstead. He scouts around for them and finds an empty hotel where he quarters them. Then he has to take them on foraging missions. This is it. He’s not intended to go back to Coker’s HQ. This will be his life, his future.

He describes how wearing it is trying to supervise blind people looting shops and loading stuff up. Not only that but some of them have started to report sick, stomach pains. On one expedition a few days in, they walk round the corner and one of the goons he’s tied to is shot down. Masen and the other hurriedly retreat back round the corner and Masen forces the other one to free him. He tells his group to walk away, stick together, stay in the middle of the road. He himself grabs a stick and pretends to be blind tottering along.

Round the corner comes the man who shot at them, the confident red-headed leader of the another gang which was looting one of the shops Masen was taking his posse towards. Red head walks behind Masen’s cohort, with Masen blindly tapping along the pavement behind him. Then one of the sickest of Masen’s gang falls to the floor, clutching his stomach. Red hair walks up to him, looks with distaste, then calmly shoots him in the head, turns and walks back to his gang.

Masen rounds up his gang, finds a lorry and takes them up Hampstead High Street. They’re looting a shop under his supervision when they’re attacked by triffids causing a mad panic. Many of the men are stung across the face, Masen leads them out the back of the shop, over a few walls into a small garage where he packs them into a Daimler and roars off past some triffids which lash out with their ten-foot stings. Things are going from bad to worse.

That night a blind girl comes to his bedroom at the hotel where they’re boarded. She has been sent by the others to offer herself to him to make him stay. Masen is overcome by the tragedy of so much beauty and freshness and innocence forced to abase itself. In the morning it is a warm day and for the first time he smells the smell of rotting flesh. The dead of London are rotting. Leaving the house he passes her room, she calls him in. She has got the mystery ailment, fever and bent double in cramps, she begs him for something to end it. Masen goes to the nearest chemist, finds something toxic, gives it to her and a glass of water, and leaves the house weeping.

God, the sense of loss, the immense human suffering, weighs heavily on the reader, well this reader, anyway.

Chapter 9 Evacuation

The book is full of meditations on what you’d have to do to survive, the steps you’d have to take, how you would have to change and adapt, drop a lot of the old ‘civilised’ values, be ready to defend yourself and yours.

Since I was sixteen my interest in weapons has decreased, but in an environment reverting to savagery it seemed that one must be prepared to behave more or less as a savage, or possibly cease to behave at all, before long.

So he drives to a gunshop in Westminster, which he thoroughly loots, and then heads to Victoria because he thinks that’s the part of London allotted to Josella. It is deserted like everywhere else. Wyndham makes a penetrating comment that the newly blind, people afflicted by this tragedy, prefer to nurse it silently indoors.

He finds an old blind lady. He gives her some cans and a can opener and she tells him she was part of a group led by a sighted woman and he prods her to give him enough of a description of the hotel where they were based for him to find it. But it is empty apart from a decent bloke who’s dying of the plague in the foyer. Masen gets him some water and the dying man confirms Josella was there but she’s left with her troupe. Doesn’t know where.

Masen drives back to the University of London. It’s now empty but inside someone has drawn an address on the wall, Tynsham Manor, near Devizes, Wiltshire. Masen finds four of the lorries are still there, including the one he loaded with the anti-triffid weapons. Well, so he’ll head off for Devizes in the morning.

He goes for a last walk in Russell Square, finds a triffid hiding in the undergrowth and blasts its top off with a shotgun. If you shoot the top of a triffid off it’s like decapitating it. It ceases moving or being a threat.

He sits against a big tree in the gardens, saying goodbye forever to London which is starting to reek of its dead. Then hears footsteps on gravel. He’s scared and, for the first time, realises what it was like for primitive man and what it’s going to be like for him – living in continual fear. Then the figure steps forward and he sees that it is… Coker, the orator, the mob leader, who kidnapped him and the others.

They decide to make a truce. Coker admits his initial strategy was wrong. Michael Beadley’s crew was right in wanting to leave London altogeher. They declare an amnesty for the past and will work together, leaving London together. They go into Senate House and so to bed.

Next morning they leave London in the two most-loaded lorries. Masen describes the difficulty of driving along roads littered with cars. They stop for gas and food. At one stop Coker quotes Shelley, which is slightly odd because Roger, a character in the 1956 apocalypse novel, The Death of Grass, is also given to quoting poetry, including Shelley. Was Shelley particularly popular in the 1950s, among middle-brow readers of science fiction?

And now we get an extended passage about the class system as Masen asks Coker straight out how come, a week ago he was rallying a London mob in broadest cockney but now is sounding quite middle class and quoting Shelley when he wants to. For someone like Masen this is confusing (p.161). Coker explains that he comes from a working class background but educated himself at night school so he could talk the language of the educated, the nobs, the people who run things (p.162). Still, Masen quietly proves his superiority by correcting Coker when he misquotes the famous lines from John Milton’s Lycidas, ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.’

Chapter 10 Tynsham

Masen and Coker arrive in their lorries at the manor house in the village of Tynsham in Wiltshire, as indicated by the message scrawled inside Senate House. It is populated by refugees from London but they discover that the Colonel and Michael Beadley are not there, as they expected. Instead they are shown through to the office of Miss Florence Durrant (p.172), who turns out to be the prim Christian woman who objected, during the conference at Senate House, to polygamy and breeding as being unchristian and immoral.

Our guys learn that when the London posse arrived at Tynsham there quickly developed a rift between Miss Durrant and her high-minded followers and the Colonel, Michael Beadley and most of the men. Most of the men left with the Colonel, drove off, Miss Durrant has no idea where. This left the community at Tynsham with five sighted women, a dozen blind women, some blind men and no sighted men at all. They have rounded up survivors from the nearby village and are planning to run a godly and moral community. On arrival they had discovered the mansion’s inhabitants had been killed by a few triffids loose in the grounds. Miss Durrant and the other sighted women had broken into the manor’s gun cupboard and blown the tops off 26 triffids. Over the previous few days more stragglers had arrived from London, mostly women. But not Josella. Masen is disappointed – he’d had been hoping all the way down that he’d find her here.

Masen chats to a young woman mending clothes by candlelight. Suddenly the electric lights come on and she is amazed. It was Coker, he found the generator and turned it on. He is appalled that the women hadn’t found it or realised there would be one. He takes it out in a big rant at the young darner, saying women are parasites, convincing themselves and men that they are too delicate, too spiritual and too high-minded to work. That’s why hitherto most have latched onto a man and then lived like leeches off his pay, while irresponsibly breeding children who others will have to educate.

Well, there’s a view you don’t hear very often these days, when the women of the past are uniformly portrayed as helpless victims of the patriarchy. The young woman storms out, Masen bursts out laughing.

Chapter 11 And further on…

Masen spends a sleepless night. He had hoped to find Josella at Tynsham, he is bitterly disappointed (a novel needs a  plot and so Masen’s quest for Josella is developing into the main motor of this one – as the Custance party’s odyssey across England to Westmorland is the motor of The Death of Grass). When pushed, Miss Durrant told them that the Colonel et al had headed off for a place called Beaminster in Dorset. Masen and Coker decide to go looking for them and drive off. More careful driving along car-strewn roads. Masen notices there are very few animals about, only vacant cows lowing to be milked.

In a place called Steeply Honey they see a man apparently trying to warn them away who, the moment he steps out his front door, is whiplashed by a triffid. Pushing on into the high street they park, Masen gets down, and is immediately confronted by a fair-haired man with a rifle.

Chapter 12 Dead end

But Coker has seen all this from the cab of the other truck and now enters from the side, pulling his weapon on the man. Both agree to lower them. Turns out fair hair is one of just three sighted people. They thought Masen and Coker were the advance guard of some mass gang from the city who they expect to come marauding at any moment. Masen and Coker put them straight – the cities are just massive mortuaries now. No marauding parties are coming from them.

The three locals take them to a fortified manor whither they’ve taken lots of weapons and food and turned into a base. From here, Masen and Coker persuade them to embark on a systematic sweep of the surrounding countryside looking for the Colonel’s party. They use maps to divide up the territory and set off on long lonely drives round the country, regularly beeping their horns, but find nothing.

It’s in these passages that we learn for the first time that the animals have been blinded by the comet, too. Cows and sheep are blundering around blinded. That explains his occasional references to seeing no animals except a few birds.

One of the locals manages to get a helicopter at a local airport working, and they fly low over large parts of the countryside, but they don’t find the London gang. They encounter scattered groups in farms and holdouts. When they land, these isolated groups simply refuse to believe the catastrophe is universal. Rather than joining together, they prefer to stay in the little groups and places they know. It is a very persuasive description of ‘disaster fatigue’, the refusal to accept what’s happened or to think straight. And trauma. The preference to stay within a small tight-knit community in places they know. Fear and trauma.

On one of his trips Coker unexpectedly recruits a forceful old lady, Mrs Forcett, who is a great cook. But the days are passing and nothing is changing. Coker makes a big speech saying they need to group together in as large a community as possible so that the labour of the many can enable the few to be teachers and pass on knowledge, otherwise the future is utter barbarity. For that reason he announces he is going to drive back to the Christian community at Tynsham. With its walls, extensive land and large buildings it has the potential to become an organised agrarian community.

Masen sees the force of Coker’s argument but, in the small hours, realises he is not going to go with him. He needs to find Josella, it is his quest. Back in London, on that moony evening when they sat outside Senate House and she surprised him by saying she wanted to pair off with him, she had mentioned her dream house, a lovely country house on the north-facing slope of the South Downs. Now, Masen knows he must seek her there.

Chapter 13 Journey in hope

So next morning Coker and the other three pack up and head off back north to Tynsham while Masen heads east to the South Downs. He becomes increasingly lonely driving through the silent countryside and the empty towns. In the New Forest he is startled when a small girl runs out into the road waving her arms. She is ten and named Susan, she asks him to come and see Tommy. Tommy is lying on the lawn of her house with the tell-tale red welt across his face where he’s been stung by a triffid. Masen spots it and blows its top off with his shotgun. Then confirms that Tommy is dead. Susan had been sent to bed early on the fateful night of the comet. Both her parents had been struck blind. First her father had gone to get help and never returned. Then her mother. She had a narrow escape from a triffid and warned Tommy not to go outside, but one day he had and… Masen buries the little boy, feeling desolate. Then loads up and takes Susan with him.

