Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Good God this is one of the most wonderful, uplifting, informative and visually fabulous art exhibitions I’ve ever been to!

In 1925 Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab set up the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, a private British art school, in his house at 33 Warwick Square in Pimlico, London. He ran it with Claude Flight and, although it taught many skills, including composition, design and dance, it was Flight’s course in making prints from linotype which made it famous and, eventually, gave rise to the term the ‘Grosvenor school’ of prints.

Linoleum was regarded as a cheap, industrial material, and the technique of printing with it seen as an introductory skill, useful for teaching children, maybe, but no more. But Flight thought it presented the opportunity to create simplified and stylised images which reflected the speed and angularity of modern life. He is quoted as saying it had no tradition behind it, unlike traditional methods of print-making, where the artist was always looking over their shoulder worrying how Dürer or Rembrandt would have done it.

Carving lino was easier and cheaper than carving wood, requiring far fewer specialist tools. And, in line with the school’s bohemian principles, Flight thought lino could be used to create prints cheap enough for the working man and woman to afford, that it could and should be ‘an art of the people for their homes’.

Usually two to four blocks are cut, each containing different elements of the design, and then printed in sequence onto fine Japanese paper, each block printing a different element and colour in the final design.

It was the 1920s – the Jazz Age – and the school operated amid the heady mix of Art Deco in design and architecture, combined with the Modernist impulse in art which had found its purest expression in the short-lived Vorticism and Futurism from just before the Great War.

Vorticism was invented by the artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis and the poet-publicist Ezra Pound, and combined the formal experiments of French cubism with the dynamic machine-worship of Italian Futurism. The first room of the exhibition includes some prime examples of Vorticism from during the Great War, by leading exponents like Christopher Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Flight had studied alongside Nevinson at the Slade School of Art, so there is a direct biographical and stylistic link, with Flight absorbing Futurist ideas about how to convert the movement, energy and speed of urban life into images characterised by simplification, stylisation and dynamic lines and curves.

It was almost worth the price of admission to see these Vorticist works alone. I nearly swooned. I love to distraction their depiction of angularity and energy. Seeing not the skull beneath the skin, but the machine-like aspects of the human anatomy, men marching to war like robots, townscapes morphing into geometric patterns, everything becoming hard, technological, everything organic turning into engineering.

Tempting to show an example, but this exhibition is about the Grosvenor school. What Flight and his two lieutenants and then a suite of students did, was take the really mechanistic hardness of Vorticism-Futurism and give it a human face, somehow making it feel warmer, more likeable. Many of their designs became instant classics.

This exhibition brings together 120 prints and sketches, posters, woodcuts and lithographs, along with magazines, articles, exhibition programmes and some of the tools used in carving the lino, to create a joyous overview of the Grosvenor school tradition of lino printing, to show us the range of subject matter they covered, and to introduce us to the ten or so main exponents of lino print-making, displaying many of their greatest hits, and helping us learn to distinguish between their subtly different styles.

The Big Three

Claude Flight pioneered the new approach and look. Here’s a very early example, from before the school was even founded, of his style. Regent Street is turned into simplified curving architecture, and the passing buses are linked by curvilinear lines which emphasise the dynamism of their movement.

Speed (1922) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Claude Flight. Photo © Elijah Taylor

Cyril Power lectured in architecture but also became a prolific and characteristic lino printmaker. Each colour in this design will have been carved on a different block. Look at the amazingly dynamic effect created by the swirling lines both above and below the merry-go-round, and by the whizzing effect of the passengers closest to us whose bodies have been changed by their speed, from vertical humans to horizontal blurs of movement.

The Merry-Go-Round (c.1930) by Cyril Power © The Estate of Cyril Power. Bridgeman Images/ photo The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Sybil Andrews worked as the school secretary but was already a craftswoman and artist in her own right. Andrews emerges as very nearly the star of the entire show. Good God, she had an extraordinary eye for converting everyday scenery and activities into Art Deco stylised images of extraordinary vim and energy!

Concert Hall (1929) by Sybil Andrews © The Estate of Sybil Andrews. Photo: the Osborne Samuel Gallery, London

These three have the most prints on display and sustained activity throughout the 1920s, 30s and into the 1940s, when Power and Andrews were commissioned to create poster for London Transport, creating images of Epsom Races, Wimbledon or racing at Broadlands, which are gloriously on display in the final room of the show.

More peripheral figures

Most of the prints on display are by Flight, Power or Andrews. But they are set among works by half a dozen others.

The Australian women Three young women artists travelled from Australia to Pimlico to study with Flight and power. They were: Ethel Spowers (1890 – 1947), Eveline Syme (1888-1961) and Dorrit Black. Their works are scattered throughout the exhibition, and are generally slightly softer and less angular. Slightly. It varies. Here’s Spowers.

Wet Afternoon (1929-30) by Ethel Spowers © The Estate of Ethel Spowers. Photo: Osborne Samuel, London

Eveline Syme recorded a visit to Italy in prints. There was a wall of these and they were very pretty but – to my mind – lacked the fizz and energy of the pictures set in London or England. They could be illustrations from a straight travel book.

Outskirts of Siena (1930-1) by Eveline Syme. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Spowers, Black and Syme returned to Australia and became instrumental in organising exhibitions and promoting the school in their homeland. The exhibition includes some prints depicting the vast, open spaces of the Outback in the Grosvenor school style.

Lill Tschudi (1911–2004) Tschudi was Swiss. Although she depicted activities, work and sport as much as the others, Tschudi’s images have a distinctive quality of their own. From the evidence here, they were less curved and dynamic, and a little more blocky and static, the colours a little more pastel.

