Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)

I wish this book to be a strict record of fact, unmarred by exaggeration…

What is ‘the Bummel’?

Deliberately, but oddly, the book doesn’t explain what a Bummel is until the very last paragraph, where J, the narrator, writes:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Bummel is a German word, appropriately enough since the book describes a cycling tour around Germany. The American edition of the novel avoided this obscurity by being titled simply Three Men on Wheels.

Is Three Men on The Bummel a sequel to Three Men in a Boat?

Sort of. It was published in 1900, eleven years after his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat and features the exact same three characters – ‘J’ the narrator, George and Harris – 11 years further on, when two of them (J and Harris) have gotten married and had children.

What is it about?

It opens in the same way as Boat, with the same three chaps chatting and realising they need a break from their everyday lives. They consider hiring a boat for a sea cruise but remember various disasters when they’ve tried that before, at which point Harris suggests a cycling tour of Germany.

So if the twin narrative frames of Boat were the nature of boats and boating and descriptions of the River Thames and its surrounding towns and cities, the parallel frames in Bummel are comic meditations on the nature of cycling and descriptions of the Germany towns, cities and countryside which they pass through.

What was the bicycling craze?

The 1890s saw an outburst in the popularity of cycling. It was partly due to technical developments in 1880s which made bikes much easier to ride than the former, penny farthing, model, namely the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ with its chain-drive transmission whose gear ratios allowed for smaller wheels without a loss of speed and then the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire which made the whole experience significantly smoother, partly the ongoing development of mass manufacturing process which made bikes much more affordable.

So the two books have this in common: Boat was written to capitalise on the new fashion for pleasure boating on the Thames in the 1880s, and Bummel to capitalise on the 1890s fad for cycling.

(It’s worth noting that the up-and-coming young novelist H.G. Wells was one among many other authors who sought to take advantage of the new craze, publishing his light-hearted bicycling novel, The Wheels of Chance in 1896, between his two heavyweight science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897).)

To quote a useful (American) blog on the subject:

The bicycling craze swept the nation in the 1890s, with insatiable demand keeping nearly 2,000 manufacturers in business. Numerous manuals were published to instruct riders on road etiquette, proper breathing and riding technique, and accident prevention. Sometimes referred to as steel horses, bikes were a cheaper, faster, and more adaptable means of transportation that fostered both self-reliance and sociability. Earlier uncomfortable and unsafe models transformed into safety bicycles featuring cushion and pneumatic tires, coaster brakes, and most importantly a drop frame that was easier for women to mount and navigate.

Which makes it all the stranger that there is actually almost no description at all of the actual bikes. We are told there’s one single bike and tandem, and that’s that. We’re not even told how they carry luggage and such; presumably it is sent ahead by train or somehow, but none of this is explained.

‘What bicycle did you say this was of yours?’ asked George.
Harris told him. I forget of what particular manufacture it happened to be; it is immaterial.
(Chapter ten)

But of course, it would have been of considerable interest, to keen cyclists in his own day and ever since.

Why is Three Men on the Bummel a disappointment?

I remember reading the Bummel immediately after the Boat 30 years ago and being disappointed. Three reasons:

1. Bachelors carefree When they were young bachelors they could do anything. They expected and forgave each other for their irresponsible antics, and so did the reader. The situation is transformed now they are family men and fathers. What is attractive in a 25 year old just starting a career feels immature in a 35 year old father.

2. Family men tied down Families add complexity. I admit to being confused by the entire first chapter of this book, confused about where it is set and who is speaking and who is related to whom. The second sentence is:

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence.

Only in the next chapter did I firmly grasp that Ethelberta is J’s wife, Mrs Harris is Harris’s wife (could have been his mother) and – I’m still not sure, but think that Clarence must be J’s son. Anyway it took a bit of effort to figure out who was who and what was going on and effort is not what you want from a comic novel.

All this is in complete contrast to the opening of Boat where the setting is immediately clear and comprehensible: the three chaps are in someone’s apartment thinking about holidays and this segues into the brilliant extended passage about J’s hypochondria. The opening of Boat gripped me; the opening of Bummel confused and irritated me.

3. Cycling tour more random that a journey upriver But by far the most obvious reason why Bummel is less engaging than its predecessor is the setting. Boat follows a lazy boat trip along the River Thames, which, in itself, is packed with meaning and resonances and associations, historical, nautical and – to those of us who grew up or lived by the Thames – personal. Whatever flights of fancy ‘J’ indulges in, the narrative always returns to the simple, central plot of them slowly rowing or towing their way up the Thames. The very simplicity of the central theme is what allows for such wild and fanciful digressions.

Whereas a cycling holiday around Germany has at least 2 problems: 1. It is by its nature random; they could be going anywhere for any reason, there’s nothing compelling, there is no deeper logic to the narrative. 2. They could be anywhere. Next to none of its English readers, then or now, have any idea where the Black Forest or Hanover or Mecklenburg are. Whereas Boat had the deep, almost archetypical logic of the river, Bummel appears random and capricious. It may have many scenes of comedy as intense and fantastical as the previous book, but it lacks the slow steady underlying structure.

4. Less funny Sorry, but the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of Jerome’s comic digressions and sketches in this book are just less funny than in Boat.

5. Sometimes serious See the section below, about Mensurs.

Is it any good as a guide book?

No. I won’t give an exhaustive plot summary because there isn’t a lot of plot. There’s a rough itinerary of their progress around Germany but, even more so that Boat, it’s really just a pretext for a steady supply of digressions and comic tales, some short, some extending for 5, 6 or more pages.

Suddenly, with no mention of the sea crossing, they are in Hamburg, which is not described at all; a sentence later they are in Hanover.

There is an extended passage at the start of chapter 5 where the narrator describes his experiences working on a cheap periodical designed to convey ‘useful information’ on a huge range of topics to its naive readers, the titbits, snippets and advice in question generally having been cut and pasted out of cheap encyclopedias. (Presumably this genuinely funny passage was based on Jerome’s extensive experience as the editor of The Idler magazine, 1892 to 1897, and then of To-Day, 1893 to 1898.)

J tells a story about how a little boy misused a piece he wrote for the magazine about manufacturing hydrogen to cause a small explosion to comically justify why he made the editorial decision that BUmmel should contain no useful information whatsoever.

There will be no useful information in this book…nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages…There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals…Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery.
(chapter 5)

This is quite funny as a comic conceit, but it strips away what might have been a useful structure to the text, not so much guide-book useful, but useful in creating some kind of narrative structure. Without even the pretence of trying to be useful, it really does become a long series of anecdotes, reminiscences, comic scenes and observations, many of which are funny, but it lacks the underlying imaginative punch or force or coherence which you want from a book.

Does it at least give their itinerary round Germany?

Up to a point. Although once they actually manage to get clear of England (which they only manage to do by chapter 6 of this 14-chapter book, so that almost half the book is digressive preamble), the first part of the ensuing travelogue is often little more than a name, a brief description, and then some extended comic digressions. Thus the text mentions Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg, Carlsbad, Stuttgart, Carlsruhe, Baden, which they seem to have travelled between exclusively by train. There is some guide book-style content. Here’s a taste:

Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself.

Brief and pithy, and then it’s off on another comic anecdote. His deflating comments on Berlin are interesting:

Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance than scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre, and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

So when does the actual cycling come in?

It is only in chapter ten (of this 14-chapter book) when they arrive in Baden that, as the narrator puts it, ‘we started bicycling in earnest’, from which the reader deduces that all the previous destinations have been little more than tourist visits, with the bikes mostly consigned to the baggage car of trains.

It is here in Baden, that they finally start the actual cycling holiday.

We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany…

But:

We did not succeed in carrying out our programme in its entirety.

As far as I can tell the cycling part of the tour takes them from Baden and features Todtmoos, Waldshut, ‘through Alt Breisach and Colmar to Münster; whence we started a short exploration of the Vosges range’, Barr and St Ottilienberg.

Comic moments, sometimes

Patriotism

Harris is inclined to be chronically severe on all British institutions… George, the opposite to Harris, is British to the core. I remember George quite patriotically indignant with Harris once for suggesting the introduction of the guillotine into England.
‘It is so much neater,’ said Harris.
‘I don’t care if it is,’ said George; ‘I’m an Englishman; hanging is good enough for me.’

The disastrous sea cruise

The long, long story about the time J and his wife hired a boat for a sea cruise and the extreme laziness of the captain, which dominates chapter 2, I found almost completely unfunny. Similarly, there was a long passage about the narrator’s fictional Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes in his house every time he leaves for work, which wasn’t a patch on the brilliantly funny description of the same Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture on the wall in Boat.

The hose fight

There is a funny description of Harris getting involved in a fight with a man who was hosing down the road outside Hanover and splashed a pretty woman cyclist, which leads to general mayhem.

German kisses

George visits a shop to buy a cushion (Kissen) but by mistake asks for a kiss (Kuss) leading the shop girls to collapse in fits of giggles, though not the reader.

Prague, windows and guides

Having read a very long book about the Thirty Years War recently, which starts with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of a window of the Hradčany Castle, I appreciated his joke that the history of Prague would have been much more peaceful if only they’d their houses and castles ‘possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.’

In Prague they hire a guide for the day who takes them all round town and doesn’t stop talking in a rough mix of German and Slavonic. It is only late in the day they realise that almost he’s been saying hasn’t been elaborate descriptions of historic architecture but has a prolonged sales pitch for a patent hair restorer lotion the man has invented.

It is interesting that Jerome comments on the fierce enmity between German-speaking and Czech-speaking populations of Prague. Guides tell them not to speak German in certain parts of the city or they’ll get beaten up. This reinforces the prolonged explanation of the ethnic animosity given in Ernst Pawel’s excellent biography of Franz Kafka who was 7 years old when this book was published.

German law and order

Jerome has an extended comic disquisition on the German mania for order.

Your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can sit to partake of the frugal beer and ‘belegte Semmel’ he has been careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.

And:

In Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.