When it gets dark he stops for the night, scopes out a safe house, makes a meal, then outs Susan to bed. A little later he hears her sobbing and goes up to comfort her. The truth is he needs comforting, too.

Next day it rains heavily. They arrive on the north side of the South Downs around Pulborough. He has no idea where Josella’s house is or whether she’d be there. He has a brainwave. As it gets dark he finds a big detachable lamp attached to a Rolls Royce, sets it up on the front of the lorry and shines the powerful light across the long reach of the hills. There’s a bit of suspense and then, rather inevitably, Susan sees an answering light flickering in the distance. Excitedly they set off, it’s a long way, the rain obscures the view, the roads don’t go where you want them to, but eventually they identify the house on the hillside, drive up the drive, the door opens and out comes running… Josella!

I jumped down.
‘Oh, Bill. I can’t — Oh, my dear, I’ve been hoping so much…. Oh, Bill…’ said Josella.
I had forgotten all about Susan until a voice came from above. [in the cab of the lorry]
‘You are getting wet, you silly. Why don’t you kiss her in-doors?’ it asked.

Chapter 14 Shirning

The house is called Shirning Farm. Masen discovers it is owned by Dennis and Mary Brent. They’d been hosting guests, Joyce Taylor and Joan and Ted Danton on the night of the meteors. All five had been blinded. A few days later Ted had ventured out from the farm but never returned. Then Joan went to find him and never returned. Mary had been half-sting by a triffid through a part-open window, so they slammed all windows and doors shut, nursed her back to health and Dennis cobbled together an outfit covering all his skin and a mask from wire mesh, and had ventured on several terrifying trips to the nearest village in search of food.

Then Josella had arrived. Masen learns that a) she had been grabbed by Coker’s gang on the night they attacked Senate House b) she had been allotted a troupe of blind people to lead in the Victoria area c) when they began to drop like flies from the plague she’d made her way back to Senate House d) by enormous coincidence overhearing the shot of Masen decapitating the triffid in Russell Gardens on the same night when Coker had also returned and the two men had made a truce. But fearing a trap, Josella had turned back, taken a car and driven south to Shirning.

So now there are three sighted people there – Bill, Josella and young Susan – and the three blind ones. They set about fortifying the house, going on food trips. After three weeks Bill drives back to Tynsham Manor and returns with grim news. They’re all dead. Looks like the plague killed everyone. There was some kind of note pinned to the door but the piece with the text on had been torn off by someone or something, presumably a message about where the survivors were headed. Masen searched for hours but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Josella breaks down in tears. She wasn’t made for a life like this. Bill tries to reassure her that there must be thousands of groups like theirs scattered all over Europe. They just have to link up, he says, without much conviction.

Chapter 15 World narrowing

Quite a long passage describes the passing years, how Masen makes numerous trips to local towns for supplies and oil and petrol for the generator, fairly often goes up to London and watches its decay, grass colonising the rooftops, plaster facades falling into the street.

They erect a strong fence against the triffids, but on several occasions the plants break through and have to be fought off with flame throwers. Young Susan studies them closely and becomes convinced they can communicate and they have intelligence. They are watching and waiting.

One day he drives Josella to the south-facing part of the Downs and they sit looking down over the sea. They discuss the world their children will inherit, they wonder whether to tell them a myth, a legend about the old times. Masen worries that stories about the ancestors who had magic devices would crush the young, sit like a stifling shadow over them.

Then he shares with Josella (Josie) his theory that the event on that fateful night was no comet at all. What if the flashes which blinded everyone were the product of one of the numberless weapons satellites circling the globe at the start of the Cold War, which contained a weapon deliberately intended to burn out the optic nerves? What if it was an utterly man-made catastrophe after all (p.247)? God, that makes it even worse.

They have talked themselves into a mood of philosophical resignation, going so far as to say that if it all ends tomorrow, at least they will have had this time… when they hear a droning and realise a helicopter is approaching from the west. They start dancing around, waving their arms and shouting, but well before it gets close enough to see them, it abruptly changes direction and heads north inland.

The point being, its appearance destroys the mood of wistful resignation they had conjured up. Now both are on edge – maybe things aren’t sliding elegiacally towards an end. Maybe, somewhere, some people are doing a whole lot better than they are. How can they find them?

Chapter 16 Contact

Driving back from this jaunt they see smoke rising and they – and the reader – become terrified that it is the cottage at Shirning, the triffids have broken through the fence and some disaster has occurred.

Sure enough the fire is on their land, but it is the smoke stack not the house and… the helicopter they saw from the beach has landed in front of the house. Out of the house to greet them comes Ivan Simpson, the same man who had pinched a helicopter and landed it outside Senate House in London all those years ago.

He tells them that after they decided to leave Miss Durrant’s Christian commune at Tynsham, the Colonel and Michael Beadley’s group had gone north into Oxfordshire (and not south-west to Beaminster – that had been a complete fabrication on Durrant’s part) and spent two years building up a defensible property there. But after two years the proliferation of triffids all along the perimeter fences made them realise that maintaining the fences and patrolling the grounds against triffids had become impossible.

So Beadley’s group moved lock, stock and barrel to the Isle of Wight, figuring an island was the optimum defence. They had spent years eradicating the triffids with flame throwers from every inch of the island. In the spring seeds blow over from the mainland but it is reasonably easy to spot them and burn them out before they can grow.

All through this period Simpson had taken jaunts in the helicopter and landed wherever he saw survivor communities. A dead giveaway from the air was the dark band of triffid foliage surrounding any populated settlement.

There are now about 300 of them in the Isle. And then Coker had turned up. He told the story of Tynsham’s end. Some women arrived from London and they brought the plague. Coker quarantined them but it was too late, it spread, Coker and others fled but took it with them. Eventually they settled down in Cornwall, using a river as a block against the triffids, but it wasn’t secure. When Sampson discovered their community from the air, landed and explained about the security of the Isle of Wight, Coker’s group chose to go, packing into fishing boats and making the journey by sea.

Chapter 17 Strategic withdrawal

Next day Masen sets out on a day-long trip to fetch coal. When he returns he sees an odd, military style vehicle parked in the driveway. Josella exits the house to greet him and makes signs to be wary, and is followed by a tall tough looking man in combat fatigues. Josella introduces him as Mr Torrence. Torrence introduces himself as the chief executive officer of the Emergency Council for the Southeastern Region of Britain. Their base is in Brighton which is running out of food. The council have devised a plan to take over, or manage all the small communities within reach of Brighton. They’d heard about Shirning but not been able to locate it until Susan lit the fire yesterday.

Now Torrence presents a menacing offer. The council is a semi-fascist dictatorship. They have drawn up plans to sequester blind people on every habitable settlement near Brighton, twenty blind to two sighted. Slowly Masen realises that he is to treat them as serfs. He will give them food enough to work the land. When Masen protests that it’s preposterous, he’s not sure he’s got enough food to feed his six, Torrence explains he can feed the blind on mashed up triffid. On cattle fodder, in other words. As to working the land, there’s a shortage of horses, so he can get the blind to pull a plough. They will be little more than human pack animals. Masen, in turn, will ‘hold’ the property on the authority of the council in Brighton. It is pretty much a reversion to feudal authority.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Torrence goes on to justify his council’s authority on the basis that other organisations are probably springing up across Europe, soon they will organise and become powerful. England needs to generate a social structure, and food enough to feed the new young generation while they are trained to fight. He is, in other words, like all fascist organisations, basing his entire social structure on the anticipation of war.

Throughout this recitation Masen has veered from honest indignation to realising that Torrence is deadly serious and will confiscate the farm by force if they don’t go along with the scheme. More than that, Torrence says they will take Susan with them, claiming it is for her own good, but Masen can see she’ll be held as a hostage for his good behaviour.

Masen and Josella decide the best thing is to play along, to reluctantly and grumpily acquiesce. They do so and Josella volunteers to feed them. She puts on a big spread with lots of wine, lots of conversation till late in the night, trying to allay the suspicions of Torrence and his men and the latter, eventually, are put to bed in spare rooms.

At which point Masen and Josella round up the others. She had already pulled out some honey on his instructions. Now he sneaks out to the drive and pours the honey into Torrence’s military vehicles gas tank. Then Masen sneaks everyone out of the house and into the half-track. When they fire up the half-track’s engine it obviously wakes Torrence and his men but by that time Masen has driven the half-track at top speed through their carefully assembled protective gate and halfway down the battered road. They park a few hundred yards away and, looking back, can see the waiting triffids piling through the breached gate, even as lights go on in the house. Torrence and his men presumably make it to their vehicle because our team hear the sound of the ignition starting up but then sputtering and dying as the honey is sucked into the engine. Then silence. How grisly! Torrence and his four men are trapped inside a vehicle utterly surrounded by triffids, never to be able to escape. Or if they try, inevitably to be struck down… My God!

The abrupt ending

And that is the end. Quite suddenly, on the last page, Masen ceases his narration. They rendezvoused with Simpson who flew them over to the Isle of Wight and Masen declares that his own, personal account can now hand over to the broader account of the community on the Isle of White which has been written by a certain Elspeth Cary. It’s been a long and gruelling read. I felt upset and harrowed by many of the details. The text’s final words are:

So we must think of the task ahead as ours alone. We believe now that we can see our way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on a great crusade to drive the triffids back and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped out the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.

Hard not to feel this is an anti-climax, a very abrupt ending. Then again, it would have been difficult to continue at the same level of detail descriptions of the flight to Wight, the settling into the community and the many, many years which have followed. It would have required a second volume and, in fact, several authors have written sequels to the Wyndham original which carry the story on…

The persistence of America

Throughout the story, numerous characters express the conviction that the whole world may be blinded, but not America (pages 194, 201). They refuse to believe that America can have been affected. The isolated rural groups Masen meets around page 200 all refuse to accept that America won’t come to rescue them. The theme reaches a climax in the blind (sic) insistence of a young woman they meet in the West Country that America simply must be unaffected.

‘The Americans will be here before Christmas,’ said Stephen’s girl friend.
‘Listen,’ Coker told her patiently. ‘Just put the Americans in the jam-tomorrow-pie-in-the-sky department awhile, will you. Try to imagine a world in which there aren’t any Americans – can you do that?’
The girl stared at him. ‘But there must be,’ she said.