Gymnastic Exercises (1931) by Lill Tschudi © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. Photo: Bonhams

Tschudi has half a dozen works on display. Much less well represented, fleeting presences among the main participants, are a handful of works by two men, William Greengrass (1898 – 1972: a wood engraver, sculptor and became a curator at the V&A) and Leonard Beaumont.

Greengrass is represented by this picture of a young family on a beach holiday. It certainly is stylised, it has an abrupt angularity. But it doesn’t – to my eye anyway – have any of the energy and dynamism of the classic Power and Andrews works.

Windmills and Balloons (1936) by William Greengrass. Photo: Bonhams/ © The Estate of William Greengrass. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

Beaumont is represented by a small number of works which seem to owe more to Art Deco vibe than many of the others, in the straightforward way they depict women’s bosoms.

Whereas nudity is conspicuous by its absence in the works of Flight, Power and Andrews, in both the most memorable works by Beaumont on show here, lithe, nubile women pose slender and athletic, like countless thousands of other slender, topless, female sculptures and statuettes during the joyous heyday of Art Deco.

Nymphs, Errant by Leonard Beaumont (1934) Photo Museums Sheffield/ © The Estate of Leonard Beaumont

Work and sport

In one of the most interesting wall labels I’ve ever read, the curator – Gordon Samuel, one of London’s leading specialists in Modern British painting – explains major social changes which took place in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the passage of legislation which limited the length of the working day, and of the working week, and created a number of bank holidays when all workers were allowed to down tools and relax.

The direct result of this legislation, and the seismic change it brought about in the work habits of most of the working population, was to create leisure industries.

Cinemas and dance halls saw a boom in business and were built across the land. But just as significant was the explosion of interest in sports of all kinds. These ranged from the posher end – tennis and horse racing – through new motor sports like motor racing and speedway racing, through to a surge of health and fitness activities among the young. I live near a lido, in fact I’m going swimming there later this afternoon. Like most of Britain’s lidos it was built in the 1930s, in a wonderful Art Deco style, as part of the boom in sports and healthy activities. (This was the decade when the Ramblers Association was founded [1935], from which we have many photos of healthy young chaps with walking socks and hiking boots and knapsacks and pipes heading off into the Lake District.)

The energy and competitiveness of sport naturally played to the Grosvenor School style, and there are numerous examples here of dynamic, colourful depictions of exercise, sport and fitness.

Speed Trial (c.1932) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Cyril Power. Photo Osborne Samuel Gallery London / Bridgeman Images

Not only sport and leisure, though. The 1930s was a highly politicised decade when many artists and intellectuals responded to the Great Depression by adopting socialist or communist politics, and by creating all kinds of works which explored the hitherto occluded world of the working classes. Think of George Orwell travelling to Wigan Pier and going down a coalmine, or the work of the Mass Observation sociological movement, or the poetry of W.H. Auden which celebrates machines and work.

Flight wanted to create ‘an art of the people… an art expressed in terms of unity, simplicity and of harmony’, and he, Power and Andrews created some striking images of hard, manual, physical labour – particularly well done in a sequence of five magnificent prints by Sybil Andrews.

Sledgehammers (1933) by Sybil Andrews

I like dynamic, semi-abstract art of the Vorticist, Futurist type. But I also respect art which manages to capture the reality of work, the kind of hard physical labour which men and women have spent so much of their lives performing, for so many millennia.

Andrews and Power emerge as the most consistent creators of strong, striking designs, with Andrews probably the better of the two – very close – a fun topic to discuss after seeing the show. But the Swiss artist Lill Tschudi also created some really bold images of men at work. (Note the obvious contrast between the studied angularity of Tschudi’s figures and the razor straight telegraph wires, and the dynamic curves of the figures in the Andrews, and the way the background is entirely stylised to emphasise the energy and activity of the working men.)

Fixing the Wires by Lill Tschudi (1932)

The exhibition culminates with two rooms dedicated to London and its transport system, with a suite of vibrantly evocative images of the Tube, with its escalators, lifts, winding staircases and dynamically curved platforms. Power and Andrews were commissioned by Frank Pick, the Managing Director of London Underground in the 1920s and ‘30s, to create a set of posters publicising sporting events people could reach by Tube. Most of the resulting posters are on display here, along with preliminary sketches and draft works, giving you a fascinating insight into the works in progress.

God, this is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, not only because of the consistent quality of the works on display – all of them are good, and many of them are outstanding – but also because of the fascinating light it sheds on London and English social history between the wars. What’s not to love?

The Tube Station (c.1932) by Cyril Power. Photo: Osborne Samuel Gallery, London © The Estate of Cyril Power

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

I am a mask, concealing the real. Behind me, hidden, actuality goes on, safe from prying eyes. (Mr Tagomi, p.227)

An alternative history

The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962 in an America which lost the Second World War. Through the everyday lives and worries of a bunch of characters in San Francisco, and a couple in Colorado, Dick slowly drip feeds to the reader the story of how this alternative history came about.

Most alternative history have a ‘point of divergence’, the point where the fictional alternative branches off from actual history. Here it is the attempt of Italian immigrant Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara who, on 15 February 1933, to assassinate President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. In actual history Zangara got off five shots but missed the President; in Dick’s alternative version, Zangara shoots Roosevelt dead.

In ‘our’ history Roosevelt went on to mastermind the New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression and ensured she was ready to wage war in Europe and the Pacific after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. America’s economic and military might were decisive in beating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In Dick’s alternative universe, no Roosevelt, no New Deal, America was unprepared for war and so a) the Japanese successfully destroyed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour, going on to seize the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, and then the West Coast of America, leading up to Capitulation Day in 1947.

