Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.

Thoughts

This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


Credit

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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Roman reviews

The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 1

I’d just bought the Oxford University Press edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars off Amazon when I walked into my local charity shop and found the old Penguin edition going second-hand for £2. So I snapped it up and am now reading the two editions interchangeably.

The OUP edition (1996)

The OUP edition (1996) is translated and introduced by Carolyn Hammond. She began to put me off almost immediately when, in her preface, she writes:

The subject-matter of The Gallic War is potentially distasteful, even immoral, for the modern reader. The drive to increase territorial holdings, high civilian as well as military casualties, and the predominance of economic motives for organised aggression – all these belong to an accepted norm of international activity in the ancient world, and hence need careful introduction and explanation…

This begs all kinds of questions. For example: Why are you devoting so much time to translating a work which you find ‘distasteful and immoral’? It’s the same question as arose when reading Mary Beard’s history of Rome: Why has an ardent feminist dedicated her life to studying a world of toxic men?

Second problem is Hammond’s assumption that war to increase territory and incur high casualties for economic motives is somehow unique to, and restricted to, the ancient world and so needs ‘careful introduction and explanation’. Really? Had she not heard of the Yugoslav wars or the Congo wars, which were ongoing as her book went to press? Or the Second World War, possibly? Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan. The world always has wars. Not understanding them means you don’t understand the world you live in.

In fact Hammond’s statement that the concept of ‘war’ needs explaining is rather patronising, isn’t it? Her attitude bespeaks a certain kind of academic condescension, a voice from the bosom of woke academia telling people who have bought a book about a famous war that she needs to explain what ‘war’ is, and that some readers might find ‘war’ ‘distasteful, even immoral’. Maybe her edition should have warning stickers on the cover: ‘This book about an eight-year-long war may contain scenes of a violent nature’. Just in case the purchaser of a book titled ‘The Gallic War’ hadn’t figured that out for themselves.

In her introduction Hammond covers a lot of material but in a consistently confused way. She tells the story (which I’ve read so many times I am now heartily sick of it) about Publius Clodius Pulcher being found in Caesar’s house dressed as a woman and trying to infiltrate a women-only religious ritual. She refers to it mainly to lead up to Caesar divorcing his wife and making his ‘famous’ declaration that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. But she tells the whole thing in such a cack-handed way that I was left dismayed by her inability to tell a simple story.

Hammond refers to key aspects of ancient Rome, such as the consuls, in an oddly throwaway manner as if we all ought to know about this already. Frequently her prose is, well, questionable:

This was the year of the conspiracy of Catiline. It was also the year in which the sacrosanctity of the people’s tribunes was raised once more, this time through the prosecution of an old man called Rabirius, a prosecution behind which Caesar’s hand was detected. (p.xvi)

a) That last phrase doesn’t inspire confidence in her ability to express herself, does it? b) This is all she tells you about both Catiline and Rabirius. I don’t care about Rabirius but if she’s going to mention the Catiline conspiracy, surely it deserves a decent explanation rather than a nine-word sentence. And why does she write the elaborate and clunky phrase ‘the conspiracy of Catiline’ rather than the more smooth and usual ‘the Cataline conspiracy’.

It feels very much like Hammond has a bullet point list of issues to get through but doesn’t have the space to explain any of them properly, instead cramming them into clunky, broken-backed sentences which shake your confidence in her ability to translate anything by anyone into decent English prose.

As happens with many writers, Hammond’s uncertain grasp of English phrasing reflects a clumsiness in conceptualising the ideas she’s trying to express:

In 60 BC Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed an unofficial pact which came to be known as the ‘first triumvirate’ (on the analogy of the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43).

I know what she’s trying to say but it’s badly phrased because it’s badly conceived. The first triumvirate wasn’t formed on the analogy of the second triumvirate because the second triumvirate, quite obviously, hadn’t happened yet; it only happened 17 years later. She means something like, ‘this pact is now referred to as the first triumvirate because the same kind of deal was arranged 17 years later between Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus. Historians came to refer to them as, respectively, the first and second triumvirates’. I see what she’s trying to say, but her phrasing literally doesn’t make sense. Again it feels like a) an item on her checklist which she had to cram in but b) didn’t have the space to explain it more clearly and so ends up doing it clumsily.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to understand and translate complex content from the Latin if, when given free rein to express herself in English, she produces such mangled ideas and tangled-up sentences.

Hammond’s account of the politicking around the triumvirate ticks it off her checklist but isn’t as clear as Beard, Holland or Scullard. You need to understand what the first triumvirate was: that Caesar brokered a deal between the rivals Crassus and Pompey whereby Crassus used his money to bribe voters and Pompey used his influence in order to pass laws and get decisions they each wanted:

  • Pompey wanted land and money awarded to his veterans who’d returned from his wars in Asia Minor in 62
  • Caesar wanted to be made governor of Gaul where he scented an opportunity to acquire military glory and, thereby, political power
  • and Crassus wanted to be awarded governorship of Syria, from where he planned to launch a military campaign into Armenia and Parthia which would bring him not only glory but troves of Eastern loot

It was a deal between three uneasy rivals to manipulate political elections behind the scenes using Crassus’s money and to ensure they each got their way. They didn’t abolish the tools of the Roman constitution; they took them over for their own purposes. Many contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and later historians took the signing of this pact in 60 BC as the defining moment when the old forms of Roman politics were eclipsed by the power politics and rule of Strong Men which was, after 30 years of increasing instability and civil war, to lead to the rise of the ultimate strong man, Octavian.

It would have been nice to have learned something about ancient Gaul but instead Hammond wastes the last seven pages of her introduction on another tick box exercise, an examination of Caesar’s posthumous reputation and influence. She produces a huge list of European historians and poets, not to mention later generals or theorists of war, who she claims were influenced in one way or another by the great dictator but rattles through them at such high speed with barely a sentence about each that you learn nothing.

How much does it help you understand Caesar’s Gallic Wars to learn that Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell next to Judas Iscariot? Not a whit. This kind of thing should either be done properly or not at all.

In summary Carolyn Hammond’s introduction so put me off her ability to think, instruct or write plain English that I hesitated to even begin her translation.

On the plus side, the OUP edition has one big map of ancient Gaul and five other maps of regions or specific battles, scattered through the text as needed; a 3-page timeline; a 15-page glossary of names; and 21 pages of notes, three times the number in the Penguin edition.

The Penguin edition (1951)

Unlike the OUP edition, the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition (titled The Conquest of Gaul) offers a crisp, useful summary of the subject:

  • Between 58 and 50 BC Julius Caesar conquered most of modern France, Belgium and Switzerland along with parts of Holland and Germany and invaded Britain, twice.
  • Caesar’s texts are an invaluable source for these events.
  • Caesar’s texts are the only narratives written by any military leader from the ancient world about his own campaigns.
  • Caesar’s writings were not disinterested academic histories but part of Caesar’s ongoing campaign for power, designed to promote his achievements and forward his political career with his peers and the Roman people.

Good. Feels like we are among adults. As to the extras, this edition also has a big map of Gaul, plus one of southern Britain and a useful one of the crucial siege of Alesia. It has a 17-page glossary, 8 pages of notes (far fewer than the OUP), but on the plus side, a useful 3-page appendix on the Roman army of Caesar’s day.

The Penguin translation was made by Stanley Alexander Handford (born in 1898) and first published in 1951. It was revised and given a new introduction by Jane Gardner in 1982. It would be a relief to report that it is a model of lucidity but the introduction, alas, also reveals an odd way with the English language. For example:

Political necessity, rather than military or than his personal irreplaceability in command, required that he continue in post.

That adjective, ‘military’, in normal English would require a noun after it. I fully understand that it refers back to the noun ‘necessity’ and can, after a moment’s confusion, be understood that way. But it would be clearer to use a synonym such as ‘need’ or maybe just write ‘Political rather than military necessity…’ And the second ‘than’? Delete it. And then ‘continue’? I understand that this is a subjunctive following the conditional preposition ‘that’ so that it is technically correct. But it is not, nowadays, standard English. We’d probably just say ‘continued’ or make it crystal clear with ‘should continue’:

Political necessity rather than military need or his personal irreplaceability in command required that he continued in his post.

The point is that all three of these dubious elements reflect Latin rather than modern English usage. Instead of spelling out the precise relationships between parts of speech it leaves some implicit in ways which are technically correct but strongly influenced by the highly inflected nature of Latin in which grammatical relationships are shown by changes within words rather than prepositions or word order.

In fact this make the third book in a row I’ve read (A.J. Woodman’s Sallust, Carolyn Hammond’s Gallic War, S.A. Handford’s Conquest of Gaul) in which the English translators struggled in the introduction to write in plain English – before I’d even started reading the translation. Instead all three betray an addiction to Latinate ways of thinking, Latinate ways of forming sentences, and to odd, unenglish phraseology.

Anyway, Gardner’s introduction (once you acclimatise to her occasional Latinate phraseology) is much better than Hammond’s directionless ramble – it is direct, straightforward, factual and clear. She establishes the basic fact that Caesar spent 9 years away from Rome, campaigning in Gaul.

The Roman constitution

She has a good stab at explaining the complicated Roman constitution. Theoretically, legislative and electoral sovereignty was vested in popular assemblies. In practice the state was dominated by the Senate which consisted of 300 or so men who had held any of the four ‘magistracies’ (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul) which were elected for one-year posts These posts were arranged in the so-called cursus honorem. There were quite a few other posts such as censor or pontifex maximus, and elections to other priesthoods, such as the College of Augurs. Surprisingly, the Senate could not propose legislation: this was proposed (and vetoed) by the ten or so tribunes of the people elected every year.

Marius

Then Gardner recaps the military and political background to Caesar’s career: Caius Marius saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes around 100 BC but at the cost of holding seven successive consulships and developing a close relationship with his army which looked to him to provide money and land for veterans. I.e. he created the template for the Strong General which was to bedevil Roman politics for the next 70 years.

After a decade of political disturbance (the 80s) Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power (82 to 78 BC) and implemented reforms designed to prevent the rise of another strong man.

Pompey and Crassus

But just eight years later most of Sulla’s reforms had been cancelled, mostly in the people’s enthusiasm to award the boy wonder general Gnaeus Pompeius extraordinary powers to prosecute wars against a) the pirates who bedevilled Rome’s overseas trade (67) and b) against King Mithridates of Pontus who was terrorising Asia Minor (66).

Back in Rome, ambitious young Julius Caesar (born 100 BC) attached himself to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, and they were both associated with an attempt to set up a hugely powerful land reform commission (ultimately rejected).

Their names were also mentioned in connection with the notorious conspiracy by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the state (the Cataline conspiracy which Hammond refers to in one half-sentence, quoted above) although nothing, in the end, was conclusively proved.

In 62 Pompey returned from the East and, despite everyone’s fears that he might use his loyal army and widespread popularity to mount a coup in the style of Sulla, he disbanded his army and returned to civilian life. He was unhappy, though, to discover that this weakened his power in the state and that his requests to have land granted to his veterans kept being delayed. Meanwhile Marcus Crassus was having various business ventures blocked. And when Caesar returned in 60 BC from service as governor of Further Spain and wanted to be awarded a triumph, this wish also was blocked by the Senate.

The first triumvirate

So the three men, each in their separate ways stymied by the Establishment, came to a shady, behind-the-scenes agreement to advance each other’s ambitions. Pompey got his land reform, Crassus got his business ventures approved, and Caesar got himself elected consul for 59 BC and secured legislation appointing him governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). He then bribed one of the ten tribunes of the plebs to propose a law giving him governorship of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman province along the south coast of France. Both posts started in 58 BC and were to be held for an unprecedented five years, ending on 1 March 54.

This is where the narrative of the Gallic War commences, with Caesar arriving to take up command of his provinces.

Back in Rome

Gardner doesn’t stop there but goes on to describe the political shenanigans in Rome following Caesar’s departure for Gaul. After just one year his political opponents began lobbying for him to be relieved of his command and return to Rome as governors traditionally ought to. But if he did this, Caesar knew he would almost certainly face prosecution by his political enemies. He continued in his command until 56, when the political crisis intensified.

Luca

So he organised a meeting in the summer of that year in Luca, in north Italy (in his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul), attended by Pompey and Crassus and a third of the Senate, at which they recommitted to their pact. As a result:

  1. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was renewed for a further five years.
  2. Crassus and Pompey arranged for themselves to be elected consults in 55 BC and then…
  3. for Pompey to be awarded governorship of Spain which he would, however, administer in absentia while remaining in Rome,
  4. and for Crassus to be given command of an army to be sent to Parthia out East in 54.

Clodius and Milo

Meanwhile, escalating street violence between political gangs led by Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher led to a breakdown of public order and in 52 BC the senate appointed Pompey sole consul in order to bring peace to the streets.

Should Caesar give up his command?

Gardner then gives a day by day account of the complicated manoeuvres around attempts by his enemies to get Caesar to relinquish his command and return to Rome a private citizen – and by Caesar and his supporters to try to get him elected as a consul, in his absence. The aim of this was so that Caesar could transition seamlessly from military governor to consul, which would guarantee he’d be exempt from prosecution for his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul.

It was this issue – whether he would lay down his governorship of Gaul and whether he would be allowed to stand for consul in his absence – which led to complex manoeuvring, proposal and counter-proposal in the Senate and the failure of which, finally, convinced Caesar that he would only be safe if he returned to Italy with his army.

Crossing the Rubicon

When he crossed the river Rubicon which divided Cisalpine Gaul (which he legitimately ruled) into Italy (where his presence with an army was illegal and a threat to the state) Caesar triggered the civil war with Pompey who, whatever his personal feelings, now found himself the representative of the Senate and the constitution. But this latter part of the story is dealt with in the book by Caesar now known as The Civil War and so it is here that Gardner ends her summary of events.

Gaul and its inhabitants

As with the Hammond edition, I wondered why Gardner was going into so much detail about events in Rome which we can read about elsewhere, but her summary of Roman politics only takes 6 pages before she goes on to write about the actual Gauls:

Rome already controlled the South of France whose major city was the port of Massilia (modern Marseilles), founded by the Greeks around BC. Over the 9 years of his command Caesar was to extend Roman control to all of France, southern Holland, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine and most of Switzerland.