This directly echoes the way some characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, cling on to the belief that America has somehow survived the catastrophe which has plunged Europe into barbarism. The British survivors pick up radio signals from America long after the BBC has gone off air…

The way the theme of this ‘Micawber fixation on American fairy godmothers’ as Coker sardonically calls it (p.202) appears in both books meshed with my recent reading of a couple of history books about the immediate post-war period (The Accidental President by A.J. Baime and Crucible: thirteen months that changed our world by Jonathan Fenby) to make me realise the deep sense people who’d lived through the Second World War must have had that there was support and succour out there in the West – that even while they were bombed night after night by the Luftwaffe, everything would be OK as long as America was still free. In both these novels the survivors of apocalyptic events in England still look to American for succour and simply refuse to believe it, too, has been devastated.

Both novels make you realise the vast impact which American aid and money and general moral support during and after the Second World War had on the psyche of the war-torn populations of Britain and Europe, and how the sense of America’s dominance lived on long afterwards in Europe’s fictions.


Credit

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1951. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition.

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1900s

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1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

Historical notes

England had three king Edwards in a row, over a century of Edwards – Edward I (1272 to 1307), Edward II (1307 to 1327), Edward III (1327 to 1377).

Ed the first was a hard man who devoted himself to conquering Wales and Scotland, acquiring the nicknames Edward Longshanks (he was, apparently, over 6 foot 6 in height) and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’.

Edward III came to the throne as a boy (hence the unusual length of his reign, 50 years) and for the first decade England was ruled by his mother and her lover. Once he had thrown off their tutelage, he also became a mighty king, launching what became the Hundred Years War against France, during which his son, Edward the Black Prince, won famous victories at Crecy and Poitiers.

In between came the second Edward who is traditionally seen as one of the Middle Ages’ ‘bad’ kings. Not as awful as king John, but nonetheless he ruled unwisely, alienated the population, most of his nobles, struggled against rebellion and insurrection. The most notable battle of his reign was the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn where 6,000 Scots, led by Robert Bruce, crushed an army of 15,000 English infantry supported by 2,500 heavy cavalry.

Marlowe is not interested in much of this. What fascinates Marlowe the playwright is the relationship between Edward the fey king and his notorious favourite, Piers Gaveston. As a boy Edward was presented with a foster brother, a child named Pierce (alternately Piers or Peter) Gaveston, the son of a Flemish knight who had fought with the king against the Scots. Gaveston became Edward’s nearest friend and confidant, a relationship which grew into something deeper, a profound dependency.

This may or may not have been a homosexual relationship, in the modern sense of the word (Edward had a wife, Queen Isabella, of France) but Edward became intensely dependent on his favourite’s company, and showered him with inappropriate honours, land and titles, which helped to fuel widespread anger at both men. The French royal family took the closeness of the relationship as an insult to the queen, and so forced Edward to exile Gaveston.

In fact Gaveston was sent into exile not once, but three times, once under Edward I right at the end of the old king’s reign, and twice under Ed the second, from spring 1308 to July 1309 into Ireland, and from October to December 1311. In the play, Marlowe elides the second and third exiles into one. When Gaveston returned for a third time, in 1312, his behaviour continued to infuriate his enemies so much that he was hunted down and executed by a group of magnates. King Edward may have been distraught but he still had 15 years of reign left, so Gaveston was in no way the primary cause of his downfall.

Instead Edward now shifted his reliance to the Despenser family (referred to throughout the play as ‘Spencers’), and to another young man his own age, Hugh Despenser (Spencer) the Younger. It was as he shifted his reliance to this family, rewarding numerous members with honours and land, that a really determined opposition to Edward’s rule gained strength, and it solidified when his wife returned to Paris in 1325 and refused to come back. His regime began to collapse as his advisers abandoned him and Edward was forced to flee to Wales, where he was captured and taken to Berkeley Castle, where he died on 21 September 1327, it is generally thought he was murdered, and soon a gaudy rumour went around that he had been killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus and pushed up into his bowels.

Executive summary

The Elizabethan Drama website gives a good summary:

  • Part One: Act I.i – Act III.i – the Gaveston years (1307 to 1312)
  • Transitional Scene: Act III.ii – the scene ties together Gaveston’s removal in 1312 to Edward’s military challenge to Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322.
  • Part Two: Act III.iii – Act V.v – the final years of Edward’s reign (1322 to 1327)
  • Coda: Act V.vi, the final scene of the play; the end of the Mortimer era (1330).

The play

Act 1

Scene 1 Marlowe pitches us straight into the action, as we find Piers Gaveston onstage reading a letter from the king telling him his father (Edward I) is dead (7 July 1307), and to hasten back from exile to his bosom.

In his opening speech, Marlowe makes it crystal clear what kind of sensual sybarite Gaveston is:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die

It is very gay. Gaveston says that, having just returned from exile, he is like Leander, arriving panting on the shore having swum across the Hellespont to be with his lover, and looks forward to embracing the king, and ‘dying’ on his bosom, where dying has the obvious romantic meaning, but is also the Elizabethan sense of having an orgasm. And in this long quote note how Gaveston thinks entirely in terms of men and boys, men like satyrs, his pages dressed like girls (sylvan nymphs are always female), lovely boys coyly hiding their groins with olive branches. It is a gay fantasia.

It’s quite jarring when the play leaves these visions of sensual homoerotic bliss and, with a loud crunching of gears, suddenly turns into a Shakespeare history play with the abrupt arrival of King Edward, Lancaster, the elder Mortimer,Young Mortimer, Kent, Warwick, Pembroke and Attendants. Suddenly Marlowe tries to persuade us he is the author of a historical drama and it’s not totally believable.

Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, an immensely rich and powerful man, loathes the upstart Gaveston. He is exceeded in his hatred by Young Mortimer. Both tell Edward they promised the recently dead king to keep Gaveston in exile, so they are outraged that Edward has recalled him. Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a half-brother of King Edward, and he speaks up for Edward and reproaches the two others for daring to criticise the king. He goes so far as to suggest the king cut off Lancaster and Mortimer’s heads. Young Mortimer calls Edward ‘brain-sick’ and Lancaster says, if Gaveston is recalled, Edward should expect to have his head thrown at his feet. The angry rebellious nobles exit.

Gaveston has been hiding and overhearing and commenting in asides on the preceding dialogue. Now he steps out and lets Edward see him, who is delighted and embraces him. And promptly makes him Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Isle of Man. He offers him a personal guard, gold, and his own royal seal. Kent points that even one of these titles would be excessive for a man of Gaveston’s modest background, but this only incenses the king to shower more gifts on him.

Enter Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry. It was a quarrel with the bishop – caused when Gaveston invaded his woods to go hunting – that escalated till the old king, Edward I, sided with his bishop and exiled Gaveston. Now Gaveston gets the opportunity for revenge, the pair fall to insulting each other and Edward eggs Gaveston on to knock off the bishop’s headdress, tear his clothes and beat him up. Edward says he’ll seize all the bishop’s rents and assign them to Gaveston. Gaveston announces he’ll have the bishop consigned to the Tower of London.

It’s easy to see why all responsible subjects, at every level, would despise and hate Edward and Piers.

Scene 2 The elder and younger Mortimers, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster meet together and share how appalled they are at news of the wealth and titles Edward is lavishing on Gaveston. They are joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who tells them about the terrible treatment of the bishop of Coventry.

They are joined by young Queen Isabella (the historical Isabella was born in 1295 and so was 12 years old when she married Edward in 1307) who laments that Edward ignores her and gives all his attention, love and money to Gaveston. Together they decide to call a meeting of all the nobles, a parliament, and pass a law to banish Gaveston.

Scene 3 The briefest of scenes in which Gaveston tells Kent he knows about the plot. Basically it’s a fig leaf to pretend the passing of time, until…

Scene 4 The rebellious nobles assembled in Westminster. They’ve barely finished signing the document, when Edward himself arrives, seats himself on his throne with Gaveston at his right hand. All the nobles tut and complain at this inappropriate positioning. Edward orders officials to lay hands on the rebels, but the rebels issue counter-orders for Gaveston to be arrested and taken away, and it’s these orders the officials obey.

The archbishop remonstrates with Edward, but fiery young Mortimer interrupts to tell him to excommunicate the king, then they can depose him and elect a new one. The impact of all this for the reader is that both sides use extreme language – a kind of Tamburlainian excessiveness of language – right from the start.

Edward immediately capitulates, collapsing into a whining boy, handing out titles like sweeties to the assembled lords, so long as they’ll leave him part of England to frolic in with Gaveston:

So I may have some nook or corner left,
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston

Young Mortimer is genuinely puzzled why the king loves such a worthless fellow. Edward’s reply is disarmingly simple:

KING EDWARD: Because he loves me more than all the world.

Despite this avowal, Edward realises his entire nobility is against him, and so signs the document of Gaveston’s banishment, with tears. The nobles leave Edward alone on the stage to rage against their actions, and especially the tyranny of the archbishop and of the Catholic church, vowing to burn its churches to the ground, fill the Tiber with slaughtered priests and then massacre his entire nobility.

It is the totalising, hyper-violent mindset of Tamburlaine, there is no subtlety, none of the sensitivity of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Enter Gaveston who has heard he is to be exiled. Alas yes, says the king, but his love will never fade. Edward has the idea of sending Gaveston to be governor of Ireland (which is what actually happened, in 1308). They exchange miniature portraits of each other and then can’t take leave.

Luckily the queen enters and Edward lets her have both barrels, expressing his dislike, calling her a French whore (see what I mean about the intemperateness of the language?). Edward angrily accuses her of involvement in the exile plot, and leaves with Gaveston.

Alone onstage Isabella laments that she ever got married, wishing she had drowned on the sea crossing or been poisoned at her wedding.

Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, the Elder Mortimer and Young Mortimer re-enter and are sorry for Isabella, who they find sitting alone and weeping. She turns to them and begs them to repeal the banishment of Gaveston; they are astonished, but she explains that begging them for Gaveston’s return is the only hope she has of winning back Edward’s heart. She takes Young Mortimer aside and whispers her reasons to him as the others talk.