Meanwhile, Dick’s alternative history of the war in Europe has the Nazis seizing Malta forcing Churchill to resign (p.70). His successors are all non-entities who fail to rally Britain while the Germans a) decisively conquer North Africa before b) turning east to defeat Russia, pushing the surviving Russians far back into Asia and then c) sending a fleet across the Atlantic which conquers the Eastern United States. Due to their slow start, the Americans never develop the atom bomb, the Germans get there first and nuke Washington DC. Now the Germans run a unified Europe under German rule, Festung Europa.

As the novel opens the Japanese are smoothly administering what is now known as the P.S.A. or Pacific States of America, main city San Francisco where most of the action is set. Their rule is mostly benign, if very hierarchical based on race, so that everyone has a ‘place’, above or below everyone else: Japs at the top, Caucasians next, Mediterranean Europeans next, blacks at the bottom.

They rule with relative freedom and civilisation compared to the Eastern Seaboard, where the Nazis have implemented their anti-Jewish policies, which they have also extended into Central and Southern America. The Military Governor of the Eastern states was for a while Erwin Rommel, the victor in North Africa. It was only when he was replaced in 1949 that the full implementation of the race laws and the concentration camps kicked in.

We learn that Hitler is now a disease-raddled recluse and has been succeeded as Führer by Martin Bormann, with much gossip about the other Nazi leaders, Goebbels, Göring and so on.

One character admires the Germans’ technical know-how, exemplified by the way they have sealed and drained the Mediterranean (!), giving them a vast new area to colonise. But several characters are less keen about their attempts to solve ‘the African Problem’, which appears to have consisted in exterminating the entire black population. A high level Japanese briefing states that the Germans’ genocidal policies in Eastern Europe, and Africa, have been an economic catastrophe.

There are some readers for whom just the outlines of alternative histories are thrilling, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. It’s fairly standard procedure, but I’m still a sucker for the way the facts which I’ve summarised above, emerge in the narrative only through hints and casual references in the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. This makes the glimpses and hints of what has happened in this alternative view of world history all the more tantalising and intriguing.

The plot

So that’s the dramatic and large-scale historical background against which Dick sets his handful of more or less humdrum characters, and shares their private worries and concerns.

Robert Childan runs American Artistic Handicrafts Inc, a successful business selling senior Japanese officials authentic Americana and antiques, from Mickey Mouse watches to handguns from the Wild West. He is trying to pull off a deal with a Mr Tagomi and goes with great trepidation to his office in the Nippon Times Building. Childan has completely assimilated the Japanese idea of ‘place’, the notion that everyone knows their place in hierarchical Japanese culture. So Childan is alert to keeping the black porters in their place, trying to gain favour and place by bowing and scraping to the Japanese and so on. This assimilation of Japanese values even extends to thinking in a highly fragmented, truncated, Japanese prose style.

An appointment was made for two o’clock. Have to shut store, he knew as he hung up the phone. No choice. Have to keep goodwill of such customers; business depends on them. (p.10)

Not only Childan’s but numerous other characters think and even speak in the same truncated style. It is a bit weird but gives a verbal coherence to the book which really distinguishes it and which I enjoyed.

He held the squiggle of silver. Reflection of the midday sun, like boxtop cereal trinket, sent-away acquired Jack Armstrong magnifying mirror. Or – he gazed down into it. Om, as Brahmins say. Shrunk spot in which all is captured. Both, at least in hint. The size, the shape. He continued to inspect dutifully. (p.219)

Frank Frink is a Jew whose tour of duty in the army got him out of the East, now controlled by the Nazis. He’s been working at a factory run by a Mr Wyndam-Matson but has just been fired for speaking out of turn. But a colleague, Ed McCarthy, suggests they go into business together, manufacturing fake ‘antique’ guns. They blackmail Wyndam-Matson, threatening to expose the fact that he is himself manufacturing fake antiquities as a side activity to his ostensible metal working factory, unless he gives them $2,000. He coughs up, and the pair set up a workshop in a ramshackle basement and start producing a new style, of contemporary jewelry designs, calling the company Edfrank Productions.

Wyndam-Matson has a mistress or girlfriend who irritates him, especially when she decides to tell him at length about the novel she’s reading, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It is an alternative history whose author, H. Abendsen, speculates about what might have happened if Roosevelt hadn’t been assassinated, but had brought America out of the Depression and pursued aggressive anti-Nazi policies, such that America and Britain had won the Second World War. Nonsense, Wyndam-Matson snorts.

Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana Frink left him some while ago, and now scrapes a living as a judo teacher in the Mountain Zone between the occupied West and East coasts. We are introduced to her as she handles two lippy lorry drivers at a truck stop café. She takes one, an Italian, home to bed. Next morning she discovers he fought for the Italian army during the war and Dick uses the Italian’s wartime experiences to gives us more alternative war history, specifically about the campaign in North Africa. They both agree about how fanatical the British became as it became clear the Allies were going to lose, and about the brutality of their use of phosphorus bombs and napalm once the Germans were advancing across England.

More to the point, this guy, Joe Cinnadella, is also reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and at points in their day Juliana picks it up and reads sections which lead to further comments on whether the right side won the wear, and why. Juliana happens to know that the author of the book, Abendsen, lives in the Rocky Mountain states, somewhere in Colorado, in a heavily fortified encampment which he fancifully calls The High Castle.

The Mr Tagomi that Robert Childan is so anxious to suck up to and sell a good quality piece of Americana to, himself only wants to buy it in order to give it as a gift to, and impress, a visitor from Europe, Mr Baynes. We watch Baynes fly across the Atlantic in one of the new atomic-powered airliners, and wind up a German he gets into conversation with and who turns out to be an unrepentant anti-semitic Nazi.