Caesar grouped the inhabitants of this huge area into three tribal groupings. This was an over-simplification but modern scholars still debate the complex ethnic, cultural and political relationships between the many tribes he mentions in his account. Ethnic and cultural similarities connected peoples living across a huge area of north-west Europe, from Britain to the borders of modern Turkey, but to the Greeks and Romans they were all ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’, terms they used interchangeably.

The whole of northern Europe was characterised be ceaseless migrations which had been going on since at least the 4th century BC, when one tribe penetrated deep enough into Italy to sack Rome in 390 BC, an event which left a lasting stain on the Roman psyche and an enduring paranoia about the ‘Gaulish threat’.

This fear had been revived at the end of the 2nd century, from 110 to 100 BC, when the two tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni threatened to invade north Italy. It was in order to defeat these enemies that the general Caius Marius was awarded the consulship for an unprecedented run and whose ultimate defeat of the threat made him a popular hero.

As Caesar took up his command at the start of 58 BC some tribes, the Helvetii and the Suebi, were once again on the move, threatening their neighbours and destabilising the Roman province. This was the justification Caesar used for taking aggressive military action against them.

Gardner’s introduction goes on to describe Gaulish culture, the existence of towns and trade, their fondness for Mediterranean wine (France didn’t yet cultivate grapes), their coins and art, the fact that some tribes had evolved beyond kings to elected magistrates and so on. Doubtless this would be dealt with more thoroughly in a more up-to-date history.

Last point to make is that Caesar consistently denigrates the Gaulish character. According to him the Gauls are impulsive, emotional, easily swayed, love change for its own sake, credulous, prone to panic, scatter brained and so on. Caesar links the Gauls’ instability of character to the instability of their tribal politics, where leaders routinely feud among themselves, assassinate each other and so on. (This often seems a bit rich coming from Caesar who was himself subject of the most famous assassination in history, representing a state which was about to collapse into a succession of civil wars.)

Gardner makes the simple point that what amounts to what we nowadays might call a ‘racist’ stereotyping of an entire people is deployed in an all-too-familiar tactic to justify conquering and ‘liberating’ i.e. subjugating them.

The Gallic Wars is a propaganda document: it is a set of commentaries, one for each of the eight campaigning years Caesar was in Gaul which a) justify his military conquests b) promoted his reputation as a spectacularly successful general. Each of the eight books might as well end with the same sentence: “So that’s why you ought to give me a triumph.”

His comments and reflections on Gaul and the Gauls or individual tribes or leaders sometimes strike the reader as reasonably objective and factual. But the fundamentally polemical, propaganda motive is never absent.

Which edition?

I started off reading the OUP edition because it was new and clean, the maps were embedded where they were needed in the text and Hammond’s translation, as far as I could tell, didn’t show any of the oddities of style all-too-apparent when she tries to write in her own name. About a third of the way in I swapped to the Penguin edition for no reason I can put my finger on except its prose style, and the physical object itself, felt older and cosier.

The decline in academic writing for a general audience

Older academics (from the 1950s and 60s) tended to have a broader range of life experience, vocabulary and phrasing. More recent academics, from the 1980s and 90s onwards, tend to have lived narrower academic lives and their use of English is marred by ideas and terms taken from sociology, critical theory and the inevitable woke obsessions (gender and race) which make their prose narrow, cold and technocratic.

Born in 1934, Gardner writes prose which is clear, factual, to the point and more sympatico than Hammond, born a generation later, whose prose is clunky, cluttered and confused, and whose sensitive virtue signalling (war is ‘distasteful, even immoral’) comes over as patronising.

There’s a study to be done about the decline in academic writing for a wide audience, the decline in academics’ ability to reach out and connect with a broader public. Immediately after the war, Allen Lane’s creation of the cheap paperback Penguin Classics was designed to bring the best literature from round the world, and from all of history, to the widest possible audience, accompanied by introductions by experts designed to widen their appeal.

By the turn of the 21st century many of the introductions to classic literature which I regularly read spend more time scolding the reader (or their authors) for not having the correct attitudes to race and gender which are absolutely required on their campuses and in their faculties, than explaining the world of the author and their text.

It gets boring being told off or patronised all the time. So I preferred the old Penguin edition and Jane Gardner’s intelligent, useful and unpatronising introduction. And she’s funny. Right at the end of her introduction she explains:

The glossary has been completely redone and now contains more than twice as many items as the original. There are a few additional notes and also a few changes to some of Handford’s more tendentious judgements. The editor has also seized the opportunity, in writing a new introduction, of being tendentious herself. (page 26)


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Roman reviews

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


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Other British Museum reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 2

As I explained in my review of the introduction to SPQR, Beard is a little too academic to be truly popular, yet not scholarly or intellectual enough to be truly challenging.

By ‘not scholarly’ I mean that although she certainly mentions the scholarly debates around key issues from the historiography of ancient Rome, she rarely goes into enough detail to make us really understand what’s at stake (unlike Richard Miles in his history of Carthage who can’t come across a scholarly debate without explaining it at length, accompanied by copious, and often very interesting, footnotes and extensive references).

By ‘not very  intellectual’ I mean her book contains discussions and debates about themes and issues from the period, but nothing truly thought provoking, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about ancient history (the early years are shrouded in legend, it was a very sexist culture, Roman society was very militaristic) – no surprises, no new slants or opinions, and certainly no overarching conceptual framework for her analysis. Instead, there are lots of interesting bits and bobs about archaeological finds or social history, gossip about well known figures, speculation about the early history, fairly predictable things about Caesar, the civil wars, the rise of Augustus. Ho hum.

What you very much do get a lot of is rhetorical questions. Beard is addicted to asking rhetorical questions, not one rhetorical question, but little clumps of two or three rhetorical questions which all come together like buses on a rainy day. But asking rhetorical questions doesn’t make her an intellectual, it makes her a standard teacher using a standard teaching technique.

How far is it useful to see Roman history in terms of imperial biographies or to divide the story of empire into emperor-sized (or dynasty-sized) chunks? How accurate are the standard images of these rulers that have come down to us? What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make? (p.399)

Asking lots of high-sounding questions gives people the impression you’re brainy without you actually having to do any real thinking.

Superficial

More important, for me anyway, is the way Beard mentions famous events only to skate over them. Although SPQR is a long book, it is frustratingly superficial. Early on in the narrative I found her account of both the Catiline Conspiracy (63 BC) and the legend of Romulus and Remus (750s BC?) patchy and disconnected. She’s interested in this or that bit of the story, tells a bit in order to illustrate problems with the established narrative or as a pretext to bring in recent archaeological findings – but she rarely gives you a good, simple, clear description of the complete event. I had to look up both the Catiline conspiracy and the story of Romulus and Remus on Wikipedia in order to get a proper, coherent account of both, and in order to fully understand the issues which Beard only patchily explains.

Later on she refers to Pyrrhus, the Greek general who invaded southern Italy, giving rise to what became called the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC). Pyrrhus won several victories but at such a cost in lives and material that they gave rise to the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’. But Beard says very little about who Pyrrhus was, why he attacked, about the progress of his military campaigns or describe any of the costly victories which gave rise to the saying. To learn more about Pyrrhus and his wars I had, again, to look him up on Wikipedia. Ditto Spartacus, ditto the Jugurtha, ditto the Roman constitution, ditto Scipio Africanus, and so on.

Beard’s account of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which lasted 15 years and was the core of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) is insultingly brief at barely 2 pages (pages 175 to 176). It almost made me want to throw this book away and reread Richard Miles’s fascinating, long, rich, detailed and subtle account of the same subject.

From the 300s through to the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC Rome was almost continuously at war. Beard mentions some of these wars, and occasionally specific names, such as Mithradates king of Pontus, float to the surface for half a page or so, but many are given the briefest mention, many aren’t mentioned at all, and for none of them, none whatsoever, do you get a proper account of the military campaign. There are no descriptions of battles anywhere in the book.

If you are looking for a military history of Rome, the most militaristic state in the ancient world which built its empire on phenomenal military success, this is not it. If you’re looking for a diplomatic history of Rome i.e. a description and analysis of the strategic thinking, alliances and manoeuvres behind the wars, how the geopolitical thinking of Rome’s rulers changed and evolved over time, this is definitely not it. Occasional reference is made to the Roman gods, but not much to their attributes or worship. If you’re looking for a book about Roman religion, this isn’t it. There are lots of passages describing recent archaeological discoveries and the light they shed on this or that aspect of early Rome – for example archaeologists’ discovery under the ancient Lapis Niger section of the Forum of a stone block on which a very ancient form of Latin seems to refer to a rex or king. The block is dated to about 570 BC and so would appear to be exciting confirmation that Rome did indeed have kings at exactly the period when tradition says Romulus founded a series of ancient kings. Interesting. But this, like other similar passages, pop up almost at random. If you’re looking for a thorough archaeological history of Rome, this is not it either.

Instead SPQR proceeds by examining issues and problems in Roman historiography, introduced by flurries of rhetorical questions (which all-too-often go unanswered). Overall the text proceeds in broadly chronological order, but Beard jumps around a bit, coming back to the same subjects 20 or 30 pages after you thought we were done with them. She is also very given to repetition – some favourite scenes recur three or four times (Claudius telling the Senate that Gaulish leaders should be allowed to become consuls or the fact that Trajan was from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa, the notion that Spartacus’s rebellion must have included more than just gladiators to have lasted so long – each of these idées fixes is mentioned four or five times, as are many others).

The result is an often confusing mix of sudden bursts of straight history interspersed with nuggets of recent archaeology, occasional profiles of specific people (for some reason the Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius get extensive treatment, pages 221 to 233) all embedded in a kind of academic tide which keeps rising to a surf of academic questions before setting off onto new issues and investigations. Rather than a chronological account, it’s more like a series of articles or mini essays, arranged in a roughly chronological order.

Social history, sort of

There’s a lot of soft social history, specifically in chapter eight ‘The Home Front’ (pages 297 to 336) about Roman attitudes and customs, traditional ideas and beliefs – though done in a very limp way. I’ve just read a sentence where she adds a parenthesis explaining that the poor in ancient Rome didn’t have as much money as the rich. Maybe this book is targeted at people who need to have it explained to them that the poor, on the whole, by and large, don’t have as much money as the rich.

The specific context is she’s explaining that women in ancient Rome, though subject to umpteen restrictions which we (pretty obviously) would find intolerable, in fact had more independence than women in ancient Greece or the Near East.

The contrast is particularly striking with classical Athens, where women from wealthy families were supposed to live secluded lives, out of the public eye, largely segregated from men and male social life (the poor, needless to say, did not have the cash or space to enforce any such divisions). (p.307)

I suppose this is a useful point to make, but maybe it could have been made in a subtler way, not the rather crude formulation that the poor didn’t have as much cash as the rich. It feels like she’s bolted on the parenthesis not because it says anything useful for the reader, but because Dame Mary wants us to know that she’s really desperately concerned about the poor. Again and again you read things which ought to be interesting but which, through her banal turn of phrase or clunky thinking, are turned to lead.

Feminism, sort of

We know that Beard is a feminist because she tells everyone she meets, mentions it in all her TV shows and media appearances, and in tweets and lectures, and has written a book about Women and Power.  She flourishes her feminist credentials early on with little sequence of huffy points about sexism in ancient Rome:

  • In the middle of the first century BCE, the senate was a body of some 600 members; they were all men who had previously been elected to political office (and I mean all menno woman ever held political office in ancient Rome). (p.32)
  • Catiline’s defeat was nonetheless a notable victory for Cicero; and his supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society, such as Rome. (p.35)
  • The ‘people’ was a much larger and more amorphous body than the senate, made up, in political terms, of all male citizens; the women had no formal political rights. (p.36)
  • The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us…(p.37)

I mock them as ‘huffy not as a sexist jibe but a jokey description of the way they’re such obvious and superficial points to make. Because she doesn’t go any deeper into any of these ideas, these throwaway remarks just come over as cheap shots. Like the reference in brackets to the poor, they don’t seem designed to tell the reader anything useful about ancient Rome so much as to let the reader know that Dame Mary is a feminist, goddamit, and proud of it and nobody is going to shut her up and Down with the patriarchy and Sisters are doing it for themselves. As profound as a t-shirt slogan.

Having got this off her chest in the opening section, Beard’s feminism largely goes to sleep for the rest of the book. She reverts to telling us the long history of legendary, proto-historical, historical, republican and imperial Rome entirely from a male point of view.

Some feminist historians I’ve read reinterpret history entirely from a female point of view, subjecting the patriarchal structures of power to the intrinsic sexism of the syntax of the language to bracing, deeply thought-through, radical reinterpretations of history which make you stop and reconsider everything you know. There is absolutely none of that in Beard’s account. Beard’s much vaunted feminism feels like a few cherries blu tacked onto a narrative which could have been written by a man about men. Her ‘feminist’ account of women in ancient Rome is a big disappointment. Apart from the occasional moan that everything was run by men, SPQR could have been written fifty years ago.

Early on she points out the (fairly obvious) fact that two of the founding legends of ancient Rome involve rape, being the abduction of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia. Some other, less famous turning points in Roman history, wee also marked by accusations of sex crimes. Now there’s obviously something going on here, and I’m sure a half decent feminist theorist could take us deep into the psychological and cultural and political sub-texts and interpretations this is open to. But Beard doesn’t. It’s frustrating.

The only sustained consideration of women in ancient Rome comes when she pauses her (superficial) historical narrative for a chapter about everyday life in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (Chapter Eight: The Home Front), which kicks off with fifteen or so pages about women (pages 303 to 318). But she manages to make even this sound dull and utterly predictable: Girls were often married off young, girls were forced to make marriages advantageous to their families (p.309). Once married:

The proper role of the woman was to be devoted to her husband, to produce the next generation, to be an adornment, to be a household manager and to contribute to the domestic economy by spinning and weaving. (p.304).

More or less the same as in ancient Persia or India or China or medieval anywhere, then. The only real surprise is the point mentioned above, that women in ancient Rome enjoyed relatively more freedom than in ancient Athens. They could, for example, freely attend mixed dinner parties, which would have been scandalous in Athens (p.307).