Then, to their consternation, Mortimer returns and begs the nobles to overturn their decision. He argues that Gaveston may make friends and allies in Ireland, on balance, better to have him back in London where a servant can be bribed to assassinate him. And banishing then recalling Gaveston will humiliate him and make him realise his place. And his bad behaviour will mean they have the people on their side. Isabelle thinks it’s a good plan, and hopes it will make the king love her again.

Edward re-enters, dressed in mourning and deeply lamenting the departure of Gaveston, wishing he had been struck dead by some fury from hell. So when Isabelle tells him the nobles have relented and will let Gaveston return, he embraces her, weeps and kisses her. But, quite obviously, not for her sake.

In his relief and delirium Edward showers the rebel nobles with titles and positions, Warwick shall be his chief counsellor, Pembroke shall bear his sword in processions, he offers Young Mortimer admiral of the fleet, or Lord Marshall, he makes Elder Mortimer, general of his army against the Scots.

Having acted and sounded like a proper king, Edward then calls in a messenger to send the recall to Gaveston in Ireland. And tells the lords he has arranged Gaveston’s marriage to the heir of the Earl of Gloucester, then invites them all inside for a feast.

Leaving the Elder Mortimer who tells the Young Mortimer the king has reformed, and goes on to list a number of rulers and heroes from the ancient world who had young male friends or lovers. Elder Mortimer trusts that, as Edward matures, he will abandon his youthful ‘toy’. Young Mortimer details what it is about Gaveston that infuriates him – the enormously expensive clothes he wear,s worth a respectable lord’s entire revenue, that he struts around the court, that he and the king mock respectable nobles. Still – both of them believe the king has made a sincere repentance.

Act 2

Scene 1 In the household of the Earl of Gloucester, who has just died, his servants Spenser and Baldock debate which great man to attach themselves to, Spenser electing the Earl of Cornwall (Gaveston). He goes on to lecture the bookish Baldock on how he needs to dress more boldly, and be more sycophantic, if he wants to rise in the world (all this being a satire on contemporary Elizabethan fashions and behaviour).

Enter Margaret de Clare, dead Gloucester’s sister and niece of Edward II. For years, since the first Edward’s time, she has been pegged to be married to Gaveston and now she reads out a letter he has sent her, declaring her his love. She tucks it in her bosom, where she hopes her lord will rest his head, and tells Spenser he will be rewarded for his service.

Scene 2 On the coast, with a party of nobles, Edward joyfully greets Gaveston as he returns from Ireland. To pass the time he asks the nobles what emblems they’ve come up with for the tournament he plans to hold in Gaveston’s favour. The king ignores news of the French king’s manoeuvres in Normandy, and the nobles notice all he cares about is his favourite.

The emblems are slyly critical of the king and he gets angry. Isabelle tries to calm him. But all is forgot when Gaveston actually appears and Edward enthusiastically greets him, then turns to his nobles to get them to greet him as keenly. Of course, they don’t, some being sarcastic, Gaveston is immediately offended and Edward eggs him on to insult them. The argument quickly gets out of control, Lancaster draws a sword as if to stab Gaveston, the king calls his servants to defend them, Young Mortimer draws a sword and does manage to wound Gaveston.

Gaveston is taken away and the king banishes Lancaster and Young Mortimer from his court. These two say Gaveston will lose his head, the king says it’s they who will lose their heads, and so the two parties exit opposite sides of the stage, threatening to raise armies.

Come, Edmund, let’s away, and levy men;
‘Tis war that must abate these barons’ pride.

Edward storms out and the rebel nobles make a vow to fight until Gaveston is dead. Enter a messenger who says Elder Mortimer, leading an English army, has been captured and his captors demand £5,000. With what seems to me wild inconsistency, Young Mortimer says he’ll go see the king (who he’t just declared war on) to beg for the ransom.

The scene cuts to Tynemouth castle, the idea that Young Mortimer and Lancaster force their way in past the guard and confront the king. He tells them to ransom Elder Mortimer themselves. They point out he was fighting in Scotland on the king’s behalf, and go on to give Edward a reality check: his royal treasury is empty, the people are revolting against him, his garrisons have been beaten out of France, while the Scots are allying with the Irish against the English, Edward is so weak foreign princes don’t bother sending him ambassadors, his treatment of his wife has alienated the French royal family, the English nobles avoid his court, and ballads about his overthrow are sung in the streets, the inhabitants or north England – overrun by the Scots – curse his and Gaveston’s names. Not a good situation, is it?]

EARL OF LANCASTER: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed;

Young Mortimer says he’ll sell one of his estates to ransom his old uncle and he and Lancaster storm out in a fury. Now even loyal Kent, the king’s half-brother, counsels the king to get rid of Gaveston, but the king furiously rejects his advice, and so Kent, the last word of sanity, reluctantly abandons him.

Enter Queen Isabella with waiting women and Spenser and Baldock. Very unfairly, the king blames Isabella for all his troubles – until Gaveston advises the king to dissemble and be nice to her. She is pathetically grateful for even the slightest show of affection. Conversation turns to Young Mortimer and Gaveston briskly recommends the king cut off his head.

It may be worth just pausing a moment here and noting there is something hysterical about all Marlowe’s plays. Maybe it’s because of the direct contrast with Shakespeare’s history plays, but there is absolutely no subtlety: Gaveston is madly passionately sensuously in love with Edward from the start, the king ignores his nobles, within a page or two of them appearing both parties are threatening to stab, murder, assassinate and overthrow each other.

Baldock and Spencer turn up and are taken into Edward’s service on the recommendation of Gaveston.

Edward confirms that he will marry Gaveston to Margaret, his (Edward’s) niece and only heir to the deceased Earl of Gloucester.

Digression on Marlowe’s lack of subtlety

In Dido, Aeneas either completely loved Dido or completely overthrew her in order to leave for Italy, there was no halfway house. Tamburlaine is turned up to maximum mayhem throughout both his plays. Barabas in The Jew of Malta is a scheming murderous miser from the get-go. There is, in other words, precious little subtlety in Marlowe, not psychological subtlety, anyway. What there is is the thrill of the extremity, exorbitance and hyperbole of so many of the emotions, the melodrama; and there is tremendous pleasure to be had from the combination of sensuality and power in the verse, in the quality of the poetry.

Scene 3 Kent announces to Lancaster, Young Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke and the other conspirators that he has broken with his half-brother, Edward, and is joining them. Some suspect he is a spy but Lancaster vouches for him. Whereat Young Mortimer tells the drums to sound so they can storm the castle in which are the king, Gaveston et al.

Scene 4 Inside Tynemouth castle as the rebels storm it Amid the alarms of battle, Edward tells Gaveston, Margaret and the queen to escape by ship, he will post by land with Spencer. They all exit except the queen, who is found when Lancaster and the rebels come onstage. She laments her unhappy lot, blaming everything on Gaveston. They ask where the others have gone, she explains the king split his followers into two parties hoping similarly to divide the nobles. Young Mortimer is sympathetic to the queen and invites her to go with them as they chase the king. She demurs. The rebels exit. Isabella is left alone and says she is beginning to love Mortimer, at least he is kind to her.

Scene 5 Country near Scarborough Enter Gaveston closely pursued by the lords who capture and arrest him. The leading rebels all declare they will have Gaveston hanged immediately, only refusing to stab him to death because it would dishonour them. At that moment enter the Earl of Arundel as messenger of the king, begging a last opportunity to see Gaveston. They all deny the request, urging that Gaveston be hastened to death but old Arundel gives his word that Gaveston will be returned, and then Pembroke nobly joins him. The others reluctantly agree.

The scene abruptly cuts to somewhere in southern England, the idea being that Pembroke and Arundel and their men guarding Gaveston have travelled this far to take him for his last interview with the king. In a page or so it is explained that Pembroke took the fatal decision to depart from the route for the night, to see his wife who lived nearby, and leave Gaveston in the charge of some of his soldiers.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Warwick and his men. They have ambushed Pembroke’s party while Pembroke was away. Now they capture Gaveston and drag him off to murder him.

Scene 2 Edward laments his Gaveston is lost. Young Spencer says, if it was him, he’d behead all the rebel nobles (this is exactly what Gaveston suggested right at the start of the play: that’s what I mean by lack of subtlety). Spenser’s father, Old Spenser, arrives with soldiers. He has come to serve his king. For his loyalty Edward creates him Earl of Wiltshire.

Enter the queen with letters from her brother the king of France, that he has seized Edward’s lands in Normandy. Edward charges his wife and young son to travel to France to negotiate with the French king. (In reality, the future Edward III was not born until 1312, after Gaveston’s murder).

Enter the Earl of Arundel with the news that Gaveston is dead. He recapitulates the story of his meeting with the rebels, his pledge to return Gaveston to them, how Warwick’s force ambushed Pembroke’s while their lord was away, abducted Gaveston, and cut his head off in a ditch. Well, Edward is not happy, although Marlowe lacks the psychology and the language to ‘do’ grief. He is much better at anger and vengeance:

Treacherous Warwick! traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursèd traitorous progeny.

Moving the plot briskly along, Marlowe has Edward adopt young Spenser as Gaveston’s replacement in his affections.

Even more briskly, the nobles send a messenger who demand that Edward rid himself of his new favourite, Spenser. This is one among many moments when Marlowe doesn’t just concertina events, he crushes them to a pulp, moving through the actual sequence of historical events at light speed. Edward contemns the nobles’ request, embraces young Spenser, chases the herald off the stage and vows defiance.

End of part one / part two

I found it invaluable to read the annotated Elizabethan Drama version of the play which, at this point, has an extended note which explains that there is now a Big Jump in time. The Gaveston years are over (Gaveston was murdered in 1312) and the play now leaps over ten years to 1322. A lot has happened, but Part Two opens with the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322. Edward is on the rise, has raised an army of 30,000, and chased Lancaster’s rebel army up the river Severn to the village of Boroughbridge.

Scene 3 The battle is in mid-flow and Marlowe brings Edward and his established favourite, Young Spenser, on one side of the stage opposite Lancaster, Young Mortimer and the other rebels on the other, so the two groups can hurl abuse at each other. He did the same thing in the Tamburlaine plays. For the umpteenth time Edward claims the rebels will pay with their heads.

Scene 4 The king is triumphant, crows over Lancaster, Warwick and Young Mortimer, commands his men to take them away and behead Lancaster, Warwick et al, but consign Young Mortimer to the Tower. Warwick calls him a tyrant. Edward and his train exit.