As the plot proceeds we learn that Baynes is not Swedish, as he pretends to be. His name is Rudolf Wegener, he is a member of the German Abwehr, and he has been sent by a faction of the German Partei to make contact with a retired 80-year-old Japanese general, General Tedeki, former Imperial Chief of Staff, here in San Francisco. Lots of heavy hints are dropped but it’s only at page 190 of this 250-page novel that we find out why.

In the office of Mr Tagomi, Baynes/Wegener reveals to General Tedeki that the German Wehrmacht are planning to create an ‘incident’ in the neutral zone of America, which will lead German forces to intervene, and which will be carefully arranged to draw the Japanese in, escalating diplomatic tension and then – the Wehrmacht are planning a sudden nuclear attack on the Japanese Home Island which will wipe them out. This top secret plan is named Operation Dandelion.

Barely has Wegener handed over a cigarette case full of microfilms proving his assertions when Mr Tagomi’s secretary rings up to announce that a number of Nazi goons are in the lobby throwing their weight around and demanding to be let up to Tagomi’s office. They have come to arrest Wegener. He gave himself away when he made contact with an Abwehr agent in a department store, who was being watched by the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst or SS.

To grasp this plotline it helps to understand that right from the start the Nazi state was divided into mutually loathing sections or departments, which competed and jostled with each other. The Wehrmacht is the army, the Abwehr which Wegener works for is the intelligence service, and the SS is staffed by psychopaths and sadists.

  • Dick has extrapolated the historical tensions which we know about from the history books, on for another 17 years after the end of the war, an intellectually interesting exercise
  • and dramatised these tensions, so that
  • we are witness to the contrasting attitudes of different Nazi officials, often deeply distrustful of each other
  • and, a t a higher level, as it were, we frequently overhear Japanese and American characters expressing their contempt for the endless internecine feuding of the unstable Nazi regime

This is where Freiherr Hugo Reiss, the Reichs Consul in San Francisco, comes in. He cordially dislikes his opposite number in the SS, Kreuz vom Meere, an officious thug. It is vom Meere who is overseeing the trailing and entrapment of Wegener. When he asks for co-operation, Reiss is inclined to delay and obfuscate. Until, that is, he receives a direct personal call from the new Head of the Partei, Kanzler Josef Goebbels. Who orders him to give full co-operation to the SS in the case of Wegener. Jawohl, mein Führer. He puts the phone down, shaking, while vom Meere watches with a brutal smile on his face.

This is the background to the armed goons who come to Mr Tagomi’s office to arrest him. However, they hadn’t bargained with Japanese pride, and in particular with Mr Tagomi’s fondness for authentic American antiques. Now that strand of the plot, which had been introduced right back at the start in Robert Childan’s antiques emporium, comes into play. Mr Tagomi takes an authentic Wild West Colt .44 out of his desk and points it at the door, with the evident approval of General Tedeki. When the SS men smash the door open and saunter towards Wegener, Tagomi shoots them both down. There will be consequences, but this is Japanese territory, so what precisely they will be…

Meanwhile, the scenes with Juliana Frink and her Italian lover, Joe Cinnadella, move on in counterpoint to the San Francisco scenes. First he accidentally on purpose misses the truck he was meant to be part-driving, which leaves without him. Then he suggests they drive to the nearest city, Denver, so he can show his new girl a good time. It’s on the way, in the car (her car), while he’s driving, that Juliana insists on reading out long excerpts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which leads to them discussing the national characteristics of the Italians, Germans, Russians, Americans and Japanese. In fact, suddenly and spontaneously she suggests that they drive on the hundred miles or so to the author’s supposed ‘castle’ redoubt up in the hills. Sure, says Joe, after we’ve had a good time in Denver.

But in Denver things turn bad. Joe has a haircut which reduces his hair to a close crop, and has it dyed blonde. He takes Juliana shopping but in a focused mechanical way. He makes sure she buys a low-cut blue dress and half-cup bra. They check into a swanky hotel and she is looking forward to a night on the town, when Joe brutally announces that they are going to dine early, then leave for the High Castle.

Finally, it dawns on Juliana that Joe is not Italian at all. He had been wearing a black hairpiece. He didn’t have a haircut, he simply removed the wig to reveal his blonde Aryan haircut. He is a German agent. He has been sent with a wad of cash to do whatever it takes to assassinate the author of the anti-German novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘So why do you need me?’ Juliana whines pitifully. Because this Abendsen guy has a fondness for sexy black-haired Mediterranean types. Like Juliana. Hence the low cut dress. They’ll get invited in. Abendsen will be attracted to Juliana, while Joe does his dirty work.

Back in San Francisco, someone has reported that Frank is a Jew. He’s having a smoke on the sidewalk outside their workshop when white cops arrest him, take him downtown, confirm that he’s a Jew, and tell him he’s going to be shipped out to the Nazi East Coast.

Probably the biggest event – the one which unifies all the characters in speculating about it – is the death of Martin Bormann, the current Führer. Characters speculate on who will succeed him, with Mr Tagomi’s superiors holding an interesting briefing at which an official runs through the possible successors – including Goring, Heydrich, Goebbels and so on- giving fictitious biographies for what they’ve been doing since the war ended in 1947. For those of us who like actual history, alternative histories like this are always interesting because of the way they shed fresh light and different perspectives on what actually happened.

So:

  • will Wegener and Tedeki escape alive from Mr Tagomi’s office?
  • will Tedeki manage to get the message about Operation Dandelion back to his superiors in time for them to approach the relevant sections of the German state in order to get Operation Dandelion called off?
  • will Frank Frink be deported back to the east Coast and gassed by the Nazis?
  • and will Juliana and Joe find the High Castle of this Abendsen guy, manage to get admission, and murder him?