In fact the most interesting point in the passage about women in ancient Rome was the casualness of Roman marriage. There could be a big expensive ceremony if you were rich but there didn’t need to be and there was no sense of the Christian sacrament which the last 2,000 years have drummed into us. Instead, if a couple said they were married, they were, and if they said they were divorced, they were (p.303)

That’s interesting but you can see how it’s what you could call a ‘trivial pursuit fact’, quite interesting, but devoid of any theoretical (feminist) underpinning or detail. She gives no history of the evolution or development of Roman marriage. I bet there are entire scholarly books devoted to the subject which make fascinating reading but here there are just a few sentences, an ‘oh that’s interesting’ fact, and then onto the next thing. A bit later, writing about the high infant mortality in ancient Rome, she writes:

Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation. (p.317)

I see what she’s getting at, but it just seems a really crass and wholly inadequate conclusion to the train of facts she’s been listing.

A lot of the text consists of pulling out facts like this at the expense of a continuous narrative – chapter eight includes a couple of pages describing how a wealthy man’s Roman house was more a vehicle for public display and business meetings than what we’d call a home:

On the atrium wall, a painted family tree was one standard feature, and the spoils a man had taken in battle, the ultimate mark of Roman achievement, might also be pinned up for admiration. (p.324)

This is kind of interesting in the way the rest of the book is, ho hum, kind of interesting, no big revelations. A bit of this, a bit of that, padded out with feminist tutting and hundreds of rhetorical questions.

[Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] were a concerted attempt to evaluate the great men (and they were all men) of Greece and Rome against each other…(p.501)

(There ought to be a term in rhetoric for the tag which so many feminist writers and columnists add to everything they wrote – ‘(and they were all men)’ – as if adding it to any sentence about almost any period of history anywhere in the world up till about 50 years ago, really comes as much surprise to anyone or changes anything. The ‘all men’ tag, maybe. To dress it smartly in Latin, the omnes homines tag.)

Is SPQR too full of rhetorical questions?

One irritating aspect of her approach is Beard’s fondness for writing little clumps of rhetorical questions of exactly the type which work well in a TV documentary or maybe a lecture hall but feel like padding in a written text:

How did Cicero and his contemporaries reconstruct the early years of the city? Why were their origins important to them? What does it mean to ask ‘where does Rome begin’? How much can we, or could they, really know of earliest Rome? (p.52)

But if there is no surviving literature from the founding period and we cannot rely on the legends, how can we access any information about the origins of Rome? Is there any way of throwing light on the early years of the little town by the Tiber that grew into a world empire? (p.79)

Is it possible to link our investigations into the earliest history of Rome with the stories that the Romans themselves told, or with their elaborate speculations on the city’s origins? Can we perhaps find a little more history in the myth? (p.86)

Did someone called Ancus Marcus once exist but not do any of the things attributed to him? Were those things the work of some person or persons other than Ancus but of unknown name? (p.95)

Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the liberty of the Roman citizen be reconciled? (p.129)

What kind of model of fatherhood was this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? (p.150)

Why and how did the Romans come to dominate so much of the Mediterranean in such a short time? What was distinctive about the Roman political system? (p.173)

How influential was the popular voice in Roman Republican politics? Who controlled Rome? How should we characterise this Roman political system? (p.189)

If this was the kind of thing that came from Rome’s ancestral home, what did that imply about what it meant to be Roman? (p.207)

Clumps of rhetorical questions like these crop up throughout the text, to be precise on pages 52, 62, 65, 70, 77, 79, 80, 86, 95, 99, 110, 115, 129, 131, 137, 146, 150, 151, 153, 166, 173, 180, 182, 188, 189, 205, 207, 212, 225, 226, 234, 241, 244, 251, 255, 256, 266, 277, 281, 291, 293, 299, 301, 312, 326, 330, 331, 332, 333, 336, 341, 346, 352, 354, 358, 377, 384, 389, 395, 399, 412, 414, 415, 426, 440, 480, 510, 517 and 520.

I suppose this is a standard teaching technique. I imagine a Cambridge Professor of Classics, whether in a classroom or lecture hall, often proceeds by putting rhetorical questions to her students and then setting out to answer them. Maybe it’s a common device in other factual books. But not quite to this extent, not so many clumps of so many questions. It begins to feel as if history exists mainly to provide professors of history with the opportunity of asking lots of rhetorical questions. After a while it gets pretty irritating, especially when the questions often aren’t even answered but left hanging in your mind…

What kind of act had he been playing all those years?… Where was the real Augustus? And who wrote these lines? These questions remain. (p.384)

Banal ‘ideas’

When she proudly presents us with so-called ‘ideas’ they are often disappointingly obvious and banal. I’ve mentioned above the point she makes that the poor don’t have as much money as the rich. Elsewhere she remarks that:

Civil war had its seedy side too. (p.300)

Or:

Hypocrisy is a common weapon of power. (p.358)

Well, yes, I kind of suspected as much. Here’s another Beardesque remark:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history (p.71)

It’s not untrue, it’s just limp. Quite a massive amount more could be made of this point by someone with brains and insight but not in this book. As it happens the same phrase recurs 400 pages later:

There was always a fuzzy zone where Roman control faded gradually into non-Roman territory (p.484)

And this echo made me realise that this, like other similar statements throughout the book, are not  really ‘ideas’ at all. They’re not the conclusions of a train of thought, they’re the axioms she starts out with – and my God, aren’t they boring?

  • Cultural identity is always a slippery notion…(p.205)
  • Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower classes congregate… (p.456)

They’re not quite truisms but they are pretty obvious. I wish I’d noticed them earlier and made a collection because the ones I read in the final stretch of the book have the amusing tone of a schoolmistress lecturing rather dim children. It was like being back at infants school. For example, she tells us how early legends of Romulus claim he didn’t die but was covered by a cloud and disappeared:

crossing the boundary between human and divine in a way that Rome’s polytheistic religious system sometimes allowed (even if it seems faintly silly to us) (p.73)

I enjoyed that sensibly dismissive tone of voice – ‘seems faintly silly to us’. I imagine sentences like this being read in the voice of Joyce Grenfell, a no-nonsense, jolly hockeysticks, 1950s schoolteacher telling us how frightfully silly these old Romans could be! At other moments you can hear her telling the children to pay attention because she’s about to make a jolly important point which she wants us all to write down and remember:

It is a fallacy to imagine that only the poor write on walls. (p.470)

Yes, Miss.

Contrived comparisons

Beard has made ten or so TV documentaries and written the accompanying coffee table books and I can well imagine how she was encouraged at every step to insert ‘contemporary comparisons’ for events or aspects of life in ancient Rome in order to make them more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to the average viewer. Maybe this kind of thing does work for some people, but there are at least three risks with this approach:

1. Contemporary comparisons date

What are initially ‘contemporary’ comparisons quickly go out of date. Time moves on at a relentless pace (it’s odd having to point this out to a professor of a historical subject) so what were once surprising and illuminating comparisons between events in the ancient world and bang up-to-date contemporary events quickly lose their relevance. In my last review I mentioned her reference to the 1990s TV show Gladiators or the 2000 movie Gladiator which, far from shedding light on her subject, now themselves require a footnote to explain to younger readers what she’s on about. I think something similar applies to many of her other ‘cool’ and edgy comparisons (she uses the word ‘edgy’ at one point).

(Incidentally, if you wanted to learn anything about gladiators in ancient Rome, forget it, once again this isn’t the book for you. Spartacus is mentioned a couple of times in passing (pages 217 to 218 and 248 to 250) but always folded into a bigger, vaguer academic discussion of the class wars which racked Italy. Beard isn’t at all interested in gladiators’ lives or training or the battles fought during the uprising. Instead she uses it to explain the modern theory that Spartacus didn’t lead gladiators alone but rallied a lot of the rural poor and lower middle class to his cause. Gladiators fighting beasts to the death in the colosseum are mentioned half a dozen times but always in passing, in the context or urban planning or urban pastimes etc.)

Beard opens the narrative with a description of the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state in the 60s BC. She tries to make this more relevant or accessible by mentioning ‘homeland security’ and ‘terrorism’ a lot.

Over the centuries the rights and wrongs of the conspiracy, the respective faults and virtues of Catiline and Cicero, and the conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties have been fiercely debated…(p.49)

But the US Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002 and, although terrorism will be with us forever, the distinctive atmosphere of paranoid fear of Islamic terrorism which was very widespread in the 2000s seems, to me, nowadays, to have virtually disappeared. Far more important for the era we live in now, in 2022, was the financial crash of 2008 which led governments around the Western world to implement a decade of ‘austerity’ policies which bore down hardest on the most vulnerable in society, leading to widespread resentment. It was arguably this resentment which found an outlet in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, decisions which dominated British and American politics for the following 4 years. And then, of course, everything was superseded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously Brexit, Trump and Covid are not mentioned in a book published in 2015. But that means that the book itself, and what were once bang up-to-date ‘modern’ comparisons, are already starting to have a faded, dated quality. Time marches on and comparisons which might have seemed useful in connecting ancient history to contemporary events inevitably age and date, become irrelevant and, eventually, themselves become obscure historical references which need explaining. I smiled when I read the following:

The [Catiline] ‘conspiracy’ will always be a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the bed’ or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention? (p.48)

‘Reds under the bed’? See what I mean by dated? Apparently this phrase originated in the United States as far back as 1924 although it only became common parlance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s. It’s a phrase Beard might have picked up when she was young in the 1970s, certainly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this ‘contemporary’ reference, included in a bid to make the story more ‘accessible’, nowadays itself requires explaining to anyone under the age of 30.

Something similar happens when, later in the book, she tries to make the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius seem more relevant and contemporary by excitedly pointing out that one of his big fans is Bill Clinton (p.399). When I ask my kids who Bill Clinton is they look at me with blank faces; after all, his second term as US president ended in 2001.

Same again when she casually refers to the (often bloody) transition from rule by one emperor to the next one as ‘regime change’ (pages 403 and 414), a phrase which, I believe, was popularised at the time of the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, almost twenty years ago.

In Beard’s mind these might be useful comparisons which make the text more ‘accessible’, but all they do for the reader in 2022 is reveal how dated and ageing her entire frame of references is, here and throughout the text, in multiple ways.

2. Patronising

Carefully inserting comparisons to ‘contemporary’ events or culture in order to try and make ancient history more understandable, relatable and relevant runs the risk of sounding patronising and Beard sometimes does sound condescending. She frequently addresses the reader as if we’ve never read any history or know anything about the ancient world (or life in general: carefully explaining that poor people don’t have as much money as rich people, or that not everyone who writes graffiti on walls is poor).

I won’t go so far as to call her attitude ‘insulting’ but you can see why the general attitude betrayed in casual comparisons, asides and parentheses put me off. By contrast, Richard Miles in his book about ancient Carthage, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, treats his readers like adults, in fact more than adults because he takes you right into the heart of scholarly debates about the events he’s describing, giving extensive notes and making countless references to scholarly articles on the subject, which all make quite a lot of demands on the average reader.

But I’d rather read something which asks me to strain my faculties, which requires me to master the detail of conflicting scholarly interpretations of historical facts, I’d rather feel that I’m being stretched than, as with Beard, be subject to a succession of rhetorical questions, staged discussions, dated comparisons all larded with rather obvious truisms and banal comments.

3. Strained

In my first review I mentioned special pleading. What I was trying to express is the way Beard never knowingly neglects an opportunity to throw in a reference to modern life or use a modern phrase (homeland security, domestic abuse, people trafficking) to try and link whatever bit of ancient Rome she’s describing to modern headlines and issues. I’ve described how these comparisons can be both dated and patronising, but they can also come over as strained and contrived, missing the point of modern example and confusing our understanding of the ancient event.

So when Cicero turns up at a poll with an armed guard and wearing a military breastplate under his toga, this breach of etiquette was:

rather as if a modern politician were to enter the legislature in a business suit with a machine gun slung over his shoulder’ (p.29).

For some reason the phrase ‘machine gun’ made me think of Tintin in 1930s Chicago and cartoon gangsters. Maybe it’s a useful comparison, but there’s also something cartoonish and childish about it and – my real beef – nifty comparisons like this often mask the way Beard doesn’t explain things properly. Although she spends quite a few pages on it, and compares it to modern concerns about terrorism and ‘homeland security’ and ‘regime change’, Beard never really properly, clearly explains what the Catiline Conspiracy actually was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a full sense of it. Too often she’s more interested in rhetorical questions and cartoon comparisons and then in rushing off to discuss the issues this or that event raises, than in actually, clearly, lucidly explaining the thing she’s meant to be telling us.

In 63 BC the Senate issued a law allowing Cicero to do whatever was necessary to secure the state (which meant rounding up and executing the Catiline conspirators). But in case we didn’t understand what this means, Beard explains that this was:

roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ’emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act (p.30)

Maybe this helps some readers but, like so much of what she writes, a detailed understanding of the thing itself, the event in the ancient world, its precedents and meanings, are sacrificed for a flashy modern comparison.

Trivial pursuit facts

Obviously Beard is hugely knowledgeable about her chosen subject, I’m not denying that for a minute. And so the book does contain a wealth of information, if you can bite your tongue and ignore the patronising tone, the banal generalisations and the limp ‘ideas’. Some examples from the first half of the book include:

– The first century BC is the best documented period of human history before Renaissance Florence, in the sense that we have a wealth of documents written by leading players giving us insights into their lives and thoughts (p.22).

– The towering figure is Cicero, not in terms of military achievement (in this warlike society he was not a warrior, he was a lawyer and orator) or political achievement (he took the losing side in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and met a wretched fate) but because so many of his writings have survived. It is possible to get to know him better than anyone else in the whole of the ancient world (pages 26 and 299). This explains why Cicero crops up throughout the book, since he wrote so copiously and so widely about earlier Roman history, customs, religion and so on. It explains why the chapter about social life and the Roman house depends heavily on Cicero – because we have lots of detail about his buying and selling of properties, loans and rents, even down the details of him buying statues and furniture to decorate them.

Julius Caesar had a healthy appetite because he followed a course of emetics, a popular form of detoxification among rich Romans which involved regular vomiting (p.302).

The traditional colour for brides in ancient Rome was yellow (p.303).

Some random Latin words

The Romans referred to themselves as gens togata meaning ‘the people who wear the toga’ (p.32).

The English word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means whitened and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns (p.32) (compare our use of the English word candid which comes from the same root).

The Latin word for female wolf, lupa, was also a slang term for prostitute. So could it be that the old tale about Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf actually referred to a female sex worker? (Nice suggestion. Probably not.)