Leaving Young Spenser to brief an ambassador from France to go back to France and persuade the king and nobles to drop their support for Isabella. This requires a note of explanation: In March 1325 Isabella had returned to France and refused to return, sick of being ignored by her husband, and had begun to plot his overthrow. In this scene Spenser gives the ambassador gold to bribe French nobles away from the queen.

Act 4

Scene 1 London near the Tower Enter Kent who has been banished. He is hoping for a fair wind to carry him to France. He is joined by Young Mortimer, who has escaped from the Tower of London.

Scene 2 Paris It is 1325, three years after the Battle of Boroughbridge where Edward decisively established full control over his realm. We are in Paris with Queen Isabella and their son, Edward, the future Edward III. She had been sent there to broker a peace deal with the French king. In this scene she laments that England is under the rule of the rapacious Spencer family and the king under the thumb of Young Hugh Spencer, and also laments that her plans to raise the French nobles to support her return and overthrow Spencer, have come to nothing. She is ‘friendless in France.’

Enter Sir John of Hainault who invites them to come and stay at his estate. And then she is delighted by the arrival of Kent and Young Mortimer from England. They assure her many will rise up to overthrow Edward, if someone gives them a lead. All of them are grateful for Hainault’s offer of support and hospitality.

Scene 3 In King Edward’s palace at Westminster The king rejoices with his lackeys (young Spenser is now Earl of Gloucester) at his achievement, for the first time, of complete control over his realm. He gets Spenser to read out a list of the nobles who have been executed, then they discuss the reward they’ve put out on Young Mortimer’s head.

Enter a messenger with a letter from the ambassador sent to France warning that the queen and her allies (Mortimer and Kent) plan to return and raise a rebellion. Edward defies them, and calls on the winds to blow their fleet quickly across the sea to England so he can defeat them in battle.

Scene 4 Harwich The rebels have landed (24 September 1326). Queen Isabella laments her husband’s bad kingship. She is superseded by Mortimer who makes a speech to the assembled troops explaining they have come with two specific goals: to reclaim for Isabella all the lands that have been sequestered by the Despencer family; and to remove the king’s bad advisers (the Despencer family).

Scene 5 Bristol The queen’s party gained strength as it marched on London, and Edward was forced to flee West. At the start of the scene Spenser counsels the king to take ship to Ireland, Edward demurs and says they must stand and fight, but Baldock counsels flight and they scarper.

Enter Edmund Duke of Kent, Edward’s half-brother who – if you remember – was loyal for most of the first half, before being driven to join the rebels. Now he regrets it, now he’s seen Young Mortimer snogging the queen, he fears their aim to overthrow the king altogether:

Fie on that love that hatcheth death and hate!

Bristol has surrendered without a struggle to the rebels. Kent is worried that Mortimer is watching him.

Enter Queen Isabella, Prince Edward, Young Mortimer, and Sir John of Hainault. They have triumphed. Edward has fled. His son is declared Lord Warden of the realm. Kent asks how they’re going to treat the king? Mortimer mutters to Isabella that he doesn’t like Kent’s soft attitude.

A Welsh nobleman enters with the elder Spencer. He says Young Spenser has taken ship with the king to Ireland. Mortimer orders Elder Spenser to be taken away and executed.

Scene 6 Neath Abbey (Historical note: by mid-November, Edward and his few remaining followers – including Arundel, Baldock and Younger Spenser – were in hiding at the abbey of Neath in south Wales.) The abbot welcomes the small party to the abbey. Edward appreciates the peace and quiet.

They’ve barely been assured they are quite safe here, before enter Welsh nobleman Rice ap Howell and Leicester to arrest them for high treason. Spenser and Baldock are taken away – the general idea, to be beheaded – the king is to be escorted to Kenilworth Castle. When Leicester says they have a litter ready to convey him, Edward lets fly with some Marlovian hyperbole:

A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence.
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

Note the characteristically Marlovian use of Greek classical myth. Leicester takes away the king. Baldock and Spenser lament their fate. Arundel and Spencer were hanged, castrated and eviscerated.

Act 5

Scene 1 (Historical note: It is now 20 January 1327. Edward is being kept at Kenilworth castle. He has surrendered the Great Seal to Mortimer and Isabella) Leicester is treating Edward kindly, but Edward has a long speech lamenting his situation. Parliament has sent a delegation (the bishop of Winchester and Trussel) asking him to abdicate. Edward takes off his crown but is loath to hand it over and delivers a lengthy soliloquy whose beauty and unexpected sensitivity anticipates Shakespeare.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The nobles demand he resign the crown to his son, young Edward, for the time being the ward of the queen and Mortimer, but Edward, for page after page, agonises, accuses them, prevaricates – it is genuinely moving in a way rare for Marlowe. He tells them to take his handkerchief, wet with tears, to the queen.

Sir Thomas, Lord of Berkeley Castle, arrives with a commission to take possession of the king (he is being passed from one gaoler to another). Giving up the crown has plunged him into despair. They explain where they’re taking him, he doesn’t care:

EDWARD: Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial.

Scene 2 The royal palace Now run by Queen Isabella and her lover, Young Mortimer. Mortimer presses the urgency of having young prince Edward crowned, so as to cement his authority and Mortimer’s power. The queen assents to whatever her lover suggests.

Enter the bishop of Winchester with the crown, with rumour that Kent is planning to free his half brother the king, and that Edward is being moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle.

To end their anxiety Mortimer explicitly asks the queen if she wants Edward dead, and she reluctantly, weakly agrees. Mortimer calls in two junior nobles, Baron John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, draws up and signs an order handing the king over to their care. Mortimer explicitly orders them to mistreat the king, humiliate and abuse him, move him from place to place, to Kenilworth then back to Berkeley so no-one knows where he is.

Enter Kent and the young prince Edward. The prince is understandably concerned about his father, Kent has several asides in which he laments his support for Mortimer and condemns Isabella for her hypocrisy. This breaks out into an open squabble as Mortimer physically grabs the prince to separate him from Kent, Kent asserts that as Edward’s nearest blood relative he should be protector to the prince. Both parties exit different sides of the stage.

Scene 3 King Edward is now in the care of Matrevis and Gurney, who systematically mistreat him, as ordered by Mortimer, giving him puddle water to drink, roughly force-shaving him.

Enter Kent who wants to speak with the king, but he is seized by soldiers. The king is roughly bundled into the nearby castle, while Kent is ordered to be taken before Mortimer, the real power in the land.

Scene 4 Mortimer knows the king must die but that, whoever does the deed will suffer once his son is mature. Therefore he contrives an ambiguous letter, which can be read both as ordering Edward’s death, but warning against it. He gives it to a messenger, Lightborn, to take to Matravers. He questions him about his qualifications and Lightborn assures him he knows numerous ways of murdering and killing. The precise method he’ll use on Edward, he keeps secret. What Mortimer is keeping secret from Lightborn is that along with the message, he is being given a token to show the captors which will instruct them that Lightborn himself be murdered once he’s killed Edward. Lightborn exits.

Mortimer soliloquises, reflecting on how he now has complete and ultimate power.

Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.

The setting changes (in that easy immediate way which was possible on the bare Elizabethan stage) to Westminster. Enter King Edward the Third, Queen Isabella, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Champion and Nobles, and we witness the coronation of young prince Edward to become King Edward III. This actually took place on 1 February 1327.

The first thing that happens before the new king is his half-uncle Kent is dragged in by soldiers who tell Mortimer Kent had attempted to free the king from imprisonment. Incensed, Mortimer immediately orders him to be beheaded, but the new king intercedes for his uncle but discovers there is nothing he can do, and Kent is dragged off to be executed. Edward fears that he himself will be next and complains to his mother, who promises to protect him.

Scene 5 A hall in Berkeley castle Matravers reveals that Edward is being kept in a dungeon filled with water up to his knees, yet he survives. They are planning to call in Edward and abuse and humiliate him some more when Lightborn arrives, shows them the ambiguous letter (from which they realise Edward is to be murdered) and the token (which signals that Lightborn himself must be murdered thereafter).

Lightborn gives instructions to what he needs – a red-hot spit and a feather bed – takes a torch and goes down into the dungeon where Edward is kept. He is repelled by the darkness and the stink. Edward knows he’s come to murder him, He describes his conditions, forced to stand for ten days in water soiled by the castle’s sewage, someone playing a drum continually so that he cannot sleep. It’s worth noting, in passing, that the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethan era describing them, were both well aware of the power of psychological as well as physical torture.

Edward accuses Lightborn of going to murder him. Lightborn says he will not have his blood on his hands and Edward is slightly appeased. We know Lightborn will not literally have blood on his hands as he does not intend to stab Edward, but to insert the red-hot poker in his anus. It is a very black piece of humour on Marlowe’s part.

Somehow a bed appears in the scene. Some editors suggest Lightborn has brought Edward onstage i.e. up out of the ‘dungeon,’ where a bed has been brought by Matravers. Now Lightborn gently coaxes Edward to lie down on it. Edward’s spurts of misgiving and fear are surprisingly moving, for Marlowe. He closes his eyes, begins to drift off, then suddenly starts awake and says he fears if he sleeps he will never wake.

At which Lightborn confirms it’s true, shouts for Matravers and Gurney to come running in with a table which they turn upside down and lay on Edward’s body and press so hard they suffocate him. No red-hot poker? No. It was by Marlowe’s time part of the legend of the king’s murder and is in his primary source, but Marlowe chose to leave it out. Possibly because of the censorship, murdering a king was historical fact, but such a crude torture of the lord’s anointed might have got the play in trouble with the authorities.

No sooner is Edward dead and the other three stand back from their labours, than Matravers stabs Lightborn to death. Grim and brutal. Mind you, if you think about how Shakespeare handles the death of kings or emperors, it always involves extended metaphors of Nature turned upside, down, earthquakes, graves yawning open, night-owls shrieking and so on. All that kind of supernatural paraphernalia is utterly absent from this account.

Scene 6 The royal palace Matravers reports to Mortimer that the king is dead, Lightborn murdered but Gurney has fled and might well leak their secret. Enraged, Mortimer tells him to get out before he stabs him.