German regulations

And, naturally enough, for a (sort of) travel book set in Germany, the book has many passages describing the national character and especially the complicated nature of their laws. For example, none of our heroes appreciate the fact that you need not one but three tickets to travel on a train: one for general train travel, one for travel on a particular train, and one to specify whether you are seated or standing. George ignores this and related rules and is fined a hefty sum.

Our heroes are arrested

On the same theme of Order and Rules, the narrator is arrested because he takes a bicycle off a train which is just about to depart the station which he mistakenly believes is George’s. Only when he catches up with George does he realise George has his bicycle and the one the narrator has taken is some innocent German’s. He turns to see the train steaming out the station. He tries to stash it inconspicuously but is spotted by a typically officious German official. He only escapes actual prison because he happens to know a well-placed official in the town (Carlsbad) who testifies to his good character.

All of which leads to reflections on the ‘frequency with which one gets into trouble here in Germany’ and he gives a comic list of German bylaws. In Germany:

  • you must not wear fancy dress in the streets
  • you must not feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people
  • you must not shoot a crossbow in the street
  • you must not ramble about after dark ‘in droves’
  • you must not throw anything out of a window
  • you must not joke with a policeman: it is treating them with disrespect
  • you must absolutely positively not walk on the grass
  • you must sit on the correct benches provided, marked for adults or for children
  • you must not leave your front door unlocked after ten o’clock at night, and you must not play the piano in your own house after eleven

Not very enticing, is it? ‘Go for a relaxing holiday in Germany and get arrested for laws you didn’t even know existed!’ is not a very convincing tourist slogan.

In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price.

German prams

Or take the humble pram. Apparently the Germans had a world of laws regarding what you may or may not do with a perambulator, which he cheerfully describes in all their absurdity, concluding, with typically Jeromian mischief:

I should say that in Germany you could go out with a perambulator and get into enough trouble in half an hour to last you for a month. Any young Englishman anxious for a row with the police could not do better than come over to Germany and bring his perambulator with him.

The deceptions of advertising

Plenty of contemporaries noticed and complained about the explosion in advertising during the 1890s and 1900s, in magazines, newspapers and increasingly intrusive hoardings. Jerome takes the mickey out of posters which very deceptively make cycling look wonderfully easy and relaxing and contrasts it with the often very hard work of puffing up a steep hill in Germany.

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels that, for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle-riding upon a hilly road. No fairy travelling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.

Cycling and women’s liberation

Interestingly, Jerome confirms the comments of social historians I’ve been reading that bicycling amounted to a real social revolution and, in particular, liberated women, giving them an entirely new mobility, and, as a result, transforming the freedom of young couples to ‘date’ far from the eyes of their parents.

Occasionally the poster pictures a pair of cyclists; and then one grasps the fact how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played-out garden gate. He and she mount their bicycles, being careful, of course, that such are of the right make. After that they have nothing to think about but the old sweet tale. Down shady lanes, through busy towns on market days, merrily roll the wheels of the ‘Bermondsey Company’s Bottom Bracket Britain’s Best,’ or of the ‘Camberwell Company’s Jointless Eureka.’.. And the sun is always shining and the roads are always dry. No stern parent rides behind, no interfering aunt beside, no demon small boy brother is peeping round the corner…

And in the final chapter, where he delivers an extended review of the German character circa 1900, Jerome makes a special place for the German version of the New Woman sweeping Europe:

The German woman…is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it. Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands. The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. Not long ago it was considered unwomanly in Germany for a lady to be able to do the outside edge. Her proper skating attitude was thought to be that of clinging limpness to some male relative. Now she practises eights in a corner by herself, until some young man comes along to help her. She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

The insular English

In several places he satirises the English for their complete and utter failure to learn any foreign language, to get quickly exasperated with any foreigner who is dim enough not to speak fluent English, and the tendency of the English not to simplify their language when dealing with a foreigner, but to repeat the same thing, in difficult idiomatic English, but louder, a phenomenon I have observed countless times.

‘It is very disgraceful,’ I agreed. ‘Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.’

Taken alongside his comparison of the English and German education systems (the German infinitely superior) shows how some cultural stereotypes (the English are badly educated and useless at languages, the Germans are excellently educated and speak English among other languages, fluently) just never change.

German student duelling clubs

There’s some lovely frivolity in the cycling chapters, but the entire book ends with some unexpectedly serious thoughts. Jerome describes at length German student duelling societies which he candidly considers disgusting and squalid. They were expensive to join and the sole purpose was to spend time in a greasy dirty room with one opponent and two seconds, both your bodies well protected but your faces exposed to the slashes of heavy broadswords. The aim was to acquire as many impressive cuts as possible, which were then tended by not very competent student doctors and result in extravagant scars, in faces ‘cut and gashed, which prove your manliness and social status and are much desired by eligible young ladies. It was ‘a cruel and brutal game’.

Jerome describes the entire culture as being as inexplicable to outsiders but making perfect sense to insiders, as being as compelling to insiders, as bullfighting in Spain or fox hunting in England. But Jerome doesn’t find it at all funny. He thinks it brutalises both participants and arouses in onlookers ‘nothing but evil’.

Jerome on German character

Jerome had a good understanding of Germany. Soon after the the cycling trip the book was based on, he took his wife and children to live in Dresden for two years. When the First World War broke out 12 years later, Jerome made himself unpopular by speaking out against the torrent of anti-German propaganda the conflict unleashed in the press. When the many jokes wear off, you are left pondering his descriptions of the Germans as a nation obsessed with orders and regulations, over-willing to take instructions from every policeman or military officer.

Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things… The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well. You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you.

And with an officer class trained at university in the enjoyment and infliction of disfigurement and pain.

We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched…

And:

The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. But maybe his method has the advantage of producing a continuous supply of good governors; it would certainly seem so…

Or not.

Summary

After a clumsy start, and some long, not very funny stories set in England and/or involving wives, the book gets more interesting when it actually gets to Germany in chapter 6, and, in my opinion, really blooms when they finally get to the actual cycling holiday bit in chapter 10.

A final thought is the odd tonal imbalance in Jerome, or the overlapping of historical periods. What I mean is that his naughty schoolboy relishing of hi-jinks and breaking the law and getting into comedy fights is completely at odds with the stuffy, mutton chops side-whiskers mental image we have of Victorian men, it seems hugely more modern. One minute he’s describing the fight over the water hose, which sounds like utterly contemporary, the next he is talking about chaperones and how young ladies are supervised by their families in drawing rooms and dances which takes us right back to Victorian values.

And then there’s the fantastical Monty Python aspect. He begins a digression about how you find more breeds of dog in Germany than in England but almost immediately steps over a boundary into the fantastical and absurd.

George stopped a dog in Sigmaringen and drew our attention to it. It suggested a cross between a codfish and a poodle. I would not like to be positive it was not a cross between a codfish and a poodle.

Jerome’s signature note is not the ‘gentle Edwardian humour’ I associated him with before I reread these books, it is the continual schoolboy urge to push every comic conceit far beyond the bounds of reason, into the utterly surreal.

I do not know what the German breeder’s idea is; at present he retains his secret. George suggests he is aiming at a griffin. There is much to bear out this theory… Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that such are anything more than mere accidents. The German is practical…about a house, a griffin would be so inconvenient: people would be continually treading on its tail. My own idea is that what the Germans are trying for is a mermaid, which they will then train to catch fish.

Or:

Orchards exist in the Vosges mountains in plenty; but to trespass into one for the purpose of stealing fruit would be as foolish as for a fish to try and get into a swimming bath without paying.

This is the wonderfully fantastical Jeromian note and, at the end of the day Bummel is not as good as Boat because in the later book we hear less of it, it is often more strained and contrived, and, in the final chapter completely eclipsed by the extended meditation on the German character which can’t help but evoke dark thoughts of the terrible events which were to come.


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Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki (1914)

As the name suggests, Saki’s propensity for introducing wild animals into sedate Edwardian society with comic, ironic or gruesome effect goes into overdrive in many of the stories in this collection. Beasts and Super-Beasts is a collection of 36 Saki short stories. I give brief plot summaries and one or two quotes from each story which either sum it up or are just good examples of Saki’s ironic humour. Many of them feature Saki’s fictional avatar, the slender, svelte and hyper-ironic young man, Clovis Sangrail. For interest, I indicate whether Clovis appears in a story, or not, in brackets after the title.

The She-Wolf (Clovis)

‘I think it very unkind of you not to carry out my suggestion of turning me into a wolf,’ said Mary Hampton, as she crossed over to the conservatory to give her macaws their usual tribute from the dessert dishes.

Leonard Bilsiter is a boring non-entity. He went travelling with a friend across Russia but got caught in the railway strike and spent longer than expected in the far East of the country. Upon returning he gave out dark hints that he had acquired secrets of Siberian magic. He attends a house party given by Colonel and Mrs Mary Hampton where the hostess, on impulse, asks Leonard to turn her into a wolf!

Her husband demurs but Saki’s trouble-making young man, Clovis Sangrail, is at table and afterwards asks Lord Pabham, famous for his private menagerie, whether he has a wolf he can borrow. Yes, Lord Pabham does possess such an animal, a fine timber wolf named Louisa. By dinner next day Clovis has also recruited Mary herself into an elaborate practical joke.

After dinner the guests retire to the conservatory where Mary once again asks Leonard to change her into a wolf, as she saunters among the palms, disappearing from view. Then the pet parrots start squawking and from among the palms emerges… a lean, evil-looking wolf! Women scream, the men leap to their feet! Everyone assumes Leonard has used his Siberian magic to turn Mary Hampton into a wolf and so they entreat Leonard to turn her back but, of course, he can’t.

‘What!’ shouted Colonel Hampton, ‘you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!’…
‘I assure you I didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf; nothing was farther from my intentions,’ [Leonard] protested.

Laura

Laura died on Monday.
‘So dreadfully upsetting,’ Amanda complained to her uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne. ‘I’ve asked quite a lot of people down for golf and fishing, and the rhododendrons are just looking their best.’
‘Laura always was inconsiderate,’ said Sir Lulworth; ‘she was born during Goodwood week, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies.’