Madness

In fact, what happens is several of the characters have nervous breakdowns. In response to being told she is being so comprehensively used as cover in an assassination attempt Juliana has a florid breakdown, asking for pills, delirious, getting into the shower fully dressed, stabbing Joe in the neck with a razor blade and wandering down the hotel corridor stark naked, until hustled back to her room by a maid.

Similarly, Mr Tagomi, the day after the unpleasantness in his office, wanders the streets of San Francisco in a daze, fetching up at Robert Childan’s emporium, who rather forcefully sells him one of the new piece of jewelry, which Tagomi takes to a park bench and tries to get to reveal its secrets, shaking it, threatening it, shouting at it, begging it to open the door of the meaning of life.

All the way through the book Robert Childan is on the edge of sweaty-palmed panic. And he only needs to be reminded that he’s a Jew for Frank Frink to fall into a funk of fear, justifiably so, as it turns out.

This is the ground bass of Dick’s fiction. Characters live with gnawing anxiety which sooner or later blooms into goes madness, nervous breakdown, hallucinations. His texts deal you plots and characters but, like an alcoholic sizing up every room for its stash of booze, is constantly manoeuvring the reader to a place where he can let rip with pages of delirious, drug-fuelled, nervous breakdown prose, delirium, bewilderment, hallucinations, confusion, hysteria.

I wish I understood, he said to himself as he moved along the busy evening sidewalk, by the neon signs, the blaring bar doorways of Grant Avenue. I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would. Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving. (p.232)

Ideas and issues

All the characters are considerably more self-aware, given to long intense internal monologues or to lengthy thoughtful conversations, than most people I’ve met in my life. Much of their thoughts and dialogue is devoted to ideas. They are all much more interested in history than most people I’ve ever met, which is fortunate for it allows Dick, through their conversations, to pass along all kinds of backstory information about the course of events of the previous 15 years or so.

It is a very self-aware book. Dick makes it clear to us he knows what he’s doing, and his lead characters are also painfully self-aware at almost all moments.

Is alternative history a type of science fiction?

Being the very self-aware novelist that he is, Dick has two of his characters debate this very question. When he is invited to dinner with Paul and Betty Kasouras, the trio end up discussing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (in the clipped verbless style which dominates so much of the text):

‘Not a mystery,’ Paul said. ‘On contrary, interesting form of fiction possible within the genre of science fiction.’
‘Oh no,’ Betty disagreed. ‘No science in it. Not set in future. Science fiction deals with future., in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.’
‘But,’ said Paul, ‘it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.’ (p.109)

There’s plenty of alternative history fiction in the world.

Whether some, all, or any of it qualifies as science fiction is a topic for a different essay.

Alternative histories within the story

Given that the main story is set in an alternative universe, and that half the characters in it are reading a book which gives a further alternative history, the novel thus contains or navigates no fewer than three realities:

  1. ‘real’ history – the one we’re living through
  2. the alternative history of the novel
  3. the alternative alternative history described at some length by H. Abendsen

These three realities curl and intertwine throughout the text, a little like a piece of classical music, with its main theme, secondary theme, and variations on both, reappearing throughout like silver threads. Or, alternatively, like the person standing between two parallel mirrors who sees their reflections stretching into infinity in both directions.

Secrets and lies are a central theme. Or truth and falsehood. Or reality and fantasy. At one point Baynes / Wegener reflects:

Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. but the broad masses… what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth? (p.45)

Which sums up the broad streak of paranoia which runs throughout Dick’s work – that’s if you take his work very seriously. Or, if you are a tad more critical of his troubled worldview – this kind of thing (‘Look at me, see how I suffer, see how special I am!’) could be interpreted as the adolescent sense that I know this is all fake, but what of all the other poor ‘normals’? Immature.

Similarly, Dick and his characters are well aware of the power of fiction to lie and distort. Since almost every character seems to be reading H. Abendsen’s book, quite a few have extended dialogues or thought monologues about the uncanny power of fiction to create its own realities. These could be quoted to form the basis of a disquisition about fiction and fictions but… don’t we already know that? Isn’t that why people buy airport novels, so they can be completely transported on long haul flights or lying by the pool?

If you were an earnest literary type you could work this insight up into a profound discussion of the nature of fiction. Except it is a nature that pretty much everyone who’s ever read a novel is well aware of.

Childan and Kasoura, America and Japan

A prolonged thread is Childan’s on-again, off-again business relationship with a potential pair of Japanese clients, high-place Mr and Mrs Kasoura. He offers them a high value gift,in response to which they invite him to dinner, a scene which is a prolonged tour de force, describing with minute subtlety the wavering atmosphere and tone of the inscrutable orientals, as Childan desperately tries to be polite and submissive. His problems reach a kind of climax when he presents Mr Kasoura with an example of Edfrank’s new, modern, contemporary jewelry.

(In a painful earlier scene we had watched Frank Frink’s shambling, lanky partner, Ed, try to sell some of their new jewelry to Childan, and Childan’s deliberate humiliation of the salesman: here, as in every other aspect of his life, Childan is keen to maintain his place.)

In this ten-page scene (pp.168-179) Childan goes to visit Mr Kasoura at his office, to ask how his wife liked the new contemporary piece he had given him. Kasoura brings the piece from his deskdrawer and reveals that he never passed it on to his wife. He showed it tovarious colleagues who alllaughed at it for being a shapeless blob of metal. Childan feels justifiably humiliated. But then, Kasoura continues, he found himself becoming beguiled by it, attracted to its very formlessness and lack of design. After pondering why, he has come to the conclusion that is contains wu. At which Childan racks his brains to try and remember what the hell wu is. Is it even a Japanese quality or something else they’ve ripped off from the Chinese?