Seconds later Queen Isabella enters to tell Mortimer that young Edward III has heard his father is murdered, tears his hair with grief, and has roused the council chamber against Mortimer. a) Edward has heard almost before Mortimer himself – or, more precisely, as soon as the audience has been informed of an action, it is one of the conventions of these dramas that all the other characters learn the same information at the same time. Young Edward has not only learned about his father’s murder, but raised the council about it, in approximately the same space of time it took Isabella to tell Mortimer about it, maybe 60 seconds.

These plays take place in magic time, in a sort of imaginative time which is closer to our unconscious sense of the connection between events and people, than to our everyday, rational understanding of time. In actual history, three years passed between the murder of Edward II and the revolt of young Edward III against his ‘Protector’, Mortimer, and the Queen. In this play not even three minutes pass.

Enter King Edward the Third, Lords and Attendants. Edward has grown in stature and now takes upon himself the authority of king, says his murdered father speaks through him and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer says where’s the evidence but Edward produces the letter Mortimer gave Lightborn (it appears the Gurney must have handed it over).

Edward orders Mortimer to be taken away in an executioner’s cart, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sounds brutal – it is brutal – the intention was to demonstrate the utter control over every subject’s body of the all-powerful monarch.

Mortimer delivers a dignified soliloquy about facing death, then is taken away by officers. Edward is uncertain how to treat Isabella who pleads with him as her own flesh and blood that she had no part in the murder. Edward orders her to the Tower of London pending more police work and maybe a trial. Isabella weeps a few more phrases of regret, and is taken away.

Officers enter with the head of Mortimer. See, it’s Magic Time, by which I mean that orders are no sooner given than they are carried out, as the unconscious mind wishes all its desires to be enacted, immediately. It is more like dreamtime than the Real World. This may be a so-called history play but it is, in this respect, as much an inhabitant of fairy land as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mortimer’s head is given to Edward who speaks to it, cursing that he was too young to prevent his father’s murder.

Attendants enter with the hearse of King Edward II (who had, in Real Time, been dead and buried for three years), so that Edward can put on his funeral robes, make his last speech – offering his dead father the traitor’s head, weep for his father, then everyone processes offstage to presumably funeral music, maybe the slow beating of a drum.

Thoughts

The history of the events described in this play are long and complex and it is impressive the way that Marlowe manages to contract and compress them into a dramatic whole.

Like Shakespeare he gets characters’ ages wildly wrong (young prince Edward appears towards the end of Part one when he hadn’t in fact been born yet), puts characters on the wrong sides of the conflict, conflates two characters into one or just invents them as he needs them. He has bent and twisted the events related in his sources, mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, entirely to suit his own needs.

But more than that, what comes over is the immense freedom of the Elizabethan stage as a medium: a few props could be moved around on an empty stage and, bingo, we have moved from a room in the king’s palace to open country in Yorkshire, a handful of people wearing robes march onstage and we are at the king’s coronation, they all exit and a curtain at the back of the stage is drawn apart to reveal the king in his dungeon.

This makes Elizabethan plays difficult to stage, but amazing to read, because of their blithe indifference to the limits of reality or factuality. Almost in mid-sentence characters transition from one setting to another, can walk from a castle in Wales into a palace in London. Quite quickly you get used to the range of settings the playwrights deploy, and the extraordinary freedom with which they deploy them, the speed with which they get to the point, the kernel of a scene, with characters over-reacting, storming and raging, falling helplessly in love – whatever it is, the playwrights get straight to the heart of a scene and then milk it for all it’s worth.

It is a fast-moving parade of colourful scenes which, repeatedly remind me more of pantomime, with its garish baddies and soppy love affairs, and comedy turns, than 21st century media like TV plays or serious film.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston (1605)

Six salient facts:

1. Eastward Ho and Westward Ho were the cries of the watermen who plied on the Thames, telling customers which way they were headed.

2. Eastward Ho! was a collaboration between three leading playwrights of the era, George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston. Scholars have been arguing for centuries about who wrote which bit.

3. Eastward Ho! was staged at the Blackfriars Theatre by a company of boy actors known as the Children of the Queen’s Revels, granted a patent by King James I in 1604. Boy actors! So imagine everything that follows being played by boys! All the double entendres and jokes about pricks and purses, Gertrude making eyes at Quicksilver, Sindefy the whore, all the vamping… boys.

4. Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre. This was an enclosed theatre which catered to a financial elite, charging sixpence admission, compared to 1 pence at the more popular and open-to-the-elements Globe Theatre.

5. Eastward Ho! includes references to and parodies of popular contemporary plays such as The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine and Hamlet. Even the play’s title is a reference, a riposte to the recently performed Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, who then went on to write Northward Ho! as a response to Eastward. Jacobean theatre was a tightly packed, highly competitive, self-referential little world.

6. The play contained scathing satire on all manner of subjects to do with contemporary London life, but one of these was the widespread animosity against the many Scots who had accompanied the new king, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in March 1605, down to London. Chronically poor from the start of his reign, James quickly became notorious for selling knighthoods for £40. 900 were sold in the first year of his reign. This created a mercenary atmosphere of corruption, that all that mattered was money, a sense that you could get rich and climb the social ladder overnight by clever scams. This is the corrupt vision which lures Quicksilver, Petronel and Security, the play’s three baddies, who all hope to get rich quick by various scams – and who are balanced by Touchstone, standing for the bourgeois virtues of hard work, and Golding, who stands for loyalty and honesty.

Having read the play I’m surprised that the handful of satirical references to the Scots and the selling of knighthoods are relatively trivial, you could blink and miss them.

1. When Sir Petronel Flash is washed up on the Isle of Dogs two passing gentlemen mock him, and then one – out of tune with his preceding remarks – says something in a Scots accent:

FIRST GENTLEMAN: On the coast of Dogs, sir; y’are i’th’ Isle o’ Dogs, I tell you, I see y’ave been washed in the Thames here, and I believe ye were drowned in a tavern before, or else you would never have took boat in such a dawning as this was. Farewell, farewell; we will not know you for shaming of you. I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: No, no, this is he that stole his knighthood o’ the grand day for four pound given to a page; all the money in’s purse, I wot well.

It’s peculiar the way this one-off remark and its odd Scottish impersonation sticks out from the text around it, as if it’s been cut and pasted onto the rest of his speech in English. It’s an oddly random moment in the text

2. In the pub, the gentlemen who are joining the expedition to Virginia ask Captain Seagull what it’s like and he sets off on a long deceitful description of how it’s overflowing with gold,m in the middle of which he suddenly segues into a passage about Scots, and the jokey idea that it would be lovely if all the Scots in London could be magically transported to America.

SCAPETHRIFT: And is it a pleasant country withal?
SEAGULL: As ever the sun shined on; temperate and full of all sorts of excellent viands: wild boar is as common there as our tamest bacon is here; venison as mutton. And then you shall live freely there, without sergeants, or courtiers, or lawyers, or intelligencers, only a few industrious Scots, perhaps, who indeed are dispersed over the face of the whole earth. But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they are out on’t, in the world, than they are. And for my part, I would a hundred thousand of ’hem were there, for we are all one countrymen now, ye know, and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here.

Someone reported the playwrights to the authorities as disrespecting the new king. Marston got wind of it and went into hiding, but Jonson and Chapman were briefly imprisoned for lèse majesty.

Ten years later, Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden (a Scots writer who he stayed with on a visit to Scotland) that they thought they might have their ears and noses slit.

It’s very difficult for us to really assimilate the casual violence and casual death of the Elizabethan/Jacobean period. Tens of thousands died of the periodic outbreaks of plague. There were plenty of other ailments to die of in between. You were liable to be conscripted for one of the endless wars. Jonson is known to have killed a fellow actor in a duel. The plays refer to the common punishment of being whipped. And here are a couple of poets in gaol for a few weeks wondering if they’ll publicly have their ears cut off or noses slit! As I say, difficult for us to really imagine what life was like.

What happened to Jonson and Chapman? The pair wrote letters to every influential patron and person they knew asking for their intercession. These letters are included as an appendix in the New Mermaid edition of the play and very interesting reading they make, too. Eventually, they were released, whereupon they threw a big banquet for their friends and supporters.

Cast

There’s quite a large cast (all played by boys!):

Touchstone, a goldsmith.
Quicksilver, and Golding, apprentices to Touchstone.
Sir Petronel Flash, a shifty knight.
Security, an old usurer.
Bramble, a lawyer.
Seagull, a sea-captain.
Scapethrift, and Spendall, adventurers bound for Virginia.
Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice.
Poldavy, a tailor.
Holdfast, and Wolf, officers of the Counter.
Hamlet, a footman.
Potkin, a tankard-bearer.

Mistress Touchstone.
Gertrude, and Mildred, her daughters.
Winifred, wife to Security.
Sindefy, mistress to Quicksilver.
Bettrice, a waiting-woman.
Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Gazer, Coachman, Page, Constables, Prisoners, &c.

Eastward Ho! plot summary

Master Touchstone is an honest but tetchy goldsmith. He has two daughters and two apprentices. The elder daughter, Gertrude, is ‘of a proud ambition and nice wantonness’, the younger, Mildred, ‘of a modest humility and comely soberness’. So with the apprentices who are nicely paired & contrasted, Quicksilver is a graceless unthrift ‘of a boundless prodigality’, but Golding is ‘of a most hopeful industry’, a model of industry and sobriety.

Act 1 scene 1 The play opens with Touchstone and Frank Quicksilver arguing, the latter insisting he is the son of a gentleman and is off to the pub to hang out with gallants and gull them out of money. Crossly, Touchstone says that he rose by hard work and repeats his catchphrase, ‘Work upon it now!’ Touchstone exits and Golding is left alone with Quicksilver, who insults Touchstone for being a flat-capped bourgeois, swears a lot and it is in this speech that Quicksilver says Golding shouldn’t face West to the setting sun, but look out for himself and fare Eastward Ho!

As the play develops East is associated with:

  • the rising sun
  • the mythical castle in the country which Sir Petronal Flash claims to own
  • the direction down the Thames the ship to America will take

Act 1 scene 2 Proud Gertrude is impatiently awaiting the arrival of her suitor, Sir Petronel Flash, while meek and mild sister Mildred watches her dress up in pretentious finery, mock the lowly origins of her own parents, and look forward to becoming a fine lady. Her tailor, Poldavy, encourages her to prance and bob like a ‘fine lady’. She is a type of the pretentious bourgeois.

Enter Sir Petronel Flash who quickly comes over as a superficial fool. Mistress Touchstone is as keen to be rich as Gertrude and the two of them, plus Flash, make a bevy of pretentious fools. Mistress T explains that Sir Petronel is one of the new knights, a reference to James I’s innovation of selling knighthoods. Gertrude wishes him to take her away from all this to his big house in the country. She uses the affected pronunciation of city-dames, namely saying ‘chity’ and ‘chitizen’.

The pretentious threesome exit leaving the stage to Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Rather surprisingly Touchstone marries Golding to Mildred. She is all filial loyalty and so meekly agrees, Golding swears his devotion to his master and they go in to have a little wedding meal. Touchstone, alone on stage, explains that he is running a little experiment:

This match shall on, for I intend to prove
Which thrives the best, the mean or lofty love.
Whether fit wedlock vow’d ’twixt like and like,
Or prouder hopes, which daringly o’erstrike…

There is no mention of any love or affection whatsoever between the young couple. It is a striking example of Jonson’s didactic theatre, utterly lacking either the magical romance of Shakespeare’s comedies, or the innocent mirth of Dekker’s Shoemakers’ Holiday.

Act 2 scene 1 Next morning outside Master Touchstone’s shop. He calls Quicksilver to him, who is hungover and explains he got smashed at the party to celebrate Gertrude and Sir Petronel’s wedding. He staggers off to drink some more. Touchstone retires and listens to the conversation of Golding and Mildred which is exemplary for love and devotion. At this point Quicksilver staggers back on stage, positively drunk and asks first Golding, then Touchstone if he can borrow money.

Touchstone has had enough and throws him out, giving him his indenture and all other belongings. Very drunk, Quicksilver quotes the opening speech from Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, then swears at Touchstone:

Quicksilver: Sweet Touchstone, will you lend me two shillings?
Touchstone: Not a penny.
Quicksilver: Not a penny? I have friends, and I have acquaintance; I will piss at thy shop-posts, and throw rotten eggs at thy sign.

As Quicksilver staggers offstage, Touchstone abruptly frees Golding from his apprenticeship, offers him a handsome dowry and promises to host a marriage feast even more spectacular than Petronel’s. Golding, modest and sober, demurs, saying it would be profligate and wasteful and he and Mildred will be happy to have a small ceremony with just Touchstone present, and then consume the cold leftovers from Petronel’s feast. Touchstone remarks that his daughter is now impatient to seat off Eastward to her knightly husband’s country pile.

Act 2 scene 2 At Security’s house. Security has a little soliloquy in which he introduces himself as Security, the famous usurer, who keeps people’s belongings, in this case the fine clothes of Quicksilver, who in the past has nipped in here to swap his prentice clothes for fancy togs to go meeting his gallant mates.

Enter hungover Quicksilver climbing into his swagger clothes. The notes explain the business relationship between the two: Quicksilver pretends friendship to city rakes and gallants, lends them money, then pretends to be in debt, persuades them to sign a bond for a commodity or an exorbitantly high-interest loan payable to Security, for which they are responsible. In other words, Quicksilver dupes his ‘friends’ into getting into deep debt with Security: which is why Security keeps his clothes and minds his affairs for him.

Security is married to a young woman, Winifred but has a sexy servant, Sindefy, ‘Sin’ for short, who comes bearing the rest of Quicksilver’s posh clothes. Quicksilver calls Security ‘Dad’. After lengthy speeches about how they rely on no trade, preferring to make money out of money, (which are designed, I think, to make the audience despise them) Security lays out their latest plan: Quicksilver will get Sir Petronel Flash into his debt. They’ve learned that Flash married Gertrude to get his hands on her inheritance, to convert it to cash and take ship for Virginia as a ‘knight adventurer’.

They devise a Plan: Gertrude has not yet gone down to the country to visit her husband’s (fictional) castle, but is still in London. Quicksilver will visit her and will help the introduction of Sindefy who will take on the character of a gullible young woman just up from the country – you can just imagine this will lead to an orgy of ridiculous social pretentiousness.

Just before they pack up, Security is called offstage by his wife (?) Winnie, leaving Quicksilver alone. Out of Quicksilver’s mouth oozes pure, malicious evil, as he insults Security behind his back and says he hopes to live to see dog’s meat made of his flesh. This sounds like Ben Jonson. It is exactly the tone of vicious hatred which animates Mosca in Volpone. Coming from the bonhomie of The Shoemakers’ Holiday, this kind of thing is like treading in dog poo.

Act 2 scene 3 Quicksilver is at Petronel’s London lodging as the latter prepares to set off. He wants to flee London to escape his wife, who he can’t stand. He readily admits he has no castle in the country, something Gertrude will shortly find out. With what I think of as typical Jonsonian heartlessness, Petronel hopes Gertrude will hang herself in despair.

Quicksilver persuades Petronel to stay and get Gertrude to sign over her inheritance, give it in bond to Security who will increase its value. Enter Gertrude now dressed grandly and swanking with grand manners, telling the men when to doff their hats and when to put them back on.

Security presents to her Sindefy, demurely dressed, and preposterously describes her as a simple country girl who intended to become a nun but has come up to the big city seeking advice. In her pretentiously lofty manner, Gertrude agrees to employ her as her personal maid.

Security invites Petronal to come and dine with him but Gertrude is hen-pecking him, and refuses to let him go, insisting they dine at home so she can quickly take him to bed. Quicksilver and Security make cheeky asides about her being bossy. Finally it is agreed that Petronel will visit Security the following morning.

Act 3 scene 1 The next morning at Security’s house, he has just given Petronel a fine breakfast feast. They exchange extravagant compliments, Security promising to make Petronel godfather to his first child, while Petronel gives him a diamond to give his first-born, and Security makes his young wife, Winifred, kiss him. Security’s lawyer, Bramble, has drawn up documents.

Enter the captain of the ship taking Petronel, Captain Seagull and Spendall who say they must haste and leave under cover since the ship is taken out in a false name.

Act 3 scene 2 An inn-yard where the harassed coachman and servant makes haste to prepare Gertrude’s coach. She is obsessed with being the wife of a knight and having a coach. Two city women, Mistresses Gaze and Fond, line up to watch the show and shout encouragement to Mistress Gertrude, who is accompanied by her mother, Mistress Touchstone, equally impatient to be a Great Lady.

Petronel himself arrives and asks her to wait, but she says she is impatient to decorate his castle for his arrival. Quicksilver also enters and tells Gertrude her father has just officiated at the wedding of Golding and Mildred. Gertrude is disgusted at her father for marrying her sister to a common apprentice: henceforth he (her father) will have to call her ‘Madam’.

Enter Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Gertrude is appalled her sister got married in such a common hat. Touchstone disowns her for snobbery. Gertrude insults Golding for marrying her sister. Golding is tactful and considerate of his master.

Enter Security and his lawyers and they cozen Gertrude into signing away her inheritance, she thinking it’s a minor property in town and the money will be used to beautify the castle. She and Mistress Touchstone and Sindefy, her maid, depart in the coach. Petronel and Quicksilver discuss the very great disappointment Gertrude is going to have when she discovers he has no castle – but by then Petronel will have fled the country.

Petronel expects Security to bring him the money they’ve discussed at Billingsgate. There then follows a complicated sequence during which Petronel reveals to Security that he is in love with the wife of Security’s lawyer, Bramble. He would like, as a favour, Security to take Bramble out for a drink, while he steals Bramble’s wife away. Security enters into the spirit of the plot and exits. Only then do Petronel and Quicksilver reveal that, while Security is out with Bramble, Petronel will steal away Security’s wife, Winifred. Quicksilver and Petronel are fretting about how to disguise her, when Security unexpectedly re-enters and says the best disguise will be his wife’s cloak and hands it over.

Act 3 scene 3 Captain Seagull and his men (Spendall and Scapethrift) are at the Blue Anchor tavern, Billingsgate, awaiting Petronel. His dim men ask about Virginia and Seagull confidently tells them the streets are paved with gold, says the expedition there of 1579 was a great success and the Englishmen intermarried with the natives.

Petronel arrives and they toast the success of the voyage. Security and Bramble arrive, impressed with the toasting and confidence of the crew. Quicksilver arrives with Security’s wife in disguise and wearing a mask. Petronel explains, ostensibly for the benefit of Bramble, that it is a cousin come to see him off who doesn’t want to be recognised in a low tavern.

She is crying and so Petronel asks Security, as a favour, to comfort her. This is designed to elicit howls of laughter from the audience, as Security is all unknowingly comforting his own wife, telling her she is well shot of ‘an old jealous dotard’ and will soon be in the arms of a young lover! About six times various characters make the joke that the ship is bound that night for Cuckold’s Haven, a real place, on the Thames below Rotherhithe.

Increasingly drunk, Petronel suggests to the company that they hold their farewell feast aboard Sir Francis Drake’s old ship, and they dance round the silent, disguised woman to celebrate the idea. Bramble tells Security the mystery woman is wearing Security’s wife’s clothes, but Security just laughs at him, confident that she is Bramble‘s wife – everyone in the audience, of course, laughing at him.

Security and Bramble go their ways but the rest of the company calls for a boat to take them to Sir Francis Drake’s ship, where they’ll get even more drunk, before setting off to be put aboard their final ship. The pub’s drawer watches them go, remarking that the tide is against them and a storm is brewing and it is a fool’s errand.

Act 3 scene 4 A very brief scene, just long enough for Security to return home, find his wife not there, discover that she is at Billingsgate, make the deduction that she is the mystery woman and is sailing with Petronel, and run off yelling for a boat.

THE STORM

Act 4 scene 1 Cuckold’s Haven There’s a storm blowing and the Thames is turbulent, A fellow named Slitgut is climbing up a tree at Cuckold’s Haven to attach cuckold’s horns to it, after an ancient tradition when he spies a ship going down in the river. He gives a running commentary of a man struggling through the waves who comes ashore and proves to be Security, who moans his wretched luck and crawls away. He has been crushed down to the earth.

The Slitgut sees another person wallowing in the weltering wave, a woman, and describes how she is rescued by a man who brings her to shore. It is the drawer from the Blue Anchor tavern who came down to visit a friend at St Katherine’s and he has rescued Winifred. She asks him to go fetch her bundle of clothes which she left at the pub, but begs him to keep quiet about her or it will ruin her reputation. A would-be whore, she has washed ashore by St Katherine’s monastery.

Next out of the water is Quicksilver, washed ashore capless by the gallows reserved for pirates. He bewails the fact the storm has sunk the ship and ruined all his plans.

Next to stagger ashore are Petronel and Seagull who are drunkenly, confusedly convinced they have washed ashore in France until two men passing by assure them they are on the Isle of Dogs and briskly make off, but not before making the joke that one of them (i.e. Petronel) looks like a thirty-pound knight.

I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.

This is obviously written to be said in a Scots accent and was the most obvious bit of anti-Scots satire, which caused its authors to be thrown into gaol. Petronel and Seagull are now united with Quicksilver and all bewail their fate. They had not, in fact, made it as far as the main ship which was to take them to America, but worry that that ship will now have been seized (there was something illicit about it which I didn’t quite understand).

Petronel is all for giving in, but Quicksilver suddenly changes the subject by declaring he has the specialist knowledge to make copper look like silver: he’ll restore their fortunes yet. The other two adore him and they depart.

Enter the Drawer and Winifred now dressed in dry clothes. He has brought her near to the pub where he works, and very nobly leaves her to continue alone i.e. uncompromised by being seen with a strange man. Which is when she bumps into her husband, Security! Quickly Winifred ad libs and lies that she has come out expressly to look for him, that she was fast asleep when he returned to see her (at the end of act 3) and his shouting stirred her and she was about to call back but he ran off in such a hurry. Thus, lying her head off, she is restored to her husband and he ends up apologising, promising that every morning he will go down on his knees and beseech her forgiveness. They exit.

At which point Slitgut, who has been up his tree watching each of these encounters, climbs down saying he won’t continue the ridiculous pagan custom, and bids the cuckold tree farewell.

Act 4 scene 2 A room in Touchstone’s House Touchstone has heard that Petronel and Quicksilver’s ship was sunk. He tells us he has also heard that his ungrateful daughter, Gertrude, and his wife and the maid, discovered there was no castle anywhere and so ended up sleeping in the famous coach until they crept back to London, repentant.

Golding appears and in his guileless way reports that he has been voted Master Deputy Alderman. He had already been taken into the livery of his trade, so Touchstone is thrilled that he is progressing in his career and doubts not that he will soon be more famous than Dick Whittington.

Then Golding tells Touchstone that the rascally crew were shipwrecked as they took a ferry boat down towards Blackwall, were washed ashore and are returning in dribs and drabs to London and Golding has organised a reception committee of constables. Touchstone’s reaction is what I think of characteristically Jonson, and the reason I didn’t like this play:

TOUCHSTONE: Disgrace ’em all that ever thou canst; their ship I have already arrested. How to my wish it falls out, that thou hast the place of a justicer upon ’hem! I am partly glad of the injury done to me, that thou may’st punish it. Be severe i’ thy place, like a new officer o’ the first quarter, unreflected.

Revenge, the fiercer and severer the better, is the Jonson theme. A mood continued when Gertrude and her mother and Sindefy enter. Mistress Touchstone is thoroughly mortified by the discovery that Petronel was a liar, but Gertrude remains comically obstinate, persisting in the belief she is a lady and owes nothing to her father who ought to bow to her. She flounces out.

A constable enters to announce the arrival of Petronel and Quicksilver. Touchstone is gleeful. He insists that Golding (in his new rank of deputy alderman) judges the rascals. The Shoemakers’ Holiday was about forgiveness and festivity. Eastward Ho! is about judgement and punishment. Golding lays out the accusations against both Petronel and Quicksilver in detail, and is seconded by a vengeful Touchstone. Then they instruct the constable to take them away pending further judgement.

Act 5 scene 1 At Gertrude’s lodgings Gertrude and Sindefy bewail the hard times they’ve fallen on. Gertrude has pawned her jewels, her gowns, her red velvet petticoat, and her wedding silk stockings and all Sin’s best apparel. She wishes she could sell her ladyship. She fantasises about finding a jewel or gold in the street, anything which could save her from poverty.

Her mother enters and laments all her ambitions and decisions to become a lady, but Gertrude blames her and asks how much she’s stolen from her cursed father. But she weeps bitterly. It’s not a funny scene. Eventually Mistress Touchstone advises that she goes and throws herself on the mercy of her good sister Mildred.

Act 5 scene 2 Goldsmith’s Row Wolf comes who is a gaoler of ‘the Counter’ where Petronel, Quicksilver and Security are imprisoned. He has brought letters from them begging for help and then describes their reformations. Touchstone is tempted to forgive but exists rather than give way to pity. Golding, true to his immaculate character as Good Man gives Wolf some money and messages of hope to take back to the prisoners.

Act 5 scene 3 The Counter i.e. prison. Lawyer Bramble visits Security who has gone half mad in captivity and can’t stand the light. Two anonymous gentlemen comment on the extent of Quicksilver’s reformation, who gave away all his fancy clothes, has penned a wonderful apology for his life and helps the other prisoners write petitions.

Wolf arrives back from Golding with the message of hope and a little money. Quicksilver has completely changed. He genuinely thanks Golding, then asks Wolf to distribute the money to other prisoners. The two gentlemen who have observed this noble gesture, remark on Quicksilver’s reformation.

Next, Golding himself arrives in disguise. He has a Plan. He asks Wolf to let him into the prison, then take his ring to Touchstone and say that he, Golding, has been imprisoned for a debt to some third party, can he (Touchstone) come quickly. Then they will work some kind of resolution. Wolf agrees, lets Golding into the prison, sets off with the message to Touchstone.

Act 5 scene 4 Touchstone’s house Mildred and Mistress Touchstone try to intercede on behalf of Gertrude but Touchstone insists his ears are stoppered like Ulysses’ against the sirens. Until Wolf arrives with the token, with Golding’s ring, which Touchstone recognises and instantly promises to come to his aid.

Act 5 scene 5 The Counter Touchstone enters with Wolf. Petronel and Quicksilver enter, and a prisoner and two gentlemen are present to listen to Quicksilver’s sincere and moving song of repentance. It’s a long doggerel poem and various bystanders applaud, ask for more and, at every interval. In an aside, Touchstone tells us that his hard heart is melting. By the end he is quite convinced of Quicksilver’s reformation and forgives him. He goes bail for Quicksilver, Petronel and half-mad Security and they are all released.

Gertrude, Mildred, Mistress touchstone, Sindefy and Winifred all arrive i.e. all the main characters are on stage. Gertrude finally repents and asks Touchstone’s forgiveness, and also her husband’s forgiveness and he begs her forgiveness for deceiving her. Is anything missing? Only that Quicksilver should marry his punk, Sindefy, and make a decent woman of her. Which he instantly volunteers to do.

Bad tastes

I didn’t like this play for at least three reasons:

  1. The contrasts set up right at the start between Dutiful Daughter and Haughty Daughter, and Conscientious Apprentice and Spendthrift Apprentice, feel too mechanical, to put it mildly. Like many other aspects of the play the characters of Golding, who is Peter Perfect, and Mildred, who barely exists as an individual, feel schematic and lifeless.
  2. The rascal characters are all too inevitably riding for a fall and, when they hit it, are judged very inflexibly and harshly. They don’t just fall, they are crushed into the dirt and ground underfoot, reduced to miserable penury in prison. Security goes mad. The harshness of their fate feels cruel.
  3. And at countless incidental moments along the way, the characters are vile. Gertrude’s haughtiness to her father is meant to be funny, but can easily be read as just horrible. Much worse is the way Quicksilver and Security conspire against Petronel, but then Quicksilver and Petronel conspire against Security. They’re all scum. The basic attitude was epitomised for me by the way Petronel said that, once his deceived wife discovers there is no castle, she will be so angry, that she’d be doing Petronel a favour if she hanged herself. A kind of Tarantino level of heartlessness and hate underlies the whole thing. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

The quality of justice

Feels contrived. The rascals’ repentances have no real psychological validity. Gertrude in particular is a bitch up to the last moment – and believable and funny as such, probably the funniest character in the play – till she suddenly turns up in prison right at the last minute, a changed woman. It is literally unbelievable.

In my opinion there is something necessarily shallow about Jonson’s entire view of human nature, shallow and extreme. He sees people as viciously cynical and wicked right up to the last few pages… when they suddenly undergo miracle conversions. The cynicism is unpleasant and the conversions are insultingly shallow and contrived.

But the cardboard stereotypes are an inevitable result of the strictness of his theory of comedy. He thinks comedy should hold up folly and vice to ridicule. But this is a very ideological and schematic ambition, and explains the metallic inflexibility of the play. The precise details may be unpredictable but the ultimate outcome – the crushing humiliation of the rascals and fools – is never in doubt and feels profoundly unconvincing.

As C.G. Petter points out in his introduction to the New Mermaid edition of the play, there is a marriage at the play’s end, the rather tediously inevitable requirement of any comedy – but it is the marriage of an upstart social pretender (Quicksilver) to a whore (Sindefy) whose dowry is paid by a usurer (Security). Gertrude and Petronel’s marriage is a sham from the start, he only marries her for her money. And the marriage of Golding and Mildred in the first act has absolutely no romance or emotion about it whatsoever because it is the union of two wooden puppets.

The intellectual and psychological crudity of so much of this is typified by the thumpingly crude final moral, delivered by Touchstone. Having forgiven Quicksilver after the latter has read out his very poor, doggerel poem of repentance, Touchstone offers Quicksilver decent clothes to change into from his prison rags. But the newly penitent Quicksilver nobly turns down the offer, preferring to walk through the streets of London in his prison clothes to set an example to the children of Cheapside. At which Touchstone intones the final lines of the play:

TOUCHSTONE: Thou hast thy wish. Now, London, look about,
And in this moral see thy glass run out:
Behold the careful father, thrifty son,
The solemn deeds which each of us have done;
The usurer punish’d, and from fall so steep
The prodigal child reclaim’d, and the lost sheep.

Could anyone seriously expect that plays as wooden and contrived and stereotypical and obvious as this could be expected to ‘reform’ vice and folly? What a ludicrous idea. They’re a night out at the theatre, full of jokes, lots and lots of sexual innuendo, absurd farce, ironic reversals, sentimental speeches and a big round of applause at the end.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

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Restoration comedies

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