Laura is dying, She tells her friend Amanda she’d like to be reincarnated as an otter. To Amanda’s amazement, soon after Laura’s death a cheeky otter starts terrorising the neighbour’s poultry. And that’s just the first in a series of unfortunate reincarnations.

The Boar-Pig

Mrs. Philidore Stossen leads her grown-up daughter on a short cut through a paddock in order to gatecrash Mrs Cuvering’s garden party, the garden party of the season, which ‘the Princess’ is attending. Everyone else in the county has been invited and Mrs Stossen is damned if she’s going to let herself be left out.

Unfortunately, Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, is watching from up in an apple tree. She knows the Stossens will find the back gate into the garden locked and will be forced to retrace their steps through the paddock. So she releases the Cuverings’ enormous, scary boar-pig, Tarquin Superbus, from its stye into the paddock which is where, as they disconsolately troop back from the locked back garden gate, Mrs. Philidore Stossen and her grown-up daughter encounter it and come to a dead halt out of fear.

Matilda then proceeds to shamelessly demand £2 from the hapless mother and daughter to clear the boar-pig out of their only route back to the main road. They argue her down to ten shillings.

The Brogue (Clovis)

Jessie came back from the golf links next day in a state of mingled elation and concern.
‘It’s all right about the proposal,’ she announced; ‘he came out with it at the sixth hole. I said I must have time to think it over. I accepted him at the seventh.’
‘My dear,’ said her mother, ‘I think a little more maidenly reserve and hesitation would have been advisable, as you’ve known him so short a time. You might have waited till the ninth hole.’
‘The seventh is a very long hole,’ said Jessie; ‘besides, the tension was putting us both off our game.’

The Brogue is a very rebellious, even dangerous, horse which the Mullet family have been trying to get rid of for years. Alas, they sell it to a rich neighbour Mr. Penricarde just as he starts to show an interest in one of Mrs Mullet’s endless brood of daughters, Jessie. They are all distraught that the mad horse will throw Penricarde and kill him before Jessie can marry him, so they turn for advice to the ever-resourceful Clovis Sangrail.

The Hen (Clovis)

‘But he might kill me at any moment,’ protested Jane.
‘Not at any moment; he’s busy with the silver all the afternoon.’

Dora sells Jane a bronze Leghorn or some such exotic breed of hen at a rather exotic price. The hen turns out not to lay eggs. The letters which subsequently pass between the two women were a revelation as to how much invective could be got on to a sheet of notepaper.

Which makes it awkward that Jane is staying with the Sangrails and Dora is due to come and visit before Jane has left. Clovis conceives a plan: He has a tete-a-tete with Jane in which he explains that the Sangrail family’s faithful old retainer, Sturridge, is an unpredictable homicidal maniac and has heard some irrational rumours about Jane, and might attack her at any moment.

Amazingly, even this direct threat is not enough to budge her. Not until Clovis sends the butler (all unwitting) into the drawing room with a ceremonial sword on the pretext that Jane is interested in its old inscription (which she isn’t). But when she spies the butler entering the drawing room where she’s sitting, bearing a heavy old sword, she scarpers out the back passage, and is packed and waiting to be driven to the station in half an hour dead!

The Open Window

‘The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,’ announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.

Framton Nuttel has been told to take a rest cure and go and stay in the country, so he’s making the rounds of a number of acquaintances and is currently staying with a Mrs Sappleton. One October afternoon the house is empty except for him and Mrs Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece, Vera. It is then that the niece tells him about the Great Tragedy. One day Mrs Sappleton’s husband and two brothers set off on a hunt and never came back, they were sucked down into the great bog and never returned.

Ever since that day her aunt has always kept the french windows open in the vain hope that they will magically return… She weaves such a persuasive story that when they both see three figures looming in the distance, the niece is suddenly struck dumb with horror and Framton catches her mood, is convinced they must be the ghosts, has a panic attack, grabs his stuff, bolts out the living room out the front door and along the lane (nearly knocking over a cyclist).

Meanwhile the menfolk walk back in through the door, accompanied by their loyal spaniel and muddy from their hunting, and ask who the man is who they saw bolting out of the room. Most peculiar chap, explains Mrs Sappleton, just upped and ran out for no reason at all. At which point Vera delivers the coup de grace of the story:

‘I expect it was the spaniel,’ said the niece calmly; ‘he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.’

Romance at short notice was her speciality.

Delicious.

The Treasure-Ship

Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, is rich and interested in ancient treasure in old shipwrecks. She reads about a new device which can suck up debris from the ocean bed or sunken ships if you can locate them. She has a penniless nephew, Vasco Honiton, who’s quite handy and she commissions him to try out the equipment on the Irish coast, off a patch of land her family own. Unfortunately, Vasco locates the wreck of the Sub-Rosa, which went down when its owner, Billy Yuttley, was suspected of suicide. Vasco not only locates the Sub-Rosa but locates a watertight strongbox in its locker, scoops it up to the surface and discovers within it, papers proving a far-reaching scandal, papers which incriminate Lulu herself. Very calmly Vasco tells Lulu he is going to blackmail her and use the proceeds to buy a villa in Florence and live a life of leisure, possibly taking up as a hobby collecting the paintings of Raeburn.

The Cobweb

Haunting story of young Mrs. Ladbruk, wife of a young chap who inherits an ancient farm and the staff who run it which includes ninety-four-year old Martha Crale. She is an ancient, rake-thin, decrepit crone. The story is short on gags and very long on atmospheric descriptions of an Edwardian farm, its rhythms and how Martha Crale is always in the way of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s plans to decorate and update everything. One day young Mrs. Ladbruk comes across her staring out the window, muttering about death and misinterprets it as her final breakdown. But in fact it is an eerie and spooky vision of the death of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s husband, who is brought in having been crushed by a falling tree.

The skill in the story is how it cuts away at the moment Mrs Ladbruk learns of her father’s death, so that we do not see or hear young Mrs. Ladbruk’s response, or get any description at all of her feelings and the impact on her of the death of her husband. Instead the scene cuts to a week or so later as she stands with all her belongings packed, waiting for a cart to collect her, and has a last sight of old Martha Crale trussing a pair of chickens just as she has done any time this last 80 years.

It’s not a ghost story exactly, but it’s about an almost ghostly presence, and it is a tragedy. In this respect, it echoes a lot of Kipling’s stories from exactly the same period, which are about the uncanny presence, magic and psychology of old Sussex hussifs.

The Lull

Latimer Springfield is a boring young man standing in a county election. Mrs. Durmot invites him to come and stay to break up the final weeks of the campaign. Mrs Durmot tells her niece Vera that the man needs a rest. Instead, when the entire household has gone to bed, Vera interrupts Latimer at his late night speech-writing by telling him there has been a flood, the local dam has burst and the river has burst its banks, the house is full of Boy Scouts who have been cut off, and could he look after one of the pigs and one of the prize chickens which have been rained out of the farmyard.

Very reluctantly Latimer agrees, the animals fight and keep him up all night and, of course, in the morning, the housemaid comes in with his tea as normal, he throws back the curtains, and realises there has been no flood at all. It has all been an elaborate practical joke.

The Unkindest Blow

A Tory joke. The narrator fantasises that the present spate of strikes (which plagued late-Edwardian society) becomes universal until, eventually, every trade and industry known to man has finally had at least one strike.

Utterly exhausted, society returns to normal, and looks forward to the Divorce of the Century, between the fabulously wealthy Duke of Falvertoon and his wife. A vast cottage industry of reporters, commentators, columnists and even the film business hire rooms and seats in the divorce court, ready to make a fortune. Until – and here’s the punchline – the Duke and his wife go on strike, refusing to go through with the case until they get a slice of the action.

The Romancers

Morton Crosby is enjoying a cigarette in a secluded spot in Hyde Park when he is approached in a roundabout manner by an obvious beggar. But Morton is one of Saki’s heartless ironists and the beggar has barely got going with his spiel before Morton launches into a drolly absurd claim to be a Persian, born on the border with Afghanistan, and proceeds to bamboozle the beggar with ridiculous, made-up customs, in the end claiming his religion absolutely forbids him to give alms in the month of November, rising and walking off with a spring in his step.

The Schartz-Metterklume Method

Lady Carlotta steps out of her train at a little rural station for a breather, to stretch her legs, and the train unexpectedly pulls away without her, leaving her stranded without her luggage. However, a cart pulls up and in it is Mrs. Quabarl, who insists that Lady Carlotta must be Miss Hope, the governess, they were expecting. Lady Carlotta, having a droll, Sakiesque sense of humour, decides to go along with the mistake, letting herself be driven back to the Quabarl house, introduced to the household, fed and informed as to her duties posing as the governess.

Next morning Mrs. Quabarl is astonished to discover her children re-enacting the Rape of the Sabine Women by abducting the two little daughters of the gatekeeper’s wife and, when Mrs. Quabarl remonstrates with Lady C, the latter simply walks away, through the gates, back to the station and catches the next train to her intended destination. Soon after which the real Miss Hope arrives and is very confused by the consternation and vapours which greet her.

The Seventh Pullet

He was beginning to realise how safe and easy depravity can seem once one has the courage to begin…

Blenkinthrope is a boring commuter, catching the same train, sitting in the same carriage with the same bored companions. His only subject is the vegetables he grows in his garden. ‘Make something up’, suggests his friend, Gorworth, and on the spur of the moment invents a tale that six of his prize pullets were mesmerised and killed by a snake, but the seventh survived because it’s a rare breed with feathers over its eyes, hence not susceptible to the snake’s charms. Next day, Blenkinthrope tells his commuter colleagues the story and is astonished at how riveted they are. The story is even passed on to a poultry magazine and appears as a titbit in a national paper.

In successive attempts at fiction, however, Blenkinthrope quickly oversteps the bounds of plausibility and becomes known as the Baron Munchausen of his little set. Thus, when his wife really does die from playing a cursed card game from which her own mother and grandmother had died – when Blenkinthrope excitedly tells everyone about this most strange and exciting thing which has genuinely happened to him… Nobody believes him. Chastened, he returns to boring stories about his not-that-special vegetables.