But, Kasoura continues, when he tried to explain this quality to his superiors, they still dismissed it but came up with a suggestion. The general population of South America is still mostly peasant, and they like good luck charms. One of Kasoura’s superiors has contacts with a man who manufactures and ships trinkets to South America by the tens of thousands. This piece might be a model for a new line of good luck charms and trinkets?

Dick is very careful to have Kasoura explain all this as if he himself is aloof and above mere business considerations. Childan, struggling to keep an absolute straight face throughout, suddenly realises he is being humiliated. Doubly humiliated. Not only did Kasoura start the conversation by saying the piece was junk. But then, having withdrawn that a little with the introduction of the concept of wu, has travelled all the way round to a new level of humilation, this time suggesting that not only is the piece junk, but that it would be appropriate for Childan to take part in an enterprise to mass produce and sell junk.

Childan is flooded with mortification and humiliation and begins to make his departure, promising to take up the contact Mr Kasoura has suggested. Does he read contempt in Kasoura’s eyes? Or professional satisfaction? Or lofty disdain for the whole business?

Suddenly his soul revolts at the endless kow-towing and abasement he has to go through and Childan decides to stand up for his country, its artists and manufactures. Abruptly he changes stance and demands an apology from Mr Kasoura. There is a very long silence as both men stand stock still. Then, very slowly, Mr Kasoura apologises. They shake hands. What expression is in his eyes? Even now, Childan doesn’t know. He leaves Kasoura’s office with a shattering sense that he has no idea what just happened. Did he just throw away the business opportunity of his life? Or did he just proudly stand up for American craftsmanship? Was he tricked into making a foolish decision? Or has he just shown a Jap what spine and character mean? Does Mr Kasoura now respect him? Or despise him even more?

I thought this was a really brilliantly calibrated scene, and more than some of the more obviously thriller-ish moments, really drove home Dick’s central theme of anxiety and disorientation.

The I Ching

Several characters – Frank Frink and Mr Tagomi and Juliana – use the I Ching methodology to make decisions, and Dick explains it at some length – the sorting of the forty-nine yarrow sticks whose shape or number indicates a hexagram, which then has to be looked up in The Book of Changes, which then gives a very oblique analysis of your current situation, and obscure advice on what to do next.

I found this whole theme of the book pretty boring, except insofar as it dramatised the intense anxiety of several of the key characters (Childan, Tagomi). They might as well have been examining the innards of chickens or reading patterns in tea leaves or consulting the stars.

Obviously its inclusion adds to the Japanese and generally oriental flavour of much of the prose and subject matter. More interesting, for me, was the several conversations the antique salesman Robert Childan has with Japanese customers. In these Dick very effectively dramatises the vast gap between Anglo-Saxon common sense and the ultra-fastidious and refined tastes and manners of the Japanese.

Finally, Juliana arrives at the Abendsen house which she finds is a perfectly normal suburban stucco-fronted place, with a little drinks party going on. She confronts Abendsen and in particular accuses him of using the I Ching throughout. Eventually he confesses that at every point, the choice of subject matter, characters, plots and development he consulted the oracle extensively.

Juliana then insists on asking for Abendsen’s I Ching equipment and asks the oracle whether The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is true. The oracle says it is.

think what this means is Juliana, Abendsen and his wife all realise that the oracle is communicating to them from an alternative universe, from our universe – and that it has told them what really happened. In other words, the characters know that they are in an alternative, and secondary universe.

What’s odd, in the book, is how calmly everyone takes this, this interpenetration of realities. Juliana walks back to her car and the Abendsens get on with their drinks party, so calmly that I wondered if I’d completely misunderstood the ending.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

Other fictional alternative histories

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe
  • SSGB by Len Deighton (1978) – the Germans conquered England in 1940 and now, amid the ruins of London, Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer tries to solve a murder which leads him to a massive conspiracy
  • Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) – it is 1964, Nazi Germany won the Second World War, and in Berlin detective Xavier March investigates a murder which leads him to uncover the horrific fact at the heart of the German Empire

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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 fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
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, leading the human giants 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 passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring 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

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

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
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, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew 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

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 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
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down 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 ‘trilogy’ describing 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
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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 to solve a murder mystery
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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
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 New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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

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, namely the 1950s

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


Related links

Related blog posts

Marx and Engels

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

Sheppey by Somerset Maugham (1933)

Sheppey is a stoutish, middle-aged man with a red face and twinkling eyes. He has a fine head of wavy black hair. He has a jovial, well-fed look. He is a bit of a character and knows it.
(Cast description)

Sheppey is unlike the other four Maugham plays I’ve read in that it is about working class characters. Or maybe lower-middle-class is a better description, the same class as H.G. Wells’s ‘counter-jumpers’, the cheeky shopkeepers who feature in the British movies of the 1930s and 40s – like the sharp-tongued bottle blonde who keeps the tea room in Brief Encounter or the working class types from In Which We Serve.

Act One

Sheppey is a cockney barber. His real name is Miller, but he was nicknamed after the Isle of Sheppey where he was born and has kept it. He doesn’t work in any old barbershop but in Bradley’s, a high toned barbers’ in Jermyn Street.

Act One is set in Bradley’s shop. Sheppey is shaving a customer while Miss Grange does his nails, both of them chattering and bantering away. The proprietor Bradley pops in and out, as does the pushy young assistant, Albert. The subject of horse-racing comes up, among others, and Sheppey banters with the customers about winning and losing bets. There’s a little bit of comic business as his customer, a Mr Barton, swears he’ll never buy one of these fancy new hair products but Sheppey works on his vanity and eventually manages to flog him one.