The English word palace derives from the early 13th century French word palais, from the Medieval Latin palacium (source of the Spanish palacio, Italian palazzo) which all stem from the Latin palatium, which derives from from Mons Palatinus, ‘the Palatine Hill’, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, where Augustus Caesar’s house stood (the original ‘palace’) and was later the site of the splendid residence built by Nero (pages 59 and 418).

Lots of political bodies in countries round the world are called senates, copying the Roman word and idea. The word Senate derives from the Latin senex meaning old man. The original idea, developed in the 3rd century BC, was that everyone who had held a public office (as consul, magistrate, quaestor and so on) at the end of their term went to sit in the Senate where they could use their experience of public life to judge new laws or directives issuing from the Assemblies or consuls.

Crime and punishment

Custodial sentences were not the penalties of choice in the ancient world. Fines, exile and death made up the usual repertoire of Roman punishment (p.35).

Later writers thought the rot set in with the defeat of Carthage 146 BC

In the 40s BC Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust, wrote an essay about the Cataline conspiracy in which he claimed the conspiracy was symptomatic of Rome’s moral decline. He claimed the moral fibre of Roman culture had been destroyed by the city’s success and by the wealth, greed and lust for power that followed its successful crushing of all its rivals. Specifically, he mentions the final destruction of its old rival Carthage in 146 BC and the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in the Mediterranean as the moment when the rot started to set in (page 38 and 516).

Slavery (pages 328 to 333)

All slaves are enemies – Roman proverb

In the mid first-century BC there were between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy, about a fifth of the population. There was a huge variety of slaves, of functions and origins. Slaves could be enemy soldiers or populations captured in war, the children of established slaves, or even abandoned babies rescued from the municipal rubbish dump. Some slaves wore rags and were worked to death in silver mines, some wore fine clothes and acted as secretaries to rich Romans like Cicero. In wealthy households the line between an educated, well treated slave and other staff was often paper thin. The Latin word familia referred to the entire household, including both the non-free and free members (p.330).

  • servus – Latin for slave
  • libertus – Latin for freed slave

Beard refers to slavery for half a page on page 68 and then devotes five pages in chapter eight. The facts she relates are interesting enough – it’s interesting to be told about the great variety of types and statuses of slave in ancient Rome, how some were considered members of the family, how easy it was to free them (although the authorities introduced a tax which had to be paid when you did so).

How the Roman policy of freeing slaves (manumission to use the English word derived from the Latin term) who could then go on to acquire full civic rights was unique in the ancient world.

That in Ancient Rome, a slave was freed in a ceremony in which a praetor touched the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced him or her to be free. The slave’s head was shaved and a special kind of hat, the pileus or liberty cap, was placed on it. Both the vindicta and the cap were considered symbols of Libertas, the goddess representing liberty.

It’s interesting to think that the sheer rate at which Romans freed slaves who originally came from faraway places as defeated soldiers or captives, over the long term contributed to Rome becoming one of the most ethnically diverse places in the ancient world (p.330)

That the Greek island of Delos was one of the great commercial hubs of its day which was inextricably linked with it also being a centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

But five and a half pages are hardly enough to cover such an engrained, scandalous and essential part of Roman history and culture. Like so much else in the book, the facts she gives are interesting enough but, ultimately, all a bit…well…meh.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen (1993)

‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’
(Strip Tease, page 16)

There are many levels on which to consider this book:

  • for its place in Carl Hiaasen’s series of comedy thrillers
  • its dramatic theme (strip club)
  • its socioeconomic theme (the corrupt Florida sugar cane industry)
  • its political theme (corrupt drunk politicians)
  • its feminist theme (woman objectified and abused by men, and badly let down by a patriarchal legal system)
  • its contribution to the thriller genre – blackmail and murder
  • as gruesome farce – a man’s tongue is swallowed by a wolf, a man’s arm is replaced by a golf club

At the most factual level, Strip Tease is the fifth in Carl Hiaasen’s series of 15 bitingly funny, savagely farcical comedy thrillers set in the moral swamp that is South Florida, and it closely follows the winning formula established its predecessors.

The theme: erotic dancing

Top level is the book’s main theme and setting. The previous four novels each rotated around a distinct and colourful theme, namely: eco-terrorism, corrupt fishing competitions, bogus plastic surgery and crappy theme parks. This one centres on a not-very-successful nude dance club called ‘the Eager Beaver’ (which changes its name half way through to ‘The Tickled Pink’ (p.331).

It is not, the owner and performers emphasise, a strip club, but a venue for ‘exotic dancing’ – albeit the dancers are almost naked to start with and then take off their bras or g-strings to become fully naked. Characters refer to it as a ‘nudie bar’ or a ‘tittie bar’ (p.51).

The Eager Beaver is owned by Mr Orly, a sweaty, nervous man who tries to awe his customers and the disgruntled dancers he employs with lies about the club’s mythical Mafia owners – whereas, in fact, with comic irony its main investors turn out to be harmless orthopedic surgeons from Lowell, Massachussetts (p.102).

The Eager Beaver has a bouncer (who prefers to be referred to as a ‘floor manager’) named simply Shad, owner of an enormous bald head and impervious to physical pain, which comes in handy during the various fights he gets involved in (Shad’s full name is only finally given in the Epilogue on page 403: Gerard L. Shaddick).

And the club employs a set of 6 or 7 exotic dancers, chief among them Erin, the lead character in the novel. Other dances include Monique Sr and Monique Jr and Urbana Sprawl, a black stripper with big boobs and a no-nonsense attitude. (The word ‘sprawl’ made me think of William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy of novels and also Les Murray’s wonderful poem, The Quality of Sprawl. Great word, ‘sprawl’.)

The setting of a ‘tittie bar’ provides countless opportunities for characters or the author to reflect on the sleazy nature of strip clubs, exotic dancing, the sex trade (although there is very little actual sex), and, in particular, loads of editorialising about:

  1. men, the sleazy men, sad men, frustrated men and scary men who attend titty bars, specially the new generation of bankers wearing Wall Street braces, driving BMWs, off their faces on cocaine, and
  2. the generally honest women who staff them, the novel giving a realistic depiction of their day-to-day worries as discussed in the poky dressing room (they complain about the air conditioning, the temperature, the pay, the character Lorelei complains about the crappy replacement she’s given after the original boa constrictor she danced with is kidnapped and chopped to pieces) when they’re not bumping and grinding on the stage or at high-paying individuals’ private tables

Orly’s club is in fierce competition with a rival just a mile down the road, the ‘Flesh Farm’ run by the Japanese Ling brothers. This doesn’t impinge on the ‘serious’ plot much but is a source of running gags as the Lings are continually trying to persuade Orly’s dancers to go and work for them, which leads Orly and Shad to plan increasingly florid counter-attacks. This low-level feud climaxes in Shad buying a hundred rats and vermin off a snake dealer down on his luck and chucking them down the air con vents at the Flesh Farm, having previously called up a hygiene inspector who is, therefore, on the premises just in time to observe the sudden outrageous vermin infestation.

Divorce law and Erin the exotic dancer

So, the strip club is the book’s obvious setting and this sub-set of the sex trade the novel’s obvious theme. But just as powerful, just as dominating in the narrative, is the plight of Erin the dancer (I don’t think we ever discover her last name), victim of what is portrayed as a brutally unfair, patriarchal legal system.

Erin is the daughter of a woman who became a professional gold-digger, marrying and divorcing a series of richer and richer men (p.26). In a bid to be different, Erin married Darrell Grant who was tall and handsome and kind but turned out to be a drug addict, lowlife thief. Once she’d realised this, Erin was on the verge of leaving him when she got pregnant and Darell promised to clean up his act. Thus it was that Erin had a daughter, Angela, but all too soon Grant fell back on his old ways. Erin sued for divorce but two things utterly screwed her.

One is that Grant had earlier been busted by two corrupt cops, Piccata and Merkin, who made a deal to not prosecute him if he became a stoolpigeon and copper’s narc. As a result, they deleted his long and seedy criminal record from the computer records so Erin had no evidence for his egregious worthlessness.

Meantime, Erin discovered that lawyers’ fees for pursuing a divorce case are very expensive and found out the hard way that she couldn’t afford them, as a clerk working in the office of the local FBI (p.40).

So a friend recommended exotic dancing as a way of trebling her income and the novel describes Erin’s first tentative steps in front of a mirror (p.26), her first few nights at the club (p.86), and then how she settled into a regular 5 night a week job at the Eager Beaver, paying four times as much as her clerk wage.

(The trick, she says more than once, is to forget about the smutty men grabbing at your legs and lose yourself in the music and indeed a lot of music is mentioned in the book, Madonna, Prince, ZZ Top, rap music. Erin prefers white rock if she’s in the mood – ZZ Top or the Allmann Brothers – or singer-songwriter stuff if she’s feeling more soulful – Jackson Brown, or Van Morrison, ‘Dancin’ in the Moonlight’.)

Trouble is, when the divorce case came to court: a) Grant’s egregious criminal record had been disappeared by the two cops, and b) Grant can easily prove to the court that Erin is a stripper and therefore an ‘unsuitable mother’ to have custody of her child.

Thus, through the corruption and hypocrisy of the system, the drug addict thief Grant is granted custody of little Angela, now aged four. He sets a terrible example. It is a travesty of any kind of justice.

To really rub it in, we are given three additional facts:

  1. Scumbag Grant’s latest money-making scam is stealing wheelchairs for the disabled. Turns out they have no licence plate or identifier, are easy to buff up and sell on to hospitals, old peoples homes etc. Erin is driven to distraction when she learns that her little girl is being used in these wheelchair heists, but she has no legal way of rescuing her.
  2. Grant has a sister, Rita, who is raising and training a litter of wolves. Rita is sympathetic to her divorced sister-in-law but her husband, Alberto, who works at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant (p.36) drools over Erin on her occasional visits. Eventually, fed up of his leching, she agrees to perform a little private dance for him when his wife is out back with the wolves. Erin leads Alberto on and then, just as he’s started to froth with excitement, gives him a violent knee to the jaw which makes him bite his tongue off and knocks him out. Rita bursts in with one of the wolf pups, which promptly gobbles up Alberto’s severed tongue before anyone can stop him (p.189).
  3. Adding maximum insult to injury, the very same judge who denied Erin custody of her daughter because of her so-called ‘immorality’, himself becomes a regular visitor to the Eager Beaver, achieving an acme of male hypocrisy by prominently displaying a Bible on his desk next to his cocktail, and loudly telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s here to ‘save’ the poor benighted girls, all the while under the table with his other hand he’s busy whacking off at the sight of all this poon.

The ultimate peak of scumbag hypocrisy is reached when this two-faced judge tells Erin, when she confronts him at his table in the club, that he’ll reverse his custody decision only if she gives him a blowjob (p.68). Erin is a woman of principles, almost the only character in the book with any, and angrily refuses. Men!

‘All you got to do is flash your twat and men throw money. Isn’t it a great country, Erin? Aren’t you proud to be an American?’ (Darrell Grant, p.62)

Sugar money

American politics has always been about money, power and corruption. It’s amazing how many journalists, commentators, academics and naive liberals think otherwise, think it’s something to do with democracy or liberty or some such.

So the other central theme of this novel is the vast amount of money generated by the Florida sugar cane industry. Hiaasen is so exercised by this that he explains it in journalistic detail not once but at least four times (pages 13, 111, 210, 366). The last chapter intersperses plot with chunks of factual exposition which could come from a magazine article about sugar cane, its agriculture, profits, work practices, how it is grown, harvested and refined (chapter 31).

Key fact is: The US Federal Government keeps the price of domestic sugar cane artificially high,  thus subsidising the big sugar companies with taxpayer money. At the same time the US government also bans the import of sugar cane from the poor countries of the Caribbean and Latin America, helping to keep those nations in dependency and poverty.

Nonetheless, the wretched job of growing and in particular cutting the ripe cane crop falls to the poorest immigrants from precisely those wretched Caribbean countries, who work a punishing 10 hour day in the blistering Florida heat for a pittance.

Hiaasen invents a super-rich sugar cane family, the Rojo dynasty, who own just such a huge sugar cane growing and refining company, the Sweetheart Sugar Corporation. The senior and spooky owners of the corporation are Wilberto and Joaquin Rojo. Through these characters Hiaasen describes the nature of the business, the way government subsidises them, how they ruthlessly exploit their labour to the limit, and how all the pollution and waste from the industry is poured off into the Everglades to kill the eco-system.

The guaranteed government subsidies mean that the Rojo family has so much money it literally doesn’t know what to do with it. This is epitomised by the young scion of the family, dashing cocaine addict Christopher Rojo, who spends his entire life cruising in a chauffeur-driven limousine from high-class parties to strip clubs, awash in champagne, coke and hookers.

The drunken lecherous politician

What about the plot, I hear you ask. Well, the novel kicks off at the Eager Beaver one night when a totally drunk husband-to-be, Paul Guber, out on his stag night, drunkenly clambers onto the stage and embraces Erin while she’s doing her routine, grabs her round the waist, so close that her pubic hair looks like his goatee.

What nobody expects is that Erin has a secret, not-to-say obsessive admirer, a US Congressman named David Lane Dilbeck (p.174) (detailed backstory p.232).

On this particular fateful evening. Congressman Dilbeck also happens to be in the Eager Beaver, drunk off his face, and when he sees some guy groping his favourite dancer, he too lurches up onto the stage and starts beating Paul Guber over the head with a heavy champagne bottle. Again and again. When the Beaver’s bald bouncer, Shad, tries to stop him, Dilbeck’s minder and bagman, Erb Crandall, draws his gun as a threat. The whole thing has got wildly out of control in just a few moments.

What makes this absurd incident the trigger for a 400-page comedy thriller is that several people in the club that night recognise Dilbeck (despite his feeble disguise of a false moustache), someone takes a series of photos of the incident, and so his people are agonisingly aware that he could be blackmailed and ruined: for being in a stripclub at all, and for aggravated assault.

Now Dilbeck, routinely described by all who know him as a scumbag dickhead, is not himself unexpendable save for one big fact: Dilbeck plays a key role in Congress in getting the US sugar subsidy laws renewed each year. In other words, he may be a pitiful ‘pussy hound’, a thick-witted alcoholic and a prey to the every pretty woman he sees – but behind him stand some very seriously rich heads of the Florida sugar cane industry and they are not about to see their fortunes jeopardised. After all:

In politics, stealing is trouble but pussy is lethal. (p.260)

An election is pending and Dilbeck is up against the admittedly bonkers right-wing Republican candidate, Eloy Flickman (who wants to nuke Havana) but still, he is the sugar lobby’s swingman in Washington so anything which threatens Dilbeck threatens very rich powerful people which is why some of the little people who think they can swing a little blackmail are in for a very nasty surprise.

The political fixer

Which is where we come to the political fixer who is employed by the powerful Rojo family to keep dim Dilbert on the straight and narrow. This is the cold, calculating Malcolm J. Moldovsky. (It is a very fleeting coincidence that this Machiavellian political fixer bears the same first name as the Machiavellian political fixer in the British TV series The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker.)

Malcolm is very short (‘no taller than a jockey’, p.236), very clever, dresses carefully and precisely and his political hero is John Mitchell, Attorney General to President Richard M. Nixon, convicted for his part in covering up the Watergate break-in (pages 126 and 323).

Moldovsky is used to doing political deals, bribery and payoffs, he is sued to the subtle interplay of power and money, so he is unhappy when the crudeness of the Eager Beaver affair forces him to take unusually direct action.

First is the murder of Jerry Killian (profile p.82). Killian is a sweet and fairly innocent guy who just adores Erin’s dancing and attends the club night after night to watch her. He was one of the few to recognise the Congressman and he makes the bad mistake of trying to shake down Malcolm. In fact, when the pair have a meeting Malcolm is genuinely surprised when all Killian wants is for the Congressman to have a word with the presiding judge in Erin’s custody case in order to award her her well-deserved custody. We learn that the judge in question wants to get promotion to the federal circuit, Killian wants Dilbert to tell this judge he will put in a good word for him in exchange for the judge reversing his decision and awarding Erin custody of Angela. That appears to be how the legal system works in America.

Despite his modest aims, Malcom realises he can’t have Killian swinging round making wild claims and so has him bumped off by three Jamaicans. His body is found in the Clark Fork River in far-distant Montana where he was wont to take his annual leave and where, by farcical coincidence, Detective Al García is on vacation with his second wife and his step-kids. Al García? Yes the very same Dade County detective we have met in the previous three Hiaasen novels. Thus, despite being on holiday, he finds himself being drawn into a murder case originating over a thousand miles away.

Second to be murdered is Paul Guber’s fiancée, Joyce Mizner (p.321), and her fat shyster lawyer Jonathan Peter Mordecai (comic backstory p.191, full name p.402). Mordecai also tries to contact the Congressman and is put through to Malcolm, meets and tries to shake him down. He claims to have photos of the whole incident.

(It is very funny the way Joyce Mizner is corrupted: at first she is amazed and shocked to discover her fiancé was at a strip club; then she is all devotion and attention when visiting Guber in hospital where it takes him several weeks to recover from his battering; then the lawyer slowly tempts her, holding out the possibility of big bucks compensation; then crosses a line by suggesting they blackmail the Congressman, Joyce becoming steadily more interested in securing her and her husband-to-be’s futures; and finally the lawyer corrupts her enough that Joyce drops all plans to share the money with Paul and settles in to becoming the lawyer’s partner in their ill-fated blackmail scam.)

Anyway, cunning Malcolm says he needs time to consider, then arranges a second meeting. He doesn’t attend the second meeting. Instead Mordecai and Joyce (Paul is away on business in New York) are met by some tough guys who kill them then attach their car to an empty freight vessel which is due to be blown up and sunk in Biscayne Bay and where, many months later, a horrified honeymoon couple on a scuba diving trip discover them. Very elaborate, violent and grotesque. Very Hiaasen.

Grotesque incidents

A lot happens in 400 pages, after all it’s one of the characteristic features of farce as a genre, that the plot becomes evermore manically complicated, featuring wildly improbable coincidences, garish characters and gruesome events. For example:

I’ve mentioned Erin’s sister-in-law’s husband biting off his own tongue when she kicks him under the jaw and that one of their pet wolf cubs eats it.

The judge who awarded against Erin in the custody case has a heart attack and dies at the Flesh Farm. ‘The man died staring at pussy, ‘says Shad. ‘There’s worse ways to go’ (p.169).

Darrell, high on drugs, gets into a fight with Shad, wrestling him down on the ground and carving a G into his bald head.

A lot later Shad is able to return the favour by swinging a tyre jack at Darrell so hard that it shatters his arm, exposing the bone (p.309). Darrell’s endlessly patient sister, Rita, fixes him up, using a golf club as a splint, arranging it head downwards so that it becomes a very effective bludgeoning tool when Darrell goes on one of his rampages.

We learn that Al García’s non-descript Chrysler always has an Igloo ice-box in the back. At one point his new buddy Shad asks him if there are any beers in it. No, García replies, he uses it to store dismembered body parts.

In what is probably the most macabre scene, Shad, an imposing figure, forces his way into the office of the Ling brothers at the Flesh Farm, strips and dangles the younger Ling brother by his hands from a wall fitting and then looses from a bag he’s carrying a live boa constrictor.

We experience Ling’s (comic?) terror as the huge snake twines round his leg and then spots something hanging between his thighs which looks like a nice juicy hamster (his penis) before it springs at lightning speed (pages 338 to 339). This extreme measure, in case you’re wondering, was payback for Ling touching up one of the Eager Beaver dancers who went to work for him and came back in tears.

Both Shad and Orly are oddly puritanical. In fact it is a running joke that after 11 years exposure to bare naked women, Shad doesn’t even realise they’re naked any more. He can only get remotely turned on by clothed women.

Late in the plot García is late to the yacht where Erin has made a date with the congressman because he is delayed by a domestic homicide. Jesse James Braden spilt some of his Bloody Mary on the freshly laundered upholstery of his wife’s Toyota Camry so she shot him three times in the genitals. According to witnesses who saw the dying man stumble from the car, his schlong was pumping like a firehose as he bled to death (p.344).

See what I mean by grotesque?

The climax

The climax comes when Erin agrees to go and do some private dancing for Dilbeck on the luxury yacht he’s allowed to use by the fabulously wealthy Rojo family (and which they have punningly named The Sweetheart Deal).

Malcolm hangs around nervously outside on deck, ostensibly to protect his ward, which is where Darrell, out of his tree on a range of painkillers and wolf medication (provided by his sister), and in pursuit of Erin who he blames for his increasingly violent accidents, confronts Malcolm and quickly bores of the short, smart man’s clever answers and simply bludgeons him to death with the club. Oh well.

When Darrell stumbles into the cabin where Erin is dancing for the Congressman, she deftly pulls a gun and guides both men out to the waiting limo. She’s gotten friendly with Dilbeck’s chauffeur, a Haitian who’s fed up of his employer’s casual racism and warms to Erin who treats him as a human being.

So the chauffeur doesn’t ask any questions but drives Erin, spaced-out Darrell and drunk Dilbeck miles out of town to, fittingly enough, a sugar cane plantation. Here Darrell brandishes his golf club before running off and Erin can’t quite bring herself to shoot him. In any case, the narrator tells us, Darrell the lowlife scumbag finds a hopper full of cut cane and falls fast asleep in it. Next morning the hopper feeds its load, along with hundreds of others, onto a conveyor belt and into a cane cutting machine which dices comatose Darrell into thousands of shreds and flakes, before the metal golf club gums up the works and prompts workers to call the cops.

Erin didn’t want Darrell anyway. Back in the cane field, she forces Dilbeck to start chopping cane with the machete she’d thoughtfully packed. Of course he is flabby and red with exhaustion in just a minute. Neither of them can believe that the Haitian and Dominican workers in these groves cut 8 tons a day each! Modern slavery.

Next Erin strips a little and allows Dilbeck to dirty dance with her. He has just got predictably carried away, and has pushed her to the ground and is fiddling with his willy, when a load of cars pull up and illuminate them in their headlights.

Remember I mentioned that back before she took up dirty dancing, Erin had worked in the Florida office of the FBI, for a cleancut good guy named Officer Cleary. Well, they had stayed in touch, he’d tried to help her with her divorce and custody case, and now she had phoned him and told him to come with backup out to this specific cane plantation and catch a crooked Congressman.

And so it is that three carloads of FBI agents catch a half-naked, sweaty Congressman rolling on the floor with a woman half his age, attempting rape. Soon afterwards Detective Al García and Shad roll up. Through the complex convolutions of the plot they have formed an unlikely buddy-buddy partnership  based on joint concern for Erin’s safety and, although they arrived at the luxury yacht too late to find Erin, she had written the location of the cane plantation in lipstick on the toilet mirror, which explains why they turn up now to discover the placed crawling with Feds.

So now Erin puts her plans to the Congressman. Plan A is she prosecutes him for rape with carsfull of FBI agents as witnesses, and his name is ruined forever. Plan B, Dilbeck has a strategic heart attack, retires sick for a few weeks, thus effectively conceding the upcoming election and, at least temporarily, and in a small way, breaking the stranglehold of the sugar lobby on Congress.

I didn’t like this ending at all, it felt like it just didn’t come off. Previous novels ended in balls of flame like James Bond movies, but Erin taking the Congressman out to a field in the middle of nowhere and encouraging him to get naked and aroused by dirty dancing with him, in the hope that the Feds would turn up in the nick of time… It felt wildly implausible but not in a crazed, bizarre way, just in a ‘not very good plan’ kind of way.

The patheticness of men

Quite a steady stream of criticisms of how lame and poon crazy men are, incapable of thinking with anything except their dicks.

  • Men are easily dazzled. (p.368)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • How easily amused they are! she thought. There was little difference between this and what her mother did; it was the same game of tease, the same basic equation. Use what you’ve got to get what you want. (p.27)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)
  • In such extreme states of desire, men tended to lose their fine-motor skills. (p.188)
  • Men were so helpless, she thought, so easily charmed. Monique Jr was right: they’d do anything for it. Anything. (p.243)

A possible solution

What to do about men’s insatiable appetite for sexual stimulation? Well, hundreds of thousands of feminists have been working on the problem for half a century. A character in this novel, clear-eyed Malcolm, suggests wanking. After all it is the ultimate in safe sex and, in our COVID times, entirely lockdown-compliant. As he tells the helpless ‘pussy hound’ Dilbeck:

‘Know what we need to do? We need to teach you to masturbate creatively. Then maybe you wouldn’t bother women.’ (p.158)

But the way both Shad and Orly have become utterly indifferent to all the naked boobs and bums around them suggests a different way forward. To some extent the naked female form excites such lust in men because it is so strictly rationed; in cold puritanical England, a bare boob is a rarity ogled at by every man in sight.

The obvious solution is for women to wear less, a lot less. In this respect the Free The Nipple campaign is onto something. If topless women were ever to become as common and everyday as men who work (doing manual work) topless or sunbathe topless, it would remove a lot of the mystique, it might even become boring, boring enough that men didn’t break their necks ogling and leering over every millimetre of cleavage to women’s disgust and, often, bewilderment. After all, what’s the big deal, as Erin tells the drunk and lecherous Congressman:

‘Two pleasant handfuls of fat… That’s your basic human breast, Davey. Ninety-eight percent fat, with a cherry on top. What’s the big attraction?’ (p.356)

But that will never happen. Nothing much has changed since this book was published 30 years ago; I don’t expect much to change in this regard in the next 30 years, if I live that long.

Miami Vice references

Hiaasen referenced the smash hit TV show Miami Vice in the previous novel. Figures, it covers his turf.

And the stubble,’ Erin said. ‘Come here, let’s see.’
‘No way.’ He stood up sullenly.
‘Is this your Don Johnson period?’ (p.61)

Except it doesn’t really. The TV show promoted an image of South Florida as cool, full of handsome dudes in designer stubble wearing Armani jackets and driving shiny convertibles. Hiaasen, as we have seen, is more about low rent strip clubs, corrupt businessmen, drunken Congressmen, lowlife psychopaths and trailer trash.

Types of fuck

In an earlier novel Hiaasen introduced me to the concept of ‘sportfucking’ i.e. sleeping around just for laughs. In Native Tongue Joe Winder’s girlfriend Nina offers him a ‘mercy fuck’. Now, Congressman Dilbeck considers he is (that sleeping with him amounts to) a ‘powerfuck’ i.e. having sex with the rich and powerful. It’s good to be educated about these matters.

Epilogue

Hiaasen’s novels routinely feature an epilogue giving us brief summaries of the fates of his characters. From this we learn that even though Dilbeck quits the election race he is still elected in his absence, but nonetheless retires. But that doesn’t stop the agricultural committee of Congress renewing the multi-million dollar subsidies to the sugar industry.Nothing can. Big money corruption is eternal (p.401).


Credit

Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen was published in the UK by Macmillan London in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

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

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

Boyhood in Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

Bedales

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penn Club

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

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

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

Grace Wilson

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

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

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

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

Second World War (1939 to 1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In action (November 1943 to October 1946)

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

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

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

The Days of the Triffids (1946 to 1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The golden decade 1951 to 1961

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

Wyndham’s women

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of his life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late marriage

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

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

Chocky by John Wyndham (1968)

Chocky was first published as a ‘novelette’ in the March 1963 issue of Amazing Stories science fiction magazine and only later developed into a shortish novel which was published in 1968 by Michael Joseph. The book’s 1963 date makes it sit closer to the sequence of fictions which ran very tightly from Triffids in 1951 to Trouble With Lichen in 1960, rather than the outlier following a period of silence which the book publication date initially suggests. That said, it does feel simpler and shorter and somehow ‘different’ from the rest of Wyndham’s work.

Executive summary

The basic idea is very simple: young English Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’ which, understandably, trouble his parents. It takes the entire novel for Matthew, his dad and the reader to fully understand that the friend is a telepath from a distant planet using Matthew to find out more about earth and its inhabitants.

More detail

Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’. The only trouble is the conversations are complex and demanding, broaching subjects beyond the average 11-year-old. His school teachers complain that Matthew is asking unexpected questions about the binary system of counting, why most species have two sexes, whereabouts the solar system is in the wider galaxy, and so on. When his parents buy a new car they find him in tears of exasperation because when he explained how it worked to his invisible friend, it laughed at its primitive crudeness.

The father calls up an old friend from university days, Roy Landis, who is now a psychiatrist and who drives down to the family’s Surrey home one Sunday and spends a long afternoon discussing the invisible friend – who is named Chocky – with Matthew.

Landis emerges to tell the parents he thinks Chocky is a real thing, an objective being, one proof being that so much of what Matthew tries to report Chocky as saying is not only beyond his understanding but beyond his vocabulary. If it was merely ideas he’d picked up in his reading and was recycling – even subconsciously – he’d have the words to do so.