The Blind Spot

‘My dear Egbert, between nearly killing a gardener’s boy and altogether killing a Canon there is a wide difference. No doubt you have often felt a temporary desire to kill a gardener’s boy; you have never given way to it, and I respect you for your self-control.’

Great-aunt Adelaide has died and left Egbert her heir and executor. Among her papers he comes across a letter from her brother, Peter, the canon, who was mysteriously murdered. His cook, Sebastien from the French Pyrenees, was accused and tried for the murder but the evidence wasn’t convincing and he was acquitted, at which point Egbert’s uncle, Sir Lulworth Quayne (who also appears in Laura), instantly hired him and has been enjoying the delights of his wonderful cuisine for several years.

Now, with a flourish, Egbert reveals that among Adelaide’s letters was one from her brother which described a violent argument he had with the hot-tempered Pyrennean, and how he was now going in fear of his life. This letter would supply the missing motive and be enough to convict the cook.

To Egbert’s horror Sir Lulworth takes the letter from his hand and tosses it into the heart of the fireplace.

‘What on earth did you do that for?’ gasped Egbert. ‘That letter was our one piece of evidence to connect Sebastien with the crime.’
‘That is why I destroyed it,’ said Sir Lulworth.
‘But why should you want to shield him?’ cried Egbert; ‘the man is a common murderer.’
‘A common murderer, possibly, but a very uncommon cook.’

Dusk

Norman Gortsby is sitting on a bench in Hyde Park at dusk. An old joxer is sitting there when he arrives but soon leaves, to be replaced by a likely young fellow who immediately starts telling a hard-luck story about how he booked into a hotel he was taken to, nipped out to buy a bar of soap at a chemists, then realised he was lost with no way of getting back to the hotel or money.

Note the extreme laconicism of the title. Saki had written scores of these stories by now. Arguably these mid-career stories are less funny than the earlier ones, in some ways more obvious in plot, but contain more subtle psychology and storytelling techniques.

A Touch of Realism

Blanche Boveal gives her friend Lady Blonze an idea for her Christmas house party: get everyone to adopt a character, not tell anyone what it is but act it out over the course of a few days, and the best one wins a prize.

So they go ahead, with various comic results: waspish Bertie van Tahn wakes up fat hypochondriac Waldo Plubley in the middle of the night to ransack his room for sheep, lost sheep. Yes, he is pretending to be Little Bo Peep. But the prize goes to Cyril Skatterly and Vera Durmot who, next morning before breakfast, drive the Klammersteins thirty miles to Slogberry Moor, and dump them there, in the snow. Why? Bertie van Tahn is the first to understand: Cyril and Vera were pretending to be Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain deporting the Jews from Spain!

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but having read Saki’s second novel, When William Came, with its antisemitic central character Murrey Yeovil, sensitised me to even fleeting mentions of Jews in Saki’s stories and so this deliberate, and even dangerous (dumped in midwinter, snowing, miles from anywhere), humiliation of the only Jews in the story, couldn’t help but ring my alarm bells.

Cousin Teresa (Clovis)

Sort of comic, this is more of a polemical satire with a bitingly jingoistic message, in the tone of When William Came.

Colonel Harrowcluff has two sons, Basset and Lucas. Basset has just returned from four years of worthy service in some colony and his father quietly hopes he might get an honour. His other son remained in England and is always coming up with half-cocked, hare-brained schemes. The story opens up with the younger son devising the lyrics and performance for a music-hall song titled “Cousin Teresa”. To everyone’s surprise, for once his dreams come off and the song is a roaring success.

In fact it’s so successful that the Minister decides he must be given a knighthood: not the Harrowcluff who spent years of his life shoring up the empire in a farflung colony, but the Harrowcluff who came up with a meaningless and irritating jingle.

So it’s a lampoon on a British society which is more interested in music-hall jingles than the solid defence of its empire and society. Saki invents a pompous society woman to give an idiotic speech in praise of the song:

‘Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,’ said a revered lady who had some pretensions to oracular utterance; ‘we are too cosmopolitan nowadays to be really moved by them. That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like “Cousin Teresa”, that has a genuine message for one.’

And I am not at all surprised that when Saki ventures on this subject, he manages to squeeze in some antisemitism, which barely even makes sense. Lucas is the twittering idiot of the family, the superficial drone, the epitome of a social gadfly and so, for no logical reason, Saki says he looks Jewish!

His hair and forehead furnished a recessional note in a personality that was in all other respects obtrusive and assertive. There was certainly no Semitic blood in Lucas’s parentage, but his appearance contrived to convey at least a suggestion of Jewish extraction. Clovis Sangrail, who knew most of his associates by sight, said it was undoubtedly a case of protective mimicry.

I don’t quite understand that jab. Does it mean Lucas makes himself appear more Jewish in order to fit in with a show business dominated by Jews? I’m phrasing it like that because there are lines directly to that effect in When Wiliam Comes, that Jews are disproportionately represented in film and theatreland. As I wrote in my review of When William Came Saki’s antisemitism is a stain on his writing.

The Yarkand Manner

An odd satire on the notion that a wild fashion caught on for the editorial staffs of all London’s newspapers and magazines to remove to far-distant locations from where to edit and produce their periodicals. Thus one moves to Paris, but others quickly outdo it by moving to Nurenberg, Seville or Salonika, and then further East till one takes the biscuit by moving its entire editorial team to Yarkand.

Eventually all the newspapers come back to London, tired but with a new Oriental remoteness, a new tone. None more so than the Daily Intelligencer, which had begun to publish articles about foreign affairs of a noted bluntness and belligerence, many ostensibly based on leaks from the government.

The government gets fed up of issuing denials that the Intelligencer is leaking government policy, so one fine day the Prime Minister and a bunch of other ministers go round to the offices and are astonished to discover the true state of affairs: which is that the entire staff of the newspaper decamped for the East where they were promptly kidnapped by bandits who demanded a quarter of a million pounds ransom. The only member of staff left back in London, the office boy who received the bandits’ letter, decided that was too much and so hired some new staff and hid himself away in the Editor’s office, refusing to see anyone personally and issuing all kinds of orders via… himself!

This is presumably a satire on the newspaper industry which Saki knew so well. But here, as in many of the other stories, it’s crying out for intelligent notes to explain whether the story refers to specific incidents in Edwardian London: was there a fashion for one or more papers or magazines to up sticks and produce an entire edition from offices abroad? Or is this pure, whimsical fiction?

I doubt if it would justify the expense, but a fully Annotated Saki would be wonderful, with really good, long notes which thoroughly explained the background to all his many contemporary references.

The Byzantine Omelette

Satirical portrait of snobbish, superior champagne socialist Sophie Chattel-Monkheim. She is preparing herself for a grand dinner she is giving the Duke of Syria. But then disaster strikes. More precisely, the entire domestic staff go on strike. They have discovered that Gaspare, the chef, was himself a strike-breaker in the great strike at Lord Grimford’s two years ago. But he is the only one who knows how to make a byzantine omelette, which is the Duke’s favourite dish, wails Sophie.

All her female houseguests come begging her to do something, so she agrees to dismiss the chef. Half an hour later the guests, looking more or less presentable, are assembled round the dinner table when the butler enters with a sombre look, goes over to Sophie and announces there will be no dinner. The kitchen staff was of the same union as the chef and now they have downed tools in sympathy.

As so often, the story then cuts away completely, jumping forward in time and telling us that, 18 months later, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim is just about recovering from her nervous breakdown.

And so, like The Unkindest Blow, it’s another very topical satire on the widespread strikes which plagued late-Edwardian society.

The Feast of Nemesis (Clovis)

‘There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe. That is really the crying need of our modern civilisation.’

A broad and comic satire in which Clovis’s aunt, Mrs. Thackenbury, wearily laments how tiresome it is having to have to give presents to people one really doesn’t care for on so any feast days. This lament inspires her malicious nephew (Clovis) to concoct the idea of Nemesis Day when you take unbridled revenge on people you really hate.

Take, for example, the ghastly Webleys: wouldn’t it be a good idea to get up bright and early before everyone else on Nemesis Day and go and dig up their tennis court with a fork, later blaming it on ‘an unusually masterful mole or a badger in a hurry.’

How about taking greedy Agnes Blaik into the woods on the promise of a grand picnic and then contriving to lose her just before the eating starts. Or luring fat Waldo Plubley into the hammock in the orchard near where the wasps make their summer nest, getting him nice and comfortable, then throwing a firework into the wasps’ nest.

‘It takes some doing to get out of a hammock in a hurry.’
‘They might sting him to death,’ protested Mrs. Thackenbury.
‘Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death,’ said Clovis.

A masterpiece of malicious wit.

The Dreamer

Another laugh-out-loud funny story. Adela Chemping invites her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian with her to the sales. Most of the story is a satire on the wilful and illogical ways of a middle-aged, middle-class woman on a shopping expedition to a department store. But there is a delicious sting in the tail, when Adela leaves Cyprian for a while to go to the napkin department and, upon her return, discovers him posing as a shop assistant and selling sales goods amid the crush to harassed shoppers for cash and calmly pocketing the proceeds.

As in several of these stories the climax is wonderfully understated, almost omitted, for the next sentence describes Adela being helped into the fresh air and it takes the reader a moment to realise it’s because she’s fainted at the sight of her nephew pulling this impersonation, a fact Saki deliberately omits.

The deliberate omission doesn’t exactly add tension, it makes the effect more… more chiselled and exquisite. There is a tact in not stating what happens, leaving the reader to deduce it. And also a very understated, droll kind of comedy.

The Quince Tree

Heartless Mrs. Bebberly Cumble wants old Betty Mullen removed from her cottage because she never pays the rent and she’s fed up of subsidising her. On the spot her kinder niece, Vera, concocts a cock and bull story about how the jewels stolen in a recent high profile burglary have ended up in Betty’s cottage, and what a lot of people were involved on stealing them and passing them on, including Mrs Cumble’s daughter’s fiancé, that nice young Cuthbert, and also the Canon. Increasingly horrified at the web of crime she has untangled, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble decides to let Betty Mullen stay after all.

The Forbidden Buzzards (Clovis)

Clovis believed that if a lie was worth telling it was worth telling well.