Throughout the act customers and characters make passing references to times being hard. It is the period of the Great Depression. Sheppey has had the start of the morning off work because he had to go to court to testify against a man he saw breaking into his neighbour’s car to steal his coat. ‘Decent chap he was, too,’ according to Sheppey. Waiting in the lobby of the court he got to see a number of plaintiffs being brought in, many of them respectable-looking folk. ‘It’s hard times out there,’ sighs the man being shaved. ‘Ah yes,’ Miss Grange agrees. ‘But that’s no excuse to start taking other people’s belongings. If everyone did that society would be in a right state.’

Then all this mundane activity is eclipsed with the surprise news that Sheppey has won a bet on the horses, and not just any old bet but a ‘residual’ winning, which amounts to all the winnings not otherwise claimed on the day. A type of jackpot.

When Sheppey’s wife phones the shop in a fluster to tell them the news, his boss Mr Bradley, Albert and Miss Grange all wonder if he’s won maybe £100, a decent bit of money, can’t complain etc.

But then a reporter from the Echo knocks and enters, having tracked Sheppey down for his front page story, and tells the flabbergasted staff that Sheppey has won £8,500!

The odd thing is that, when he’s told, Sheppey’s really not that bothered. He already has an idea how to spend it: pay off the mortgage on the house in Camberwell which he shares with his dear lady wife and then buy a cosy little cottage down in Kent, where he comes from. Possibly buy a little baby Austen car.

Of course the others congratulate him and, as it’s nearing the end of the working day, Sheppey nips out to buy a decent bottle of champagne from the pub across the road. To the others’ surprise, he returns with the rather seedy and over-made-up Bessie. Miss Grange takes Sheppey aside to complain that she’s a well-known prostitute, but Sheppey says all he knows is that she’s often in The Bunch of Keys pub at closing time (where he stops in for a pint before heading home) and she was looking sort of lonely, so he invited her back to the shop.

The champagne is opened, everyone has a glass, toasts Sheppey, natters and chatters, then one by one they leave till it’s only Sheppey and Bessie.

I know what you’re thinking but the ‘inevitable’ doesn’t happen. Instead Bessie bursts into tears at how friendly and cosy all the barbershop staff are, and how lonely and sad she is. And hard-up. What a difficult life it is walking the streets, specially in the rain, how worried she is that she won’t be able to afford the rent and’ll be kicked out of her flat if she doesn’t get a client – if she doesn’t ‘click’ – this evening. Her hard luck story picks up on the theme of the Depression which we’d been hearing about earlier. Times are hard all round.

To our surprise Sheppey collapses to the ground in a dead faint. Bessie kneels over him, unfastening his collar as he slowly regains consciousness. Drunk? No. Stress? Surprise? heart attack? Stroke? Nobody knows. He slowly gets to his feet and feels a bit better.

Given the chat earlier about the hard times of the Depression, and the evidence we’ve had in his gentle chat of Sheppey’s soft heart – once he’s recovered himself after a drink of water and is feeling alright again, the audience is not surprised when Sheppey gives Bessie five bob to buy herself a decent dinner. And so they go their separate ways. Kind man.

Act Two

It’s a week later and we are in Sheppey’s cluttered, over-decorated, upper-working-class living room in Camberwell where we find his kindly wife and his daughter, Florrie.

Florrie is teaching herself French. She is engaged to a nice boy, Ernie, who’s a teacher at the County Council School and wants to take him to Paris on honeymoon and surprise him with her command of the language. Mrs Miller is not so sure. ‘You know what them Frenchies are like, Florrie.’

In comes Florrie’s young man, handsome Ernest. Over the course of the scene we hear him impressing Florrie and Mrs M with cheapjack literary quotations. He also has ideas about going into politics. What the people need is a leader, a strong leader with personality. (The play was first performed in the year Hitler came to power). He insists he isn’t a snob but asks Florrie to start addressing him as Ernest. No Prime Minister was ever called ‘Ernie’. And from now on he’ll call her Florence. ‘Ooh Ernie, I do love you,’ simpers Florrie.

Mr Bradley, Sheppey’s employer, calls in to ask if they know where Sheppey is. He’s called round to make the significant step of offering Sheppey a partnership in the firm. Immediately Mrs M and Florrie start imagining what they’ll do and how they’ll live with Sheppey’s name up over the frontage of a Jermyn Street boutique. They’ll hire a cook and a proper cleaner to do the place twice a week.

At which point Sheppey enters and delivers the thunderbolt that he’s not only refusing the partnership but he’s quit the barbershop. After 15 years.

He explains to Mr Bradley, his wife, Florrie and Ernie that he’s been a-readin’ of the Bible and was knocked all of a heap by that bit when our Lord says:

‘Sell all that thou ‘ast, and distribute it to the poor, and thou shalt ‘ave treasure in ‘eaven; and come and follow me.’

Incredulous, his family try and talk him out of this mad decision with a welter of counter-arguments: the rich have more money, let them start charity; random charity harms the recipients, it needs to be organised by the government; anyway there’s the survival of the fittest (pipes up half-educated Ernie); if some people go to the wall, that’s all the better for society. Best to leave ’em be.

But all these arguments and pleas bounces off Sheppey. Seeing the state the plaintiffs at court were reduced to the other day, while he was in the waiting room, made him reckon something is wrong, and if he can help a bit, well – why not.

After a muttered exchange with Florrie and Mrs M, Ernie pops out to fetch the doctor. Sheppey clearly isn’t well.

Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Bessie the prostitute. Sheppey has invited her to come and stay. Then another knock and it’s Cooper, the man caught trying to steal the neighbour’s coat who Sheppey saw in court. Turns out Sheppey has invited him to stay as well. He’ll share a bed with him.

By the time the doctor – Doctor Jervis – arrives, his family are convinced Sheppey has gone mad, but the doctor finds his answers to his questions perfectly reasonable. Sheppey has money and food and he knows Bessie and Cooper are homeless and hungry. Sheppey’s plan, he tells the doctor, is to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Just as our Lord suggested. The doctor shakes his head in surprise but has to concede that Sheppey isn’t actually mad.