Around this simple idea Wyndham weaves all kinds of detail designed to embed it in everyday, run-of-the-mill middle-class life in the suburbs. We learn about the narrator’s boring job as an accountant. How he met his wife, Mary, namely quite a long cock-and-bull story about a coach tour to Italy in the middle of which the coach disappears when the travel company (GOPLACES TOURS) goes bankrupt, leaving the passengers marooned in an overbooked hotel where he meets the pretty young graduate, Mary, and they decide to pool their meagre resources and make their way back to England together.

They get married and the narrator tells us how he soon realises that Mary has an extended family, two sisters and two brothers, all of whom have gotten married and produced children at an alarming rate. This leads into an interesting pseudo-feminist passage about the tremendous pressure young women come under to have babies, especially if all their siblings have, and how this preys on Mary’s mind and leads to a series of visits to doctors and tests until they decide to adopt. And they adopt the baby they name Matthew.

All this is utterly unnecessary to the core of the plot but is what the book is really about. Obviously there’s the science fiction plot, but what the book is actually about is being married and having children. If you park the sci fi plot for a moment, what you have is the story of a young couple who meet, fall in love, get married, try for a baby but can’t have one, decide to adopt and everything goes fairly well until the boy turns 11 and starts to behave oddly.

From then on most readers are reading for clues about the true nature of this ‘Chocky’ (though I think anyone who’s ready any science fiction or, more probably, watched any sci fi movies or TV shows, will guess the story in the first ten pages) but to us older readers, it’s a novel about how a well-mannered middle-aged couple cope with their beautiful 11-year-old son going off the rails and the terror that something is dreadfully wrong with him. And that’s what all the best moments in the book are about, about a young married couple struggling to cope.

We sat and looked at one another.
Mary’s eyes slowly brimmed with tears.
‘Oh, David. He was such a lovely little boy…

One of the reasons his critics can’t stand Wyndham is for the extreme, middle-class cosiness of some of his key fictions. I would suggest something more specific, it’s the uxoriousness of his happily married couples, all darling this and darling that. The narrators of both Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos make mordant remarks about their dear wives who talk over them, correct them when they’re wrong, and whose moods and brooding silences they come to recognise. Same here:

After we had cleared the table and packed the children off upstairs there was an atmosphere that I recognised. Some kind of prepared statement, a little uncertain of its reception, was on its way. Mary sat down, a little more upright than usual, and addressed herself to the empty grate rather than to me.

Personally, I identify with these very recognisable traits of married life. You love each other but irritate each other as well, and also recognise each other’s moods and know, for example, when you are in trouble and when you’re about to get a lecture.

They hire a holiday cottage in the village of Bontgoch in North Wales with another couple with young children, Alan and Phyl Froome. There’s some entertaining old man complaining about how simple and unspoilt it all was back when he went there as a lad, but now holiday homes have cropped up and the sailing mob have arrived, mooring yachts and sailing in the unsuitable waters. God, if he though quiet seaside villages had been ruined by rich holiday home owners in 1963, what on earth would Wyndham have made of 2021?

Anyway, there’s a major ‘incident’ which is, the narrator and Mary have gone off for a jaunt leaving all four kids in charge of the other couple and the kids are playing on a jetty when the fast ebb tide rams a boat which has come loose from its moorings into it, it collapses plunging Matthew and his younger sister Polly into the water and sweeping them away. The point is Matthew manages not only to keep afloat but to support his sister, in the midst of the rushing torrent, till a local boatsman, Colonel Summers, who saw the incident is able to take his motorboat out to rescue them. And here’s the point: Matthew can’t swim! He is brought back to the holiday cottage in one piece, given a hot bath and put to bed and when his dad drops in on him, embarrassedly admits… it was Chocky who swam for him.

Back in London, Mary shows the narrator, just returned from a day in the office, a copy of the Welsh local newspaper which the Froomes mailed to them, It features the story of Matthew saving his sister and attributing it to voices. It names him and gives his town of residence, Hindmere. The couple hope it will blow over but the narrator is appalled the next morning to turn on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and hear the presenter Jack de Manio (a real person who did in fact present Today from 1958 to 1971) introduce a radio interview with a BBC reporter. When the narrator questions Matthew the latter cagily admits the BBC rang up while his mum and dad were out and asked if they could come round and do an interview.

It escalates. A few months earlier Mary had found half a dozen pictures down the back of Matthew’s chest of drawers. Not proficient but strikingly observed, in which all the figures are strangely thin and attenuated. The thing being, as we’re coming to expect, Matthew was not normally good at art. But, he tells his parents, he lets his mind go blank and Chocky draws what she sees. Now the art teacher has in all innocence sent one of Matthew’s paintings, along with others by his peers, into a national art college and journalists have linked his name to the miracle swimmer whose ‘guardian angel’ helped him rescue his sister. And so his artwork and name are now in all the papers. Christ what a mess!

Landis rings, he wants to discuss Chocky again. Over lunch at the club he gives the narrator the name of noted specialist Sir William Thorbe.

Meanwhile the press become more pressing, there start to be a steady stream of calls from journalists of newspapers, radio and TV, as well as vicars and various nutcases. The narrator takes the family for a weekend away, initially by the sea, but that is so filthy and polluted, they go to an inn on the South Downs. Here they relax, and when the parents go for a stroll, they come across Matthew doing a really good drawing of the view. Matthew explains that Chocky is getting better at seeing through his eyes. Mary, who has been so upset about it all, worrying that her beautiful son is going mad, has turned a kind of psychological corner, and accepts Chocky now. She asks if she can have the picture and look after it, and she means it.

On the first day of the new term back at school, Matthew is knocked to the ground by a school bully, but when he totters back to his feet, looks so fierce the bully and henchman run off. Did Chocky appear in his face? The headmaster phones up to apologise.

The narrator meets Matthew (who is now 12) off the train at Waterloo and takes him to Sir William Thorbe’s practice in Harley Street. Thorbe has him in for two and a half hours and appears to play Matthew spinning records like mandalas to hypnotise him, but the results are disappointing. A week later the narrator gets Thorbe’s report which dismisses both the swimming incident and the painting by saying these were skills the boy had in fact acquired but had repressed, i.e. Thorbe gives an entirely psychiatric analysis giving no credence to Chocky at all.

Couple of days later the dad comes across Matthew lying in his room, notices a crop of new paintings. One is of an arid plain unrelieved except for a few blobby shapes, with a pyramid shape on a hill. Matthew says it’s Chocky’s planet. By now the dad is prepared to believe it. Looks hot. Yes, that’s why Chocky says our planet is so beautiful.

But he sobs. Chocky is leaving. She’s saying goodbye. He starts to cry. The mum arrives at the bedroom door but the dad gets up off the bed, goes over to her, shuts the door and takes her downstairs to explain. Over the next few days Matthew’s mood seems to improve, he gets ‘better’.

Then one afternoon he doesn’t come home. He goes missing for twelve days. The family contact the police and then, reluctantly, the papers. The dad of a schoolfriend rings up to say his son saw Matthew get into a strange car. There’s a nationwide search, no results. Mary becomes distraught.

Then one day a call from the police. Matthew just wandered up to a policeman directing traffic in Birmingham. He tells the following story: He was kidnapped by men who kept him confined in a house and gave him a series of injections and interrogated him. After a while, with no explanation, he found himself on a busy street and approached the first policeman he saw.

So Matthew has returned in perfect health, unharmed and resumes going to school. One night he comes down after Mary has gone to bed. Chocky is back and she wants to tell his dad a few home truths. They go up to his room, Matthew lies down and Chocky takes over.

S/he explains she is an explorer. Her race is ancient and dying. They need to move out to colonise new planets. They have developed the technique of mind projection. At first they thought they were the only life in the universe but have subsequently discovered it on some planets. But intelligent life is very rare. It must be nurtured.

Now she goes on to explain that human development is at a very primitive stage.

‘It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can be only one end to that.’

Chocky says we must learn to abandon reliance on energy from the sun and exploit the background radiation of the universe which is infinite. Why is she helping us? Because all intelligent life forms have a duty to help all others.

Intelligent forms are rare. In each form they owe a duty to all other forms. Moreover, some forms are complementary. No one can assess the potentialities that are latent in any intelligent form. Today we can help you over some obstacles; it may be you will so develop that in some future time you will be able to help us, or others, over obstacles.

She is leaving because it was her first mission and she muffed it. She got too close to Matthew, too involved and told him too much. This came out when Sir William Thorbe analysed Matthew. Under hypnosis Matthew revealed the true meaning of Chockey’s mission, to teach mankind how to harness a completely new form of power. Thorbe realises he is onto something massive. According to Chockey it was he who tipped the men off who kidnapped Matthew and gave him a series of truth serums in a bid to extract this knowledge.

Matthew doesn’t understand anything about this cosmic power but Chocky now realises that she has handled everything wrong and put Matthew’s life in danger. Powerful interests – the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, the atomic industry – might want to silence Matthew. He will be watched. In fact, maybe they have already bugged this house and this bedroom. That is why she must go. So has her mission been a failure, the narrator asks. No. She must fulfil her mission of guiding humanity to the source of a better sustainable source of energy, but she now realises it must be done by giving hints and scattered insights to numerous researchers in different places and times, rather than through one young mind which is not capable of handling the concepts.

And with that, she is gone.

Conclusion

In the end the finale, the denouement, the revelation, doesn’t quite live up to the buildup. Above all, it lacks the real menace and threat which made Triffids so terrifying and his other three big novels so powerful and eerie. Ultimately, the homely and domestic life of this little nuclear family overshadows the strange story at its heart. No surprise it was made into a children’s TV series because it is, at heart, kind and innocent and good.

Posh

Not only uxorious, but posh, the novel has a sustained tone of middle-class manners and rhetoric which have vanished forever.Here’s the family friend, Alan, on the way Matthew saved his sister:

‘There’s no doubt at all your Polly’d have been a goner, but for him. Damn good show.’

Colonel Summers on Matthew saving his sister:

‘Plucky youngster of yours. Good reason to be proud of him… Funny thing his pretending he couldn’t swim; unaccountable things, boys. Never mind. Damned good show! And good luck to him.’

The narrator commutes from his Surrey commuter town up to Waterloo and then on to his firm of accountants in Bedford Square. He listens to the Today programme while he shaves in the morning. He ‘takes’ The Times though it is damn fiddly folding the pages over on his crowded commuter train. When Landis suggests another meeting with Matthew’s father, they meet at his club and quaff sherry before moving through to the panelled dining room for luncheon.

The narrator and his friends call each other ‘old boy’ and ‘my dear fellow’. Most strikingly of all, the narrator calls his 12-year-old son, ‘old man’:

‘Feeling played out, old man?’ I asked him. ‘Why don’t you get right into bed? I’ll bring you something on a tray.’

As Brian Aldiss points out, is the story meant to be set in the 1960s… or the 1930s?

Grumpy stumps

Part of the generally ‘normal’ tone and content of the book is its grumpy old man complaints about various aspects of English life. The tone is set with his sardonic comments about package holidays and coach tours which are worthy of Monty Python’s Torremolinos sketch. Then there’s:

I have fallen into the bad habit of switching on the radio as a background to shaving – bad because untroubled shaving is itself a good background for thinking – however, that’s modern life…

Or:

I was in the act of transferring my attention from The Times personal column to the leader page, an almost antisocial exercise in a full railway compartment, when my eye was caught by a photograph in the copy of the Daily Telegraph held by the man in the opposite seat. Even at a glance it had a quality which triggered my curiosity. I leant forward to take a closer look. Habitual travellers’ develop an instinct which warns them of such liberties. My vis-à-vis immediately lowered his paper to glare at me as if I were committing trespass and probably worse, and ostentatiously refolded it to present a different page.

This is all a bit reminiscent of Reggie Perrin’s commuting hell from the mid-1970s. Here is the narrator lamenting the commercialisation of the quaint little Welsh village he used to go on holiday to when he was a boy:

The place was Bontgoch, a village on an estuary in North Wales, where I had enjoyed several holidays in my own childhood. In those days it was simply a small grey village with a few larger houses outside it. During summer it had a scatter of visitors who were for the most part the children and grandchildren of the owners of the larger houses; they affected it very little. Since then it has been discovered, and bungalows now dot the shoreline and the lower slopes about the village. Their occupants are mostly seasonal, transitory, or retired, and during the milder months the majority are addicted to messing about with boats. I had not expected that. Bontgoch is by no means ideally situated for it, for the tides run fast in the estuary and navigation can be tricky; but the crowded state of the small boat world with its five-year queues for moorings in many more favoured waters had overridden the disadvantages. Now it even had a painted-up shed with a bar at one end called the Yacht Club.

To avoid the attentions of the British press, dad decides to take his family for a day by the sea:

We arrived at a vast car park charging five shillings a time, collected our things and went in search of the sea. The pebbly beach near the park was crowded with groups clustering around contending transistor sets. So we made our way further along and down the pebbles, until all that separated us from the shining summer sea was a band of oil and ordure about six feet wide, and a fringe of scum along the water’s edge… ‘Oh, dear. It was a lovely beach only a few years ago,’ said Mary, ‘Now it’s…’ ‘Just the edge of the Cloaca Britannica?’ I suggested.

Sounds like Kingsley Amis on a particularly grumpy day, or any reader of the Daily Mail moaning about how the country, and the countryside’s gone to the dogs.

These grumpy ventings are quite funny in themselves, fairly interesting social history, but also do The Wyndham Thing of making a completely implausible science fiction concept seem utterly believable by embedding it such everyday, mundane comments.

It is notable that the grumpiness even extends to the narrator’s own children, who seem to irritate him and bore him a lot; well, his daughter Polly, anyway:

  • ‘Throughout the meal Polly chattered constantly and boringly of ponies. When we had got rid of her Mary asked…’
  • ‘At that moment Polly arrived babbling, and anxious not to be late for school…’

When Matthew goes missing, Polly helpfully remembers an incident from her pony book:

Silence closed down again. After a time Polly found it irksome. She fidgeted. Presently she felt impelled to make conversation. She observed: ‘When Twinklehooves was kidnapped they tried to turn him into a pit pony.’
‘Shut up,’ I told her. ‘Either shut up, or go away.’

He adopts quite a harsh tone throughout the book to the unfortunate daughter. Surprising, because Wyndham never had children of his own.

Adaptations

Radio

Chocky was adapted as a 60-minute drama for BBC Radio 2, broadcast on 27 November 1968.

BBC Radio 4 presented a reading by Andrew Burt of the novel in seven 15-minute episodes broadcast daily between 19 and 27 May 1975.

Another adaptation into a single 90-minute drama for BBC Radio 4 was broadcast on 18 March 1998. You can buy it on CD.

Television series

ITV adapted the novel as a children’s TV series in 1984, and it obviously got good enough ratings for them to create two sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. You can buy all three series on DVD.

Proposed film

Steven Spielberg acquired film rights to the novel in September 2008 and said he was interested in directing it. To put that in context, it would be interesting to know how many film rights Spielberg (or his companies and agents) acquired in just the calendar year 2008 alone, 10s? 100s? And to know what percentage of properties that he or his companies acquire in any given year are ever actually made into movies – 10%? 1%?

Part of the appeal of the novel is that it is a record of a gentle, English, white, middle-class way of life which has vanished forever. If Spielberg ever did make it into a movie, it would presumably be a portrait of a modern American family à la E.T. and therefore massacre the book’s main appeal. The story is quite compelling, but it’s the myriad details of English life from a certain period which give it its flavour.


Credit

Chocky by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1968. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition I bought in 1973, price 45p.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham (1961)

‘The whole account is, of course, unreasonable,’ he said, ‘and yet it is pervaded throughout with such an air of reasonableness.’

Six short stories, four of them about alternative realities or minds which are inexplicably transferred forward in time and into other bodies. The first and longest story is a vivid continuation of Wyndham’s interest in women’s liberation.

Consider Her Ways (1956)

‘Woman, who is the vessel of life, had the misfortune to find man necessary for a time, but now she does no longer… Man was only a means to an end. We needed him in order to have babies. The rest of his vitality accounted for all the misery in the world. We are a great deal better off without him.’

This is by way of being a novella, running to 65 pages in the Penguin paperback. It starts with a page describing someone disembodied, outside themselves, not even aware of a personality, a floating ball of consciousness, a weird out-of-body description which could come from Sam Beckett’s highly experimental novel, The Unnameable (which had published only a few years earlier in 1953):

I hung in a timeless, spaceless, forceless void that was neither light, nor dark. I had entity, but no form; awareness, but no senses; mind, but no memory. I wondered, is this – this nothingness – my soul? And it seemed that I had wondered that always, and should go on wondering it for ever …

But, somehow, timelessness ceased. I became aware that there was a force: that I was being moved, and that spacelessness had, therefore, ceased, too. There was nothing to show that I moved; I knew simply that I was being drawn. I felt happy because I knew there was something or someone to whom I wanted to be drawn. I had no other wish than to turn like a compass-needle, and then fall through the void …

This floating consciousness slowly finds form and coherence and becomes aware of itself. It is a ‘she’ and discovers herself in a body in a hospital ward. Looking around she discovers three obscenely fat women lying on trolleys. Looking down she discovers she herself is encased in just such an obscenely fat body and starts screaming and then faints from shock. She is sedated. When she comes round she discovers her name is Mother Orchis, a Class One mother’, and is told she has just delivered four babies.

She is loaded into a pink ambulance (she is too fat to walk) and taken on a long journey through calm countryside. From the ambulance window she sees only women working in the fields, tough brawny looking lot she christens Amazons. (As a side note, there is a reference to ‘Whitewich’ [where Mother Orchis would be sent if she had had ‘grade 2’ babies, which reminds the reader of the fictional ‘Westwich of Pawley’s Peepholes and, of course, the Midwich of The Midwich Cuckoos.)

She arrives at some kind of ‘clinic’ where she is unloaded and wheeled into a ward by tiny little attendants who are about four feet tall and yet seem fully grown. Slowly she realises the five other women on the ward are all called ‘mothers’, too. But she is radically unlike them and scandalises them by claiming she can read and write. She now regards the entire thing as a hallucination.

The other Mothers are scandalised by her talk and she begins to realise they are illiterate and have been kept in a state of ignorance. When she starts to talk about her husband and men in general, she is stunned to realise the mothers genuinely have no idea what she’s talking about.

Suddenly she has a memory. Her husband was named Donald. She is named Jane, she was Jane Waterleigh until she married Donald Summers, she is a qualified doctor (i.e. highly rational and logical). Now she remembers that her husband was badly injured in a plane crash.

After more feeding and sleep Jane is visited by a woman doctor who, unlike either the mothers or the little helpers is a ‘normal’ shape and appearance. The doctor is shocked to discover she can read and disgusted that she’s been filling the other mothers’ heads with nonsense about ‘men’ and there being two ‘sexes’. During the interview the doctor goes from patronising, to astonished, to angry that someone has been filling Mother Orchis’s head with this rubbish, to genuine puzzlement.

After the doctor leaves, Jane makes a bid for freedom, but finds it difficult even getting out of bed and the four-foot Servitors are closing in on her even as she trips, falls down some stairs, bangs her head and loses consciousness.

Now more of her memory returns in a flash: how she was a fully qualified doctor, married to the loving Gordon, a test pilot, till he died in an aircrash, asked to return to work, worked at Wraychester hospital, then after some time was asked by a Dr Hellyer if she’d like to volunteer for trials of a new drug. It was called ‘chuinjuatin,’ a narcotic:

‘The original form is in the leaves of a tree that grows chiefly in the south of Venezuela. The tribe of Indians who live there discovered it somehow, like others did quinine and mescalin. And in much the same way they use it for orgies. Some of them sit and chew the leaves – they have to chew about six ounces of them – and gradually they go into a zombie-like, trance state. It lasts three or four days during which they are quite helpless and incapable of doing the simplest thing for themselves, so that other members of the tribe are appointed to look after them as if they were children, and to guard them… It’s necessary to guard them because the Indian belief is that chuinjuatin liberates the spirit from the body, setting it free to wander anywhere in space and time, and the guardian’s most important job is

Aha. So by now the reader has realised this is a kind of mind transportation story or, as the characters out it, a case of ‘transferred personality’, very like the story of From Pillar To Post and, like that story, the transportation has occurred into the Future, where – as so often in this kind of story – some massive social dislocation has taken place and the mind or time traveller needs to be informed (along with the reader) what happened to bring about such a drastic social change.

Which is precisely what now happens because, after her interview, the doctor who interviewed her decides Jane should be loaded up into another of those pink ambulances and driven through the relaxed countryside to a stylish 18th century villa, beautifully furnished inside, where she is introduced to Laura, an elegant 80-year-old lady, who’s a historian, and who can answer most of Jane’s (and the reader’s) questions.

She tells Jane that she is a historian and asks a servant to bring sherry i.e. Jane is going to be treated as an equal. Laura now tells her that, two long lifetimes ago, about 120 years, all the men died out in a plague, within a year.

In a sense the most interesting part of the story is what now follows for Laura, never having lived in a world with men in it, and as a historian, has studied the subject and – we realise – the dogma of the future, written by women for women taking the women’s point of view, portrays a world of two sexes as one of unremitting exploitation of women by men.

‘Women must never for a moment be allowed to forget their sex, and compete as equals. Everything had to have a “feminine angle” which must be different from the masculine angle, and be dinned in without ceasing. It would have been unpopular for manufacturers actually to issue an order “back to the kitchen”, but there were other ways. A profession without a difference, called “housewife”, could be invented. The kitchen could be glorified and made more expensive; it could be made to seem desirable, and it could be shown that the way to realize this heart’s desire was through marriage. So the presses turned out, by the hundred thousand a week, journals which concentrated the attention of women ceaselessly and relentlessly upon selling themselves to some man in order that they might achieve some small, uneconomic unit of a home upon which money could be spent.

Whole trades adopted the romantic approach and the glamour was spread thicker and thicker in the articles, the write-ups, and most of all in the advertisements. Romance found a place in everything that women might buy from underclothes to motor-cycles, from “health” foods to kitchen stoves, from deodorants to foreign travel, until soon they were too bemused to be amused any more.

‘The air was filled with frustrated moanings. Women maundered in front of microphones yearning only to “surrender”, and “give themselves”, to adore and to be adored. The cinema most of all maintained the propaganda, persuading the main and important part of their audience, which was female, that nothing in life was worth achieving but dewy-eyed passivity in the strong arms of Romance. The pressure became such that the majority of young women spent all their leisure time dreaming of Romance, and the means of securing it. They were brought to a state of honestly believing that to be owned by some man and set down in a little brick box to buy all the things that the manufacturers wanted them to buy would be the highest form of bliss that life could offer.’

Jane tries to protest that it wasn’t like that but Laura knows better and continues:

They hoodwinked you, my dear. Between them they channelled your interests and ambitions along courses that were socially convenient, economically profitable, and almost harmless.’

But what about ‘love’, Jane asks. Laura has a smart confident answer to that, too:

‘You keep repeating to me the propaganda of your age. The love you talk about, my dear, existed in your little sheltered part of the world by polite and profitable convention. You were scarcely ever allowed to see its other face, unglamorised by Romance. You were never openly bought and sold, like livestock; you never had to sell yourself to the first-comer in order to live; you did not happen to be one of the women who through the centuries have screamed in agony and suffered and died under invaders in a sacked city – nor were you ever flung into a pit of fire to be saved from them; you were never compelled to suttee upon your dead husband’s pyre; you did not have to spend your whole life imprisoned in a harem; you were never part of the cargo of a slave-ship; you never retained your own life only at the pleasure of your lord and master …

There’s one last fact to be conveyed, which is how the men died out. Laura explains that historical records show it was the result of the research work of a Dr Perrigan, who was doing extensive research producing viruses by radioactive mutation, with a view to controlling populations of first rabbits and then the brown rats which carry plague and other infectious diseases. Well, nobody knows how it got out, but a mutant virus which attacked humans escaped from the lab, and, although some women were infected, most made a recovery, whereas almost all men were infected and it killed them.

Within a few years almost all men were dead. Society collapsed since almost all manual labour, oil extraction, food raising and so on, was run by men. It took decades but the most educated women were often the doctors and they found themselves brought together into a new class, which called itself ‘The Doctorate’. They wondered how to re-organise society on a more rational, less exploitative basis until someone referred to the Bible quote: : “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways.”

‘A four-class system was chosen as the basis, and strong differentiations were gradually introduced. These, now that they have become well established, greatly help to ensure stability – there is scope for ambition within one’s class, but none for passing from one class to another. Thus, we have the Doctorate – the educated ruling-class, fifty per cent of whom are actually of the medical profession. The Mothers, whose title is self-explanatory. The Servitors who are numerous and, for psychological reasons, small. The Workers, who are physically and muscularly strong, to do the heavier work. All the three lower classes respect the authority of the Doctorate. Both the employed classes revere the Mothers. The Servitors consider themselves more favoured in their tasks than the Workers; and the Workers tend to regard the puniness of the Servitors with a semi-affectionate contempt.

The interview comes to an end. Jane is packed by the little women into another pink ambulance but taken to a new place, more a clinic than the Mothers’ home. Here three doctors attend who are not unsympathetic. The only solution they can think of to help her fit in with her current situation is to hypnotise her so she forgets everything. Jane is understandably reluctant and makes a suggestion of her own – that she be given another dose of huinjuatin, as close as possible to the original one. The doctors agree to give it a try and obtain some of the drug. Jane is very tense as they line up to give her big fat blobby body the injection and then…

At this point the narrative changes tone and we learn the entire thing is a written account of her experience which she deposited with her bank upon returning to the body of Jane in the 20th century.

And that, very like the ending of the From Pillar To Post, another mind transport story, the final part of the narrative switches away from the first-person narrator to the point of view of the authorities involved in ‘the case’ who are reviewing and considering the narrative we have just read.

Now, suddenly, right at the end, we learn that we are now back in the 20th century as a solicitor and Jane’s doctor, Dr Hellyer, consider her ‘case’. And it’s not an abstract discussion. Jane is on trial for travelling to Dr Perrigan’s house (he, of course, lives in England), trying to reason with him and, when he refused to stop his research, Jane is accused of shooting him dead and trying to burn the house down.

The solicitor and the doctor are reviewing the document we have just read to assess its usefulness in Jane’s murder trial now coming up. They conclude that the entire thing must have been a very vivid hallucination.

But the details of their discussion don’t matter so much because the story now reveals the Twist In Its Tail. And that is – that Dr Perrigan had a son, also a doctor, also a research scientist, and… he has vowed to carry on his father’s work!! You can’t change Destiny. Men will be exterminated.

Odd (1961)

Mr Aster is the main beneficiary of Sir Sir Andrew Vincell’s will. The latter’s solicitor, young Mr Fratton is curious. After a few professional meetings, the lawyer very discreetly enquires how Mr Aster knew Sir Andrew. They go for dinner at his club and the latter tells him the story.

One night he saw a distinguished old man clinging on to a railing looking dazed. He decided to help out, addressed the man and took him to the nearest pub for a brandy. Here the story comes out (so it is a story within a story).

Sir Andrew has been knocked down by a tram and this has somehow freed his mind and sent it 50 years forward in time. This dazed man is discovered in the street by Aster who buys him a drink and talks to him. The man is stunned by his appearance in the pub mirror and disbelieves the pub calendar and even the contents of his own pockets. None of it makes sense to a man who half an hour earlier was 23 and living in 1906. But, as Aster points out from the card in the pocket of his lovely jacket, he is now clearly a director of a plastics company. ‘What is plastic?’ Sir Andrew asks him, and Aster proceeds to tell him as much as he knows while the publican orders them a cab. Then Aster accompanies the dazed man to his very smart apartments in Bloomsbury Square. Next day he calls and is answered by a young lady who assures him Sir Andrew is fine and that’s the last he hears from him till he read his obituary in the papers and was contacted by his solicitor.

Basically, although neither man can credit it, the story is obviously true. Sir Andrew Vincell did have a mysterious accident which propelled his spirit 50 years forward in time, at which point he learned about the mysterious new material ‘plastic’, before somehow being sent back to his original time, to 1906, where, as a young man, he used the knowledge he had acquired in the future to set up a successful company.

And then, many many years later, left a huge sum to the man who came across him in his dazed, mind-transported state and was not only kind and caring to him, but gave him the technical secrets on which his fortune was subsequently based.

Oh, Where, Now, is Peggy MacRafferty? (1961)

Remember the short story about dragons in Jizzle? How the main thing about it was the very Welsh accents and locutions of everyone involved. Well, this story continues Wyndham’s interest in accents and attempts to do something similar for Ireland. Peggy MacRafferty lives in a small rural Irish community of Barranacleugh. From out the blue Peggy receives a letter asking her to appear on a quiz show produced by Popular Amalgamated Television, Ltd which is going to take place in the Town Hall at Ballyloughrish.

So Peggy takes a bus there, is welcomed, put at ease in the green room with all the the contestants and when it comes her turn to answer questions not only answers them correctly but is spirited and independent enough to cow the flashy presenter and win the hearts of the audience.

This prompts some other enterprising TV producers to take her up and fly her to London with a view to making her a movie star. We see the conversations among these hopeful producers (Mr Robbins), the flash hotel she’s put up in, the team who look after her make-up and buy her suitable dresses (led by Mrs Trump) and the irritable photographer, Bert, who makes her look like a glamour doll, before she is introduced to the powerful movie producer George Floyd, his partner Solly de Kopf and his henchman Al Foster. George and Solly decide Peggy has a certain look and presence so they’ll sign her up to ‘Plantagenet Pictures’ and trial her in a piece of stereotyped slush movie which they begin sketching out, and there’s some satirical comedy to be had from the decision to give plain Peggy the more romantic-sounding screen name of Deirdre Shilsean!

In other words, the story purports to take us into the heart of the British TV and movie industry circa 1960.

Next thing Peggy knows she’s flown off to a fashionable spa resort, Marinstein, somewhere in Germany (or Austria), complete with fairy castle, moonlight on the river etc. Peggy’s arrival here signals the start of part two because, like so many of Wyndham’s stories, this one seems almost as if two completely different plots have been welded together.

Having spent the first half following Peggy from a rural Irish village to the heart of London’s movie business, the story now switches focus and gives us a whole load of information about the founder of the Chaline Beauty Company, the enterprising Madame Letitia Chaline (real name Lettice Sheukelman). There is a page of satire about the self-appointed mission of beauty product designers to liberate womankind from the shackles of ugliness (touching directly on a central strand in the novel The Trouble With Lichen) before we move on to consider Madame Letitia’s daughter, Cathy, who married an impoverished aristocrat, and became Her Highness the Grand Duchess Katerina of Marinstein. She discovers it’s a rundown squalid dump, the castle is as cosy as a suite of caves and the inhabitants filthy, and only interested in drinking, begging and shagging.

So young Cathy sets out to comprehensively modernise and update it, concreting the airport runway, building new grand hotels, making the population attend compulsory lectures about hygiene and manners.

Ten years this is the world-famous paradise of beauty treatment in which Peggy arrives, soon making friends with another young would-be starlet, Pat aka Carla Carlita. They wander through the quaint cobbled streets packed with boutiques and salons. Next day they begin their ‘Screen Beauty Course’ to bring them in line with late 1950s movie ideas of beauty.

There is Miss Higgins for elocution, Miss Carnegie the personality coach, her coiffeur, her facial-artist, her deportment-instructor, her dietician, and Miss Arbuthnot who explains that the modern ideal of beauty requires a figure of 42-22-38. Goodness!

Then the point of view cuts back to the office of George Floyd and Solly de Kopf for the comic denouement, which is that George went to meet the plane back from Marinstein, and all the women looked the same. All of them have been turned into identikit Lolos (referring, I assume, to 1950s dolly bird movie star Gina Lollobrigida). Peggy from Barranacleugh must be among them but they are all so indistinguishable, George can’t find her and throws up his hands in despair.

Stitch in Time (1961)

Old Mrs Thelma Dolderson is sitting in her wheelchair, out on the lawn of the fine old house where she’s lived as child, young woman, married woman and now old woman. It was her son, Harold, who kept it in the family when, after the war, it became too large to run, by persuading his firm to buy it on the condition his mother retained a wing and rooms of her own. Subsequently the rest of the house has been converted into offices and laboratories where Harold pursues his researches.

(Country houses converted into research facilities are a recurring trope in Wyndham, namely the Grange in the Midwich Cuckoos where the alien children end up being housed and educated, and the Grange in the short story Una, where the mad inventor carries out his experiments in vivisection.)

Earlier in the day, Harold had tried to explain to Mrs D about the experiment they were planning to carry out this afternoon, something to do with time being an additional dimension. She doesn’t understand him but pats his hand approvingly and he leaves her sitting out in the lovely warm sun and she falls to reminiscing about her life, how odd and arbitrary life is, why it was on a summer’s day much like this, fifty or so years ago that she waited for Arthur, the love of her life, to pop over for tennis although they both knew he was coming to finally pop the question and ask her to marry him (full name: Arthur Waring Batley).

But he never showed. No explanation, no note, no nothing, he never got in touch, she never saw him again. Eventually she got over it and married Colin Dolderson who fathered her two wonderful children, Harold and Cynthia, but what if…

There is a strange shimmer in the air, a barely audible humming and then, to her amazement, Mrs Dolderson hears a familiar voice singing a tune from way back when and into view comes Arthur, spitting image of what he looked like all those decades ago… Yep it’s another story about time travel and things that might have been.

For Arthur realises something is wrong: it’s the same house but the flowerbed and creepers have changed, the trees are all bigger, there are new houses in what to be the empty field beyond. And who is this old lady in a wheelchair? Mrs Dolderson realises what has happened and adapts remarkably well. She pats his hand while Arthur feels increasingly sick and panicky. She asks him the date and he says 27 June 1913. Slowly she passes over her copy of The Times, with its date – 1 July 1963.

With a shock young Arthur in his blazer and boater realises that she, this wrinkled old wheelchair-bound lady, is the love of his life Thelma and he bursts into tears. Mrs Dolderson reaches out to stroke his hair and with the other hand reaches for the bell on the table.

She wakes in her bed. She’s had a relapse and been carried there where she was sedated by their doctor, Dr Sole. Now we have the full explanation, which we had sort of guessed anyway. Harold and his team turned on their time transporter at just the moment Arthur appeared and walked up the path, walking right into the little force field which catapulted him 50 years into the future. With Mrs Dolderson sedated, Dr Sole administered a mild sedative to Arthur to calm him down and then Harold and his team questioned him, discovering he really was from the world 50 years earlier. At which point, after some discussion, they decided the decent thing to do was give him the chance of returning back to his time. They weren’t sure the time machine could do it but determined to give it a jolly good try, told a still-weeping dazed Arthur to walk along the same path and he disappeared, just like that.

Back to that day 50 years ago when he quite obviously turned right round, got on his bicycle and never came back. A few years later Mrs Dolderson read about him being awarded a DSO in the Great War. Then she married Colin Dolderson. Now she reflects to her son, as he sits by her bedside, that it’s almost as if the course of events is written somehow and cannot be evaded (the same kind of conclusion the protagonists in any number of time travelling stories could have told her).

Time travel stories can be the opportunity for all manner of topics or issues or angles. It is entirely characteristic of Wyndham’s that his time travel stories focus on love and romance.

Random Quest (1961)

Colin Trafford works at an experimental institute. One afternoon an experiment is being conducted with some advanced device when there is bang, a flash of light, and Colin finds himself lying in darkness under several bodies. Looking up he sees a bus towering over him, pulls aside the unconscious woman lying on him, slowly realises the bus has ploughed into a shop window in Regent Street and he was caught up in the smash. He pulls himself free as the ambulances start to arrive and staggers to the Cafe Royal for a fortifying drink (the same place one of the groups of blind people in Triffids head for). But when he catches sight of himself in a mirror he gets a shock; he’s got a moustache. The Café doesn’t seem the same as usual. When he goes to pay the barman accepts a ridiculously small sum. Colin checks in his wallet and discovers a card but no mention of the EPI. On an impulse he phones the EPI but they have no record of him. He phones his own address but is not known there. So then phones the number on the card in his pocket, it works but rings and rings.

He walks along Piccadilly and is looking in the shop window of Hatchards the booksellers when he notices a book in the display by him! He’s never written a book. A voice hails him. It’s a friend he knew at Cambridge and knows was wounded in the war. They go for a drink, the other guy gossips about the ins and outs of the book world, but it’s all gibberish to Colin. Then he notices his friend’s hand. He knows for a fact he lost the last two fingers in the war. But now they’ve been magically restored. Worried about his funny questions and responses, his friend recommends going to see a doctor.

Finally Colin decides to go ‘home’ to the address on his car. It’s a nice apartment in a nice modern block but is completely unknown to him. There’s a study with a collection of books by him and he sits down and starts to read one. He’s interrupted by a key in the lock. It is his ‘wife’, Ottolie, as he goes to ‘greet’ her he realises he doesn’t even know her name. She’s barely got in with some shopping before the phone rings and it’s another woman. It takes a number of misunderstandings before he realises the woman on the phone is his mistress and the woman in the hall, his wife, knows about her but is upset at this flagrant phone conversation in front of her.

So: It is another Wyndham story about not exactly time travel, but the travel of a mind from the present day into the body of someone similar, either in the future, or in a parallel, alternative history.

Wyndham had described a relatively small jump across parallel timelines in the story Opposite Number where the different timelines only seemed to differ in that the couple at the centre of the story had married different people. Random Quest is on a much larger scale. In this alternative timeline Colin has been transported to, the Second World War never happened. Winston Churchill isn’t particularly well known, the absence of wartime inflation means everything is much cheaper, and the Germans are friendly allies who have just developed atomic fission.

Second point: All this is told as a narrative to a Dr Harshom. This doctor has learned that Trafford has been making enquiries all over England for an Ottolie Harshom. Well, Harshom is such a rare name that this doctor happens to know a number of Harshom branches around the country and several have mentioned getting letters from this Trafford fellow enquiring after an Ottolie Harshom, is there such a woman? Dr Harshom knows there is not and so has proactively invited Trafford down to his country home (gravel drive and manservant named Stephens) for a glass of sherry, a good dinner, and then a long, long conversation in the drawing room.

After a lot of hesitation, Trafford tells him the story summarised above. So why is he looking for this Ottolie Harshom? Because in the three brief weeks that he lived in the parallel timeline, Colin fell deeply in love with his ‘wife’ who was herself amazed at the change in her husband, from heartless philanderer to considerate lover, they both fell deeply for each other and then, one night… Trafford went to sleep in bed next to Ottolie and woke up alone in his bed back in ‘normal’ England. And that is why, he explains, to a slightly boggling Dr Harshom, he has set out on a quest to find the love of his life, to see if she even exists in this timeline, maybe Ottlie won’t be her name but… he won’t give up.

The good doctor listens to all this, including a page or so explanation of quantum physics, with atoms popping into and out of existence all the time, with our modern understanding that the universe is not rational and completely law-abiding, but inextricably linked with randomness. Trafford stays the night in the spare room, is given a hearty breakfast next morning, and goes on his way.

Two years later Dr Harshom receives a postcard from Canada with the simple message: ‘I found her’. There’s still a bit more story, though, for Trafford returns for a second interview with Harshom and takes a while explaining what happened. In Canada he tracked down a woman named Belinda Gale, fortunately unmarried – the exact equivalent of ‘Ottlie’ only in this timestream, is stricken with love for her and sets about slowly wooing her.

But the real twist in the tail is that, as he now explains, in conversation with Belinda’s mother, Mrs Gale, Trafford makes a momentary slip and refers to Belinda as Ottolie. Her mother turns pale with fright, and tells Trafford that nobody knows that is what she planned to call her daughter. And then reveals that Belinda is the daughter of Dr Harshom’s son, Malcolm, who got Mrs Gale pregnant but then she learned he had been killed in the war, and soon after she fell in love with another man, Reggie Gale, before she knew she was pregnant and moved to Canada with him.

At which point, with a dramatic flourish, Trafford tells Dr Harshom to prepare to meet his grand-daughter!

A Long Spoon (1960)

One of Wyndham’s rather heavily jocose stories, in which a young chap, Stephen Tramon, experimenting with playing tape spools backwards accidentally summons a very earnest demon named Batruel. The backward tape, slowed down, has accidentally played The Word of Power and the odds and ends of tape Stephen had chucked on the floor have accidentally formed the shape of a pentangle, traditional shape for invoking demons. Ooops.

After a brief explanation, and once Stephen has gotten over his initial shock, the demon accepts it was a mistake and prepares to leave except that… Stephen doesn’t know The Word of Dismissal. Double oops.

The situation is played for laughs – Batruel explains there is a taxi rank system of demons awaiting being called to earth and describes how busy they were in the 17th and 18th centuries, although things fell off badly during the 19th; they consider calling the local victim round to perform an exorcism but Batruel explains that that can be excruciatingly painful, so they decide against it – as Stephen and his young wife Dilys struggle to find a way to send the demon back where he came from without being accidentally damned in the process.

In the event they come up with a simple enough scam – the football pools. Batruel fixes a number of key matches to ensure Stephen’s predictions come true and he wins the pools jackpot three weeks in a row, pocketing a princely £655,000.

At which point Stephen pays a visit – in his new Bentley – to the headquarters of Gripshaw’s Pools, taking along his snappily dressed ‘advisor’, Batruel and being shown into the office of the founder and owner himself, Northerner Sam Gripshaw.

Gripshaw points out that Stephen’s series of wins is rocking the industry, a few more like that and it’ll go bankrupt. Stephen says he has a simple solution for that, and introduces Batruel who goes through his ‘temptation’ spiel like a pro: If Gripshaw will sell his soul to the devil, Stephen will stop using Batruel to fix the games’ results. In fact Batruel will disappear back to hell.

To Batruel and Stephen’s surprise, Gripshaw reads through the contract and agrees without hesitation. A penknife is fetched so that Gripshaw can sign the contract in his own blood, then they tie a handkerchief round the wound, Batruel performs a deep bow and disappears.

Stephen is surprised, but Gripshaw leans forward and lets him in on a secret. Tut tut those demons are most inefficient and old-fashioned. If and when Batruel goes to store Gripshaw’s contract in their filing system he’ll get a bit of a shock – he’ll discover Gripshaw has already signed a contract with the Devil. How do you think he got the capital to set up his business in the first place!?

And so this final collection of Wyndham short stories ends, as so many of his stories do, on a comic note.


Credit

Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1961. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition (recommended retail price 30p).

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John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head 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, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

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