A house party at Mrs Olston’s country home. Hugo Peterby takes Clovis aside and explains he’s rather keen on Betty Coulterneb but doesn’t stand much of a chance against dashing and very rich young Lanner.

‘Leave it with me,’ says Clovis, and proceeds to warn Mrs Olston in dark tones that Lanner has accepted her invitation, not to propose to the fragrant Miss Coulterneb, but to steal the eggs of the only nesting pair of rough-necked buzzards in the country. Clovis concocts an utter fiction about Lanner having one of the finest egg collections in Britain and how he has been associated with desperate measures to get his hands on rare eggs in the past.

‘What can we do?’ asks a horrified Mrs Olston, who promised her husband, before he left on a prolonged trip back to his native Norway, that she would do her uttermost to protect the buzzards. Clovis suggests that Lanner never be left alone for a minute day or night, but be permanently accompanied by a relay of chaperones, including: Mrs Olston herself, who sets out to show him every feature of the estate; her 14-year-old daughter Evelyn, who talks sombrely about how we must make the world a better place (plus ça change); her 9-year-old son who talks incessantly about the Balkan Wars; and the German governess who bombards the hapless Lanner with incessant talk about (the classic German poet) Schiller.

With the result that Lanner never gets a minute to himself, let alone five minutes with the fragrant Miss Coulterneb and so, after a couple of days, gives up and leaves early to return to London.

Leaving the field clear for his rival, Hugo Peterby, who inspired the whole whimsical fantasy in the first place. But, alas, Hugo, also, fails in his suit, and departs leaving the fragrant Miss Coulterneb as virginal and unmarried as ever. The conclusion.

Hugo did not bring off his affair with Betty Coulterneb. Whether she refused him or whether, as was more generally supposed, he did not get a chance of saying three consecutive words, has never been exactly ascertained. Anyhow, she is still the jolly Coulterneb girl.

And then the punchline.

The buzzards successfully reared two young ones, which were shot by a local hairdresser.

Stake

Eleanor Saxelby shuddered. She liked her meals to be of regular occurrence and assured proportions.

Mrs. Attray laments the character of her son Ronald to her friend Eleanor Saxelby. He is only 18 but already a gambling addict. She has deprived him of absolutely every source of money or credit he can possibly have, in order to quell his addiction. The punchline of the story is that Ronnie has excelled himself and managed to gamble away Mrs Attray’s cook to her landlords, the Norridrums, admittedly only for a few days, but this explains why the lunch served to them and Mrs Saxelby is execrable.

‘Then depend on it he was gambling,’ said Eleanor, with the assured air of one who has few ideas and makes the most of them.

Clovis on Parental Responsibilities (Clovis)

‘Now, my mother never bothered about bringing me up. She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I’ve forgotten what it is.’

Mrs Eggelby is trying to interest Clovis in the achievements of her children, Amy, Willie and Eric, an invitation to curiosity which he does his best to resist. replying to her every sally with sardonic improbabilities.

‘Aunts that have never known a day’s illness are very rare; in fact, I don’t personally know of any.’

A Holiday Task

A timid nobody, Kenelm Jerton, is buttonholed over luncheon in a country hotel by a posh young lady who claims to have forgotten her own name but is convinced she has a title, Lady something or other. ‘I say, would you mind awfully helping me try to remember?’

The unnamed woman asks him to look through old copies of Country Life to see if he can spot her photo, which he dutifully sets himself to do. They meet up again at 5 and she asks him to look after her luggage while she slips out to catch a cab.

A fellow guest walks by chatting to another and mentions that he knows the tall young woman in grey who’s just slipped out. Kenelm asks who she is and finds out she is plain Mrs. Stroope, a golfing lady from thereabouts who often loses her memory. This story is contrived and has some interesting social detail but is not particularly funny.

The Stalled Ox

‘My garden has just been put straight for the winter, and an ox roaming about in it won’t improve matters. Besides, there are the chrysanthemums just coming into flower.’

Theophil Eshley is a timid painter of the rather small landscape he can see from the end of his garden. One day his neighbour, Adela Pingsford, comes banging on his studio door and asks if he can help her shoo away a large ox which has somehow got into her garden. Theophil is useless and Adela is quite magnificently sarcastic.

Eshley took a step or two in the direction of the animal, clapped his hands, and made noises of the ‘Hish’ and ‘Shoo’ variety. If the ox heard them it gave no outward indication of the fact. ‘If any hens should ever stray into my garden,’ said Adela, ‘I should certainly send for you to frighten them out. You ‘shoo’ beautifully. Meanwhile, do you mind trying to drive that ox away?’

The story really lifts off when Eshley a) manages to shoo the ox out of the garden alright – straight through the french windows into Adela’s front room! and b) revolts against the woman’s hysterical imprecations, and instead goes and gets his painting equipment, makes himself comfortable, and paints the masterpiece which was to be the making of his career, Ox in a morning-room, late autumn,  which became one of the sensations of the next Paris Salon, and led on to the Royal Academy showing of its smash-hit sequel, Barbary Apes Wrecking a Boudoir.

The Story-Teller

A confirmed bachelor is stuck in a railway carriage with an aunt accompanying a small girl, an even smaller girl and a small boy. She tells them a feeble story to try and keep them quiet, but they keep asking stupid questions and the smallest girl repeats the first line of On The Road To Mandalay so many times that the bachelor snaps and says he bets he can tell a better story than the aunt.

The bored children immediately ask him to, and so he tells a story about a little girl who is so super-good she wins medals for goodness, and the Prince asks her to visit him in his castle and then to see his lovely park, but then a wolf breaks into the park, sees the girl in her spotless white dress and chases her. She hides in thick bushes and would have gotten away with it except she was trembling so much her medals jingled against each other, the wolf heard her, tracked her down, and ate her up, every morsel, except her shoes and her medals for being so good.

The aunt is, of course, appalled, but the children think it is the best story they’ve ever heard.

A Defensive Diamond

Treddleford is happily ensconced beside a fire on a rainy October evening at his club, settling down to read a book about faraway Samarkand when his peace is broken by the club bore Amblecope sidling up and trying to start conversation on a number of topics. The comedy of the story is that, on each topic, Amblecope has barely begun before Treddleford leaps in and tells huge, preposterous stories which outflank any anecdote Amblecope could tell him.

Eventually Amblecope gives up and sidles away but an hour or so later, as Treddleford makes to leave the room they both happen to arrive at the door at the same moment where, emboldened, Treddleford waves him back with the immortal remark:

‘I believe I take precedence,’ he said coldly; ‘you are merely the club Bore; I am the club Liar.’

The Elk

Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. She has outlived her son and now supervises her heir apparent, vague young Bertie.

‘Bertie might not be disposed to pay much attention to the consecrations of Fate, but he would not dream of opposing his grandmother.’

The story humorously chronicles the forlorn attempts of Mrs. Yonelet to marry off her daughter, Dora and her conversations with the vicar’s wife to whom she confides every stage in her campaigns, up to and including the exciting news that Bertie has just rescued Dora from the old elk Mrs T keeps in a field.

Teresa calmly informs Mrs Yonelet that Bertie has previously rescued two other maidens and the gardener’s son, none of whom he intends to marry. Later the vicar confides to Mrs Yonelet that the woman Teresa wants her grandson to marry is the Bickelbys’ German governess.

Which makes it all the more ironic when, a few months later, the family elk really does attack and kill the Bickelbys’ German governess, leading Teresa to die of heartbreak and frustration a few months later, after which Bertie does, indeed, finally, marry Dora Yonelet. All thanks to The Elk.

‘Down Pens’

Comedy about the gruelling torment of having to write thank you cards as a young couple, who have already written twenty between them, try to think of something genuine and not too insincere to write to the couple who sent them a calendar.

Abruptly the husband comes up with a plan: to write a letter to every newspaper in the land suggesting the abolition of Thank you notes and the declaration of a Writing Truce between Christmas and New Year. Notes of thanks can be attached as formatted counterfoils sent with invoices along with all presents, which only require a quick squiggle of the recipient’s pen.

Obviously a satire on middle-class social conventions.

The Name-Day

Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway works for his firm in Vienna. One winter his fiancée invites him to join her at Fiume. He takes the train south and it starts to snow, very heavily, turning the line into a snowdrift. The engine struggles harder and harder then there is a jolt and John James Abbleway’s carriage slows to a halt. Looking out the window he sees the rest of the train puffing into the distance.

He is left alone in his first class carriage and, on going through to the third class carriage, discovers a solitary old peasant woman. They hear wolves howling. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway fears they will be eaten by the wolves. Or starve. The woman tells him it is her name day so she knows her saint will protect her. She sells him some of the food in her basket (blood sausages) for an extortionate rate.

Then she announces she knows a house nearby and is going to try to get there. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway is petrified she will be massacred by the wolves which are howling all round the carriage, but the peasant woman insists it is her name day and she will be perfectly alright. She gets out and steps forth and next thing Abbleway knows, the ‘wolves’ are frolicking round her! He eases open a window and calls her. She shouts back that these are not wolves at all, but her cousin Karl’s dogs and he keeps a pub just beyond the trees. She’ll be back in a bit.

The Lumber Room

Young Nicholas is too clever by half, and for his latest escapade is excluded from the holiday trip which his cousins’ mother arranges for all the children to be taken to Jagborough sands. His aunt forbids him to go into the gooseberry garden. That’s fine by young Nicholas because today is the day he plans to take the big old key from its hiding place on top of some shelves and sneak up to the fearsome and legendary ‘lumber room’ at the top of the house.

When he lets himself into the lumber room it turns out to be precisely the treasure trove such a place should be, dim and dusty with a moth-eaten old fire screen showing an exciting hunting scene and a big old book full of pictures of exotic birds. He hears shouts from the aunt and quickly replaces the book, locks the lumber room door, replaces the key on the shelf and saunters back into the garden.

Missing him, the aunt had herself gone into the gooseberry garden in search and fallen into the empty water tank. Now she is shouting for help. Nicholas saunters over to the water tank and decides to have some fun. ‘How do I know you’re not the Evil One taunting me?’ he taunts. ‘My aunt told me I was forbidden to go in the gooseberry garden’, and so on. The more she protests her identity the more ironically Nicholas replies before casually strolling away.

It is some time before a kitchenmaid, in search of parsley, eventually rescues the aunt from the rain-water tank.

Fur

The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.

Eleanor has a super-rich elderly cousin, Bertram Kneyght. She wants to persuade him to give her something really good for her birthday. Her friend Suzanne suggests they ambush the old boy as he walks to his club and inveigle him into the posh department store, Goliath and Mastodon’s where they can hint none too subtly about Eleanor’s birthday.

Indeed they do this but, unbeknown to Eleanor, Suzanne has a plan of her own. She tells Kneyght to buy her friend a fan, just any old fan will do, but then launches on a sad story about how it’s her (Suzanne’s) birthday, too, soon, and how a rich man once promised her a lovely fox-fur stole but never gave it to her.

So the result is that Kneyght gives Eleanor a disappointing fan but Suzanne gets just the luxury silver-fox stole she had been angling for. The friendship between the two women has never recovered. Women Beware Women.

The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat

Direct comparison between Jocantha Bessbury and her cat. Jocantha smugly thinks she has everything she needs, including a lovely house and a lovely garden. Her cat, Attab, spends all day sleeping and at night goes out to catch baby sparrows.

Jocantha falls to reflecting on all the poor around her, poor working girls, shop girls. On an impulse she decides to treat a pair of poor working girls to tickets to the theatre. Well, maybe one one would be better, no need to go mad.

So Jocantha walks to a ticket agency and buys a ticket for a current show, ‘The Yellow Peacock’, then wanders round till she finds an ABC tearooms. Here she spots a sad, pale, forlorn-looking girl sitting by herself, and is about to take pity and play Lady Bountiful when she is surprised by the arrival of the girl’s beau, who is strikingly handsome and self-assured. Jocantha watches them chat then, eventually, the girl has to go.

The story then turns to Jocantha’s half dozen ways of trying to get the dishy young man to catch her eye, including complaining loudly about a muffin, spilling her milk and generally making a commotion. Nothing works. The young man is deeply absorbed in a novel. Eventually Jocantha gives up and comes home, and for the first time regards her house as dull and overfurnished.

She looks at the bloody cat, curled up and smug as ever. ‘But then he had killed his sparrow.’ The droll implication is that Jocantha is every bit the pussy her cat is, but without the hunting abilities. The further implication being that the entire conscious motive of ‘helping the poor’ was a cover for the more self-seeking aim of finding a dishy lover. I.e. philanthropy is bunk, a right-wing (or satirist’s) point of view.

On Approval

None of the discerning patrons of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, are quite sure whether Gebhard Knopfschrank, the young man who caught a ship from Pomerania to London, really is a genuine artist of genius or merely a self-promoting dabbler. He certainly creates striking works.

His pictures always represented some well-known street or public place in London, fallen into decay and denuded of its human population, in the place of which there roamed a wild fauna, which, from its wealth of exotic species, must have originally escaped from Zoological Gardens and travelling beast shows. ‘Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square’ was one of the most notable and characteristic of his studies, while even more sensational was the gruesome picture of ‘Vultures attacking dying camel in Upper Berkeley Street’. There were also photographs of the large canvas on which he had been engaged for some months, and which he was now endeavouring to sell to some enterprising dealer or adventurous amateur. The subject was ‘Hyænas asleep in Euston Station’, a composition that left nothing to be desired in the way of suggesting unfathomed depths of desolation.

Sounds surprisingly science fiction, doesn’t it, a touch of H.G. Wells.

Anyway, over time the regulars notice that Gerhard’s orders at the restaurant are becoming simpler, wine gives way to lager and then to water. This is because Gebhard Knopfschrank is starving. Nothing is selling.

Then one evening he orders a massive, slap-up feast, the finest of everything and puts the Star-Spangled Banner on the music box. The restaurant regulars mutter that he must finally have been ‘discovered’ by a rich American, speculate that his prices will now shoot up, and they quickly hurry to buy up the sketches he’s brought along, as usual, in his portfolio, and at the asking price of ten shillings a pop.

It is only when he’s sold them all that Gerhard disabuses them. His benefactor is an American alright, but one who ploughed his car into the flock of pigs his parents back in Pomerania were walking along a road to market. Being American he promptly offered way over the asking price, making Mamma and Papa rich at a stroke, and they have sent their son in London some of the largesse. Nothing to do with his paintings.

God be thanked for rich Americans, who are always in a hurry to get somewhere else.

And his paintings? Oh, he thinks they’re worthless so he’s burnt them all. Tomorrow he catches the boat back to Pomerania and he’s never coming back. Leaving the restaurant regulars feeling very stupid at having splashed out so much money in a panic for now-worthless drawings.

Obviously a satire on the wild fads and inflated prices of the art world which is, of course, nothing like that 110 years later.


Animals

Obviously the title of the volume is justified by the centrality, in most of the stories, of an animal. In many instances the robust natural behaviour of the animal highlights the artificiality and hypocrisy of the humans. For example, just the blunt existence of the boar-pig highlights the sneakiness and snobbery and competitiveness and bitterness-at-not-being-invited-to-the-party of Mrs. Philidore Stossen.

Animals are innocent because they are not free to make choices. They just do what they do, and their lack of freedom of action somehow highlights the tremendous over-freedom which human beings suffer from, and all the silly snobberies and social restrictions and manners and conventions which we squander that freedom on.

Smart youth versus dumb age

She was a woman of few ideas, with immense powers of concentration.

This is not the first time Saki has expressed this idea and it prompts the reflection that the stories often present a pretty straightforward dichotomy between the simple-minded but obstinate older generation (the apparently never-ending series of prohibiting aunts) who insist on narrow, inflexible ideas of right and wrong and decency etc; and the nimble-witted, ironic and satirical young men and women, who dance ironical rings around them.

The most consistent embodiment of the latter is Clovis Sangrail, but the same spirit is at work in some of the other young adult characters, and often in Saki’s children. His children consistently lack the narrow-minded, good-mannered hypocrisy of their elders, and simply do and say what they fancy, and are all the more shocking for it.

For example,  Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, in The Boar-Pig or Mrs. Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece who makes up the story about her dead menfolk in The Open Window or youthfully malicious Nicholas in The Lumber Room.

Are these malicious children the ‘super-beasts’ of the title?

Is Clovis a knut?

In the story The Dreamer Adela Chemping worries that her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian might be a ‘nut’. In A Holiday Task the narrator compares Kenelm Jerton to a ‘supernut’. A what?

The term ‘nut’ was Edwardian slang for an idle, upper-class, man-about-town. The word was immortalised in the popular music-hall song Gilbert The Filbert, written and composed by Arthur Wimperis and Herman Finck in 1914 and made famous by the well-known singer Basil Hallam. Here it is from a 1966 disc featuring English character actor Arthur Treacher (on the right) and (improbably enough) the American host of a US TV chat show, Merv Griffin, both cashing in on the fashion for ‘Swinging London’.

Anyway, the point is the lyrics:

I am known round Town as a fearful blood
For I come straight down from the dear old flood
And I know who’s who, and I know what’s what
And between the two I’m a trifle hot
For I set the tone as you may suppose
For I stand alone when it comes to clothes
And as for gals just ask my pals
Why everybody knows.

Chorus: I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the Knut with a K,
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué,
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts.

You may look upon me as a waster, what?
But you ought to see how I fag and swot
For I’m called by two, and by five I’m out
Which I couldn’t do if I slacked about
Then I count my ties and I change my kit
And the exercise keeps me awfully fit
Once I begin I work like sin
I’m full of go and grit.

P.G. Wodehouse described the phenomenon of the ‘knut’ at length. In the preface to Joy in the Morning (1946) he wrote:

The Edwardian knut was never an angry young man. He would get a little cross, perhaps, if his man Meadowes sent him out some morning with odd spats on, but his normal outlook on life was sunny. He was humble, kindly soul, who knew he was a silly ass but hoped you wouldn’t mind. He liked everybody, and most people like him. Portrayed on the stage by George Grossmith and G. P. Huntley, he was a lovable figure, warming the hearts of all. You might disapprove of him not being a world’s worker, but you could not help being fond of him… Most knuts were younger sons, and in the reign of good King Edward the position of the younger son in aristocratic families was… what’s the word, Jeeves? Anomalous? You’re sure? Right ho, anomalous. Thank you, Jeeves.

So is Clovis a ‘nut’ or ‘knut’ (the spelling seems to have been unstable)? On the face of it, yes, and the aunts quoted above are right to be worried that their 18-year-old nephews may be turning into unemployed, hyper-well-dressed, unemployed young men-about-town.

In 1994 a new word, ‘metrosexual’, made its first appearance in print to describe: ‘a heterosexual urban man who enjoys shopping, fashion, and similar interests traditionally associated with women or gay men’. Maybe the metrosexual is a descendant of the k/nut which scandalised the older generation in the decadent 1890s and the Edwardian 1900s.

(Interesting to note, in passing, that the term ‘waster’, which in my teenage years was used to describe potheads, was in common use in 1914.)

Silly names

People remember Saki’s stories for their high society cast and settings, for the often exotic animal interventions, for the droll humour and the sometimes macabre turns of events. But Saki was also prolific in the creation of silly names:

Leonard Bilsiter, Mrs. Hoops, Clovis Sangrail, Sir Lulworth Quayne, Mrs. Philidore Stossen, Miss Matilda Cuvering, Sylvester Mullet, Toby Mullett, Mr. Penricarde, Dora Bittholz, Jane Martlet, Framton Nuttel, Mrs. Sappleton, Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, Vasco Honiton, Mrs. Ladbruk, Martha Crale, Latimer Springfield, Duke of Falvertoon, Morton Crosby, Miss Hope, Mrs. Quabarl, Blenkinthrope, Edmund Smith-Paddon, Zoto Dobreen, Egbert, Norman Gortsby, Lady Blonze, Blanche Boveal, Rachel Klammerstein, Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim, Mrs. Thackenbury, Agnes Blaik, Adela Chemping, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Betty Coulterneb, Mrs. Attray, the Norridrums, Eleanor Saxelby, Marion Eggelby, Editha Clubberley, Hildegarde Shrubley, Kenelm Jerton, Lady Starping, Lady Braddleshrub, Kestrel-Smith, Lady Mousehilton, Lady Ulwight, Lady Befnal, Mrs. Stroope, Theophil Eshley, Adela Pingsford, Treddleford, Amblecope, Mrs. Thropplestance, Mrs. Yonelet, Dora Yonelet, the Froplinsons, Mrs. Stephen Ludberry, Colonel Chuttle, John James Abbleway, Bertram Kneyght, Sylvia Strubble, Mrs Nougat-Jones,

Having taken the trouble to compile this list, at least two points arise. The names are obviously eccentric and unusual but they have neither the inspired grotesqueness of Dickens’s characters (Flintwich, Quilp, Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge) nor the silver mellifluousness of Oscar Wilde’s characters (Lady Windermere, Dorian Grey).

Instead Saki’s names are genuinely odd and bizarre – Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Lady Braddleshrub – without actually being funny. They are more like explorations of the bizarre possibilities of combining English phonemes in unexpected ways than names anyone would ever actually bear.

The second thing I noticed as I collected the names, is the number of stories which start with the statement of a name, start by introducing a character in the very first sentence, go on to give them a swift paragraph of profile, and then plunge them headfirst into a plight.

My point being that Saki’s stories rarely start with descriptions or settings or anything symbolical or with the explanations of facts or events. They start with, their very first words, are silly names. And this emphasises the way his stories aren’t about issues or ideas or places or atmospheres or landscapes or cityscapes or politics or history, but are entirely about people, people from a very narrow stratum of society, who are immediately introduced, by the narrator or in dialogue with a spouse or friend. The almost immediate introduction of the main protagonist is a function of the way the stories are extremely short and crisp and very tightly wrapped.

In fact, to dig a bit deeper, a brief review of the openings of the stories in this collection suggest that they open in one of three ways:

  1. immediate naming of a character
  2. a line of dialogue which introduces a character and/or the speaking character
  3. a brief description

1. Immediate naming

  • Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an ‘unseen world’ of their own experience or imagination – or invention. (The She-Wolf)
  • Norman Gortsby sat on a bench in the Park, with his back to a strip of bush-planted sward, fenced by the park railings, and the Row fronting him across a wide stretch of carriage drive. (Dusk)
  • Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a turn or two up and down its uninteresting length (The Schartz-Metterklume Method)
  • Basset Harrowcluff returned to the home of his fathers, after an absence of four years, distinctly well pleased with himself. (Cousin Teresa)
  • Sir Lulworth Quayne was making a leisurely progress through the Zoological Society’s Gardens in company with his nephew, recently returned from Mexico. (The Yarkand Manner)
  • Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage. (The Byzantine Omelette)
  • Marion Eggelby sat talking to Clovis on the only subject that she ever willingly talked about – her offspring and their varied perfections and accomplishments. (Clovis on Parental Responsibilities)
  • Kenelm Jerton entered the dining-hall of the Golden Galleon Hotel in the full crush of the luncheon hour. (A Holiday Task)
  • Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. (The Stalled Ox)
  • Treddleford sat in an easeful arm-chair in front of a slumberous fire… (A Defensive Diamond)
  • Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. (The Elk)
  • Jocantha Bessbury was in the mood to be serenely and graciously happy. (The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat)
  • [Name at the end of the sentence] Of all the genuine Bohemians who strayed from time to time into the would-be Bohemian circle of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, none was more interesting and more elusive than Gebhard Knopfschrank.

A line of dialogue introducing a character

  • ‘You are not really dying, are you?’ asked Amanda.
  • ‘I hope you’ve come full of suggestions for Christmas,’ said Lady Blonze to her latest arrived guest.’ (A Touch of Realism)
  • ‘Dora Bittholz is coming on Thursday,’ said Mrs. Sangrail…’ (The Hen)
  • ‘My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel.’ (The Open Window)
  • ‘I’ve asked Latimer Springfield to spend Sunday with us and stop the night,’ announced Mrs. Durmot at the breakfast-table.’ (The Lull)
  • ‘You’ve just come back from Adelaide’s funeral, haven’t you?’ said Sir Lulworth to his nephew. (The Blind Spot)
  • ‘It’s a good thing that Saint Valentine’s Day has dropped out of vogue,’ said Mrs. Thackenbury. (The Feast of Nemesis)
  • ‘I’ve just been to see old Betsy Mullen,’ announced Vera to her aunt, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble. (The Quince Tree)
  • ‘Is matchmaking at all in your line?’ Hugo Peterby asked the question with a certain amount of personal interest. (The Forbidden Buzzards)
  • ‘Ronnie is a great trial to me,’ said Mrs. Attray plaintively. (The Stake)
  • ‘Have you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?’ asked Egbert. (‘Down Pens’)
  • ‘You look worried, dear,’ said Eleanor.

Description

  • The hunting season had come to an end, and the Mullets had not succeeded in selling the Brogue.
  • The great galleon lay in semi-retirement under the sand and weed and water of the northern bay where the fortune of war and weather had long ago ensconced it. (The Treasure-Ship)
  • The farmhouse kitchen probably stood where it did as a matter of accident or haphazard choice; yet its situation might have been planned by a master-strategist in farmhouse architecture. (The Cobweb)
  • The season of strikes seemed to have run itself to a standstill. Almost every trade and industry and calling in which a dislocation could possibly be engineered had indulged in that luxury. (The Unkindest Blow)
  • It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer (The Romancers)
  • It was the season of sales. The august establishment of Walpurgis and Nettlepink had lowered its prices for an entire week as a concession to trade observances (The Dreamer)
  • It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. (The Story Teller)

Related links

Saki’s works

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

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

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

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

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

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

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

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

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

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

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

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

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

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

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

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

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

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

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

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

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

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

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

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

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

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

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

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

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

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

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

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

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

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

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

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

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

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

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

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

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

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

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

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

13. The Book of Sand

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

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

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

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

Late style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.


Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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

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

Boyhood in Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

Bedales

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penn Club

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

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

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

Grace Wilson

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

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

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

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

Second World War (1939 to 1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In action (November 1943 to October 1946)

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

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

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

The Days of the Triffids (1946 to 1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The golden decade 1951 to 1961

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

Wyndham’s women

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of his life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late marriage

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

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

The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham (1956)

Ten of John Wyndham’s science fiction short stories – a couple from the 1940s, most from the first half of the 1950s, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival and Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.

  • Chronoclasm (1953)
  • Time To Rest (1949)
  • Meteor (1941)
  • Survival (1952)
  • Pawley’s Peepholes (1951)
  • Opposite Number (1954)
  • Pillar To Post (1951)
  • Dumb Martian (1952)
  • Compassion Circuit (1954)
  • Wild Flower (1955)

Foreword by John Wyndham

The brief foreword by Wyndham himself is disappointing if you were hoping for insights into his practice as a writer. The two thin pages of this little foreword focus on just one issue, namely how constrained writers were in the 1930s by the demands of the editors of popular science fiction magazines that sci-fi stories be exciting, edge-of-your-seat adventure narratives, packed with cliffhangers and plot twists.

These editors’ sole motivation was commercial, the conviction that the public wouldn’t buy anything other than bubblegum sci fi adventures stories, and Wyndham makes it clear how constrained he felt by these inflexible formats. Even now, 25 years later, i.e. in the mid-1950s, Wyndham laments how so much science fiction – whether in written, TV or movie form – is still limited to the thrills-and-spills tradition and ‘the cliff-hanger class’.

But Wyndham goes on to say that the situation loosened up a bit after the war and this gave him a bit more leeway to experiment. And so comes round to explaining that each of the stories in this collection was an experiment ‘in adapting the science-fiction motif to various styles of short story’. They’re all experiments in approaching science fiction themes through the lens of different types of short story.

The last line contains a throwaway idea. He thanks the various editors who have encouraged him to write stories on the theme: ‘I wonder what would happen if…’ – and you realise that’s quite a good working definition of many kinds of science fiction story:

I wonder what would happen if Martians landed in Woking; if a man made himself invisible; if someone invented a time machine; if the power of the atom could be tapped to create monstrous bombs; if a doctor carried out experiments to build half-animals, half-humans…Yes, what would happen if…?

Chronoclasm (1953)

Deliberately written in the ‘comedy-romantic’ mode to, as Wyndham, put it, ‘break away from the science fiction enthusiast’.

A chronoclasm is ‘An interference with the course of history caused by time travel.’ Gerrald Lattery is the standard Wyndhamesque good bloke. Once across a street he glimpses a beautiful woman. A stranger comes up to him in the street and addresses him as Sir Gerald and is then covered in confusion.

What slowly emerges is that the woman is named Octavia and that she is from the 22nd century when humanity has invented time travelling machines (they call them history-machines) which look like wardrobes. Even in the future there’s only a handful of them and use is strictly controlled after the first few reckless experiments altered history. (Wyndham gives an amusing list of real-world anomalies which could be explained by the initial rash use of these history machines, including Leonardo da Vinci inventing parachutes when there was nothing to jump out of.) The history machines of the future are restricted to use by real historians who use them only for careful research purposes.

One of these scrupulous historians is Dr Gobie. Tavia is Gobie’s niece, who has done a History degree, specialising in the mid-twentieth century. She has ‘borrowed’ the time machine  a couple of times because she knows that she will fall in love and marry Lattery. She knows this because he has written her a letter, back in 1950-something, describing how she suddenly appears in his life, they fall in love and get married and live in bliss in  his Devon cottage, and then one day she’s gone, leaving no message, never to be seen again.

She ‘goes’ because she’s been kidnapped by the time police from the future, simply because she risks changing everything. They make a couple of attempts to seize her from Lattery’s cottage, in fact the first time is the first time they properly meet, when she comes beating on his door and then begs to be hidden. When three men in futuristic ski jackets come knocking, Lattery tells them to bugger off, then punches the front one in the stomach. You can tell this isn’t a modern story, because he is winded and the other two help him away. Then he turns to this strange young woman and asks her to explain…. and it takes a while for the narrator to get his head round the paradoxes inherent in time travel.

Then Uncle Donald Gobie appears, introduces himself to Lattery and makes the grown-up, man-of-the-world case to Lattery, why Tavia must go back with him, with Tavia there in the room. They drink tea while he tries to persuade her – she refuses. Gobie leaves. A week later,  the time policemen try again, Lattery is more determined, brandishes a shotgun and, when they don’t back down, shoots one in the stomach. Again his colleagues help him away.

Tavia announces to Lattery that she is pregnant. It suddenly becomes really important for her to remember the precise date on which he will write his letter to her, but she can’t. Then he comes home one day and she is gone. Since he knows it is discovering the letter a hundred and fifty years later which triggers the whole cycle, the story ends with Lattery sitting down to write it, addressing it to ‘My great, great grandniece, Miss Octavia Lattery…’

It is indeed written as a comedy-romance, with Wyndham deliberately overdoing the lovey-dovey dialogue of the happy couple, ‘Yes darling, I know darling, I love you so much darling’. It’s odd, his taste for the twee and the domestic. It’s present throughout his short stories and strongly flavours The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos.

It’s a striking fact that three of the four greatest English science fiction writers were capable of astonishing leaps of the imagination when it came to time travel and aliens etc and yet, when it was a question of human interaction, their imaginations were oddly old fashioned, traditional and cosy.

Wyndham is often compared with H.G. Wells because their strongest fictions have the primal, lasting quality of myths or archetypes. But people forget that a really important aspect of Wells’s fiction is its routine homeliness, its sometimes embarrassing domesticity, and its frequent broad humour. The main appeal of The Time Machine may be the vision of the Morlocks and Eloi, but just as important is the cosy late-Victorian setting of the velvet-curtained dinner party, complete with candles and servants, where the time traveller first introduces his device to his well-fed guests.

Time To Rest (1949)

Slightly more unsettling is this portrait of one of the unhappy men on Mars. It is a Mars very like the one described in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which has an atmosphere which humans can breathe and so they have freely colonised and easily move around the red planet without space suits except that… they have found it a strange, haunted and haunting place. Same here. Men can move about freely without any spacesuits, breathe and eat and talk, but…

Bert is a forlorn wanderer along the endless canals of the red planet, endlessly travelling on across the bleak arid flatness, occasionally stopping in at settlements of the Martians, basically human in every particular except slighter and weaker. They themselves live in the shadow of the Great Ones who long ago vanished from the planet, leaving their ruined cities and great works for the Martians to do their simple farming among.

But the real point of the story is the revelation that earth has blown up. Bert was 21 and four days into his first rocket ship into space when he was woken up and taken to the observation window where he and the rest of the crew watched the earth riven by fissures out of which exploded melting rock and fire and the entire planet disintegrated into a million rocky fragments which flung outwards to create a new asteroid belt.

At the time of the disaster there were already a handful of colonists on Mars, and some on Jupiter and Venus, who came to join them. Now they hunker down in a handful of settlements, drinking too much and getting morose about the blue skies of earth. There had been two women in the original colony but Wyndham says they were the cause of so many fights and murders that, in the end, they were themselves quietly done away with.

So it was to get away from the human settlements and try to deal with his bottomless mourning that he chugs along the canals of Mars in his homemade boat. At the settlement where he stays for a few days, and is the setting of the story, he is made welcome and notices that the youngest daughter has grown up and is nubile and marriageable. But he describes his pain at the death of his planet to her mother and she understands when, next day, he leaves without a word.

Meteor (1941)

Aliens from a dying planet build a set of vast spaceships to carry entire communities across space to new worlds they hope to settle. We are given the hopeful diaries of one of these valiant pioneers who intend to share their culture and civilisation and technical achievements with the inhabitants of where they land.

Unfortunately, when they land on the promising ‘blue planet’ which is clearly Earth, they and we the readers, realise they are tiny compared to us, their ‘vast’ spaceship is about two feet in diameter and they seem to use like a curious type of woodlouse only with four legs instead of six.

With the result that the ‘meteor’ is dug up by curious farmers and stashed in their barn, where the aliens are first of all terrorised by a cat, which they manage to kill with their tiny laser weapons, but when they ‘sting’ one of the farmer’s womenfolk, he promptly gets a can of insect spray and wipes out the entire ‘infestation’ of aliens, who choke and expire.

Having just finished reading The Midwich Cuckoos I can see how this slickly conceived, rather teenage story harps on one of Wyndham’s persistent themes, which is a fascination with how two intelligent life forms would manage to communicate or try to live together – and the inevitability of disastrous misunderstandings. The impossibility of their co-existence is the deep theme of Cuckoos, The ChrysalidsThe Karen Wakes and, in its way, Day of the Triffids.

Survival (1952)

A deliberately gruesome shocker.

Everyone including her parents disapprove of young Alice accompanying her new husband David Morgan on the rocket ship Falcon heading to Mars. Her mum and dad, her husband, the other crew members, they all think it’s inappropriate for a feeble woman to go on the trip.

Anyway, a little into the trip they try to fire the lateral rockets which completely fail and the ship is hurtled into an uncontrolled head-over-heels motion. Captain Winters breaks it to the crew and passengers that they might just about be able to wangle themselves into an orbit around Mars, but not to land. Best hope is to orbit and wait for a recovery ship to be sent.

In order to survive they’ll have to go onto strict rationing of food and water. Well, as you might expect, the weak and feeble Alice turns out to be stronger than all the rest of the men, especially after the central scene where she confronts the captain and insists that she MUST have extra rations because she is pregnant! (p.84)

Not only does she show steely resolve then, but at several other key moments, for example when there is an armed raid on the food store, she appears to shoot several of the crew. And a lot later when their number has been reduced to eight who agree to draw lots to see who will die for the good of the others, Alice makes a powerful, cynical speech pointing out that all the press back home have picked up on her story, ‘Girl-Wife In Doom Rocket’ and ‘Woman’s Space Wreck Ordeal’ (p.91), she’s taken care to give radio interviews and so on. Point being, that when the ship is eventually recovered, any of the men can claim any number of the other men were killed attempting repairs or whatever. They’re entirely dispensable. But her, the Girl-Wife in the Doom Rocket? She is the only one the press will be gagging to know about and the survivors will never have a convincing story of why she died. Everyone will suspect she was murdered and so whoever survives will face hanging or the electric chair. Reluctantly, they have to agree she’s right, and she’s left out of the lottery.

Weeks, maybe months later, we jump to the perspective of the rescue ship as its crew attempt the difficult docking manoeuvre with the Falcon, carefully winch open the airlock, reflate it, and enter the dark and echoing ship. The climax of the story is wonderfully grisly, for softly they hear coming from a distant cabin, the sound of crooning and make their way through a detritus of cups and plates and wrappers and – nauseatingly – a human bone or two, till they hear it is the voice of a woman singing a lullaby. They turn the corner into Alice’s cabin and there she is, gaunt and starved, while her baby is bouncy and well fed. As the three members of the rescue crew look on in amazement, gaunt, skeletal Alice raises a pistol from her bed and says to her giggling baby: ‘Look baby! Look there! Food, lovely food!’ Oooh, what a ghoulish finale!

This story can be taken as a footnote or addendum to the great debates about men and women and fertility and childbirth and gender difference and maternal instinct which run so loudly through The Midwich Cuckoos.

Pawley’s Peepholes (1951)

‘A satirical farce.’

Inhabitants of a town, Westwich, start noticing ghostly people appearing out of walls, their top halves sticking up out of pavements, bodiless legs walking through the ceiling. The narrator, Jerry, has a (stroppy) girlfriend, Sally, he discusses the strange events with. She wonders if it’s the Russians testing out a new weapon. And a conspiracy theory colleague who works in the next office, Jimmy Lindlen, who every day tells him about the latest events reported in the newspapers, starts plotting them on a map and comes up with the theory of transportation, that the strange apparitions of people are being beamed from a location he’s determined to track down.

But this turns out to be wrong, when the apparitions take a more organised form and appear on floats, kind of trolley cars, blazoned with big posters and billboards. These make it crystal clear that they are a) from the future b) are taking part in a kind of fairground attraction named Pawley’s Peepholes (p.105).

More and more of these phantoms of the future start to infest the town but it is typical of Wyndham’s brand of ‘whimsical realism’ that he (very realistically) sees the future as just as tawdry, commercialised and downmarket as the present, in the sense that the people who can part-transport back from the future are encouraged by the sideshow owners to take part in a number of challenges worthy of a tabloid newspaper.

Some of the ‘floats’ are festooned with big fairground signs saying not only ‘Visit Romantic 20th Century’ but ‘Big Money Prize If You Identify Your Own Grandad’. And this gives rise to the phantoms from the future coming up to citizens of the town in the street, holding sheets of paper, presumably old newspaper cuttings or photos or family heirlooms with photos of their ancestors, as the people of the future try to identify their forebears in the present.

The entire idea is satirical, farcical, comic. As is the denouement. Jerry and Sally go for a stroll in the town park to get away from the phantom visitors, but a couple pop up brandishing the by-now customary piece of paper. Irritated, Jerry gets up, walks over behind the pair and looks over their shoulders. He has a disconcerting revelation. They are holding a browned old newspaper which contains a photo of Sally holding two babies with the big strapline ‘Twins for Town Councillor’s Wife’. Town councillor? Is that what is to become of Sally. Oh. Glumly he goes back to sit next to Sally but doesn’t share what he saw.

Well, things go from bad to worse and the newspapers and town council and women’s groups and churches are up in arms about the relentless increase in the number of ghostly visitors from the future, racking their brains about how to deter them. You can shout, but they don’t hear. You can swear and make threatening gestures but they just fall about laughing at the quaint old-timers.

Finally, it’s Jerry who has a brainwave. He takes out ads in the papers of all the neighbouring towns inviting tourists from the present to come to Westwich and see their ancestors. Look into the future, laugh at your descendants’ silly clothes’, say the ads. The citizens of Westwich