Florrie plumps down into the nearest chair and bursts into tears.

Act Three

Same setting – the Camberwell front room – some time later.

Bessie catches Cooper sneaking out with Sheppey’s snuff box and bars his way. They have a stand-off with her accusing him of letting down their benefactor, while Cooper says Sheppey won’t miss it.

Then Sheppey strolls in, asks very good naturedly for it back and when Cooper makes a bolt for it, trips him up and is swiftly on top of him rifling his pockets till he finds the snuff box. ‘Why did he want to steal it?’ ‘Why to pawn it for a few bob for some drinks.’ ‘Well, why didn’t he say so?’ and Sheppey gives him a few shillings. Cooper is genuinely mystified. He thinks the whole set-up is screwy and says he’s not coming back.

Bessie also tells Sheppey that she won’t be staying. Turns out she’s bored. She likes the excitement and the company of the streets.

Sheppey has just come back from seeing the doctor. What the rest of the family know but he doesn’t, is that Dr Jervis had arranged for a psychiatrist to sit in on the session.

Now Dr Jervis arrives on the scene to announce that Sheppey’s heart is a bit weak and he ought to go in to ‘hospital’ to rest. The rest of the family know that by ‘hospital’ he really means a mental home, but Sheppey cheerfully refuses, saying he’s never felt better.

Florrie and Ernie leave to go to the pictures. Sheppey apologises to his wife for disappointing her, for not using the money to get a servant as she had hoped. She says it’s alright. They kiss and are reconciled. Sheppey sits in the old armchair and the lights go down to suggest the passage of time.

It is now the evening: There’s a knock at the door and it opens. It’s Bessie except… now she speaks correctly, in BBC English, not cockney. Something’s wrong.

Sheppey wakes from his doze and starts groggily talking to her. He realises it’s not the Bessie he knows. She tells him she is Death. She has come for him. He’s as relaxed and cocky about this as he was about winning the £8,000. They chat for a bit. He’ll feel kind of bad leaving his poor wife a widow. Still he imagines Florrie and Ernie will be happy to get the money.

Death responds in the same neutral factual tone. ‘You will come with me now.’ Sheppey admits he’s been feeling tired recently, he was looking forward to a rest in the home the doctor had recommended. ‘What’s on the other side?’ he asks but Death says she doesn’t know. It’s not her job to know. Sheppey admits he feels ready to go now. They exit through the back door.

The lights go up and Mrs M, Ernie and Florrie return. His wife has been to buy the kippers she promised Sheppey to nip out and fetch. She asks Ernie and Florrie to lay the table, which they do. Then Ernie pops a record on the gramophone and they have a bit of a smooch. Mrs M comes in with dinner on a tray and asks them to call up to Sheppey. He isn’t there. Then they notice him in the old armchair. Mrs Miller goes up to him and realises he’s sone dead.

Thoughts

It’s a comedy, it has a humorous tone and some sharp comic lines.

FLORENCE: Ernie’s very respectable. And when you’re very respectable you always believe the worst of people.

Or:

MRS MILLER: Florrie, whatever are you doing of?
FLORENCE: Praying to God.
MRS MILLER: Not in the sitting-room, Florrie. I’m sure that’s not right.

But like most Maugham there’s a sting in the tail and a sliver of seriousness throughout. I don’t really know the plays of George Bernard Shaw but I imagine this is what they’re like – dominated by a thesis – in this case the conceit of what happens when an ordinary bloke wins the lottery but decides to take the advice of Jesus about loving your neighbour quite seriously.

The prospective son-in-law, Ernie, in particular seems more like a type than a person – the half-educated, incredibly earnest but worryingly confused would-be political activist,  trotting out half-understood quotes from literature, along with a mish-mash of ideas from Darwinism to socialism, with a dash of worrying eugenics thrown in.

The opening scene where Sheppey shaves the customer while Miss Grange does his nails isn’t particularly funny. Sheppey fainting dead away at the end of Act One isn’t the result of a funny line or plot development – he just faints. Similarly, him inviting two poor people to his house isn’t intrinsically funny – any humour is very dependent on the actors playing Mrs M, Florrie and Ernie being able to pitch their hypocritical and half-educated outrage at just the right note.

Beneath it all there is a serious issue.

Or is there? The idea of the man who takes Christianity seriously and so embarrasses everyone around him by showing up their hypocrisy and self-interest in fact feels very old. And it isn’t really developed very far – charitably taking in two guests isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Specially when they both promptly decide to leave.

The final scene featuring Death was overshadowed in my mind by more or less the same scene which features in two movies of my youth, Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983), particularly the latter where Death leans over the table at a dinner party and taps the home made pate as the reason why all the guests have died of food poisoning, and are now coming with him.

Except Maugham was there 50 years earlier.

In fact, apart from some of the comedy lines, and the amusingly repellent character of the priggish young Ernest, the thing I liked most in the play was Sheppey’s conversation with Death, and particularly when Sheppey admits how tired he feels.

SHEPPEY: Fact is, I’m so tired, I don’t seem to mind any more.
DEATH: I know. It’s often surprised me. People are so often frightened beforehand, and the older they are the more frightened, but when it comes to the point they don’t mind really.

Maugham was only 60 when Sheppey was staged but I wonder if that was how Maugham felt about age and death. Relaxed. Detached.

In fact Maugham was to live (rather shockingly) for another 32 years. I hope I feel that relaxed when it’s my time to go. If I’m even in a position to understand what’s going on, that is.

Adaptations

Sheppey was revived in London in 2016.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

%d bloggers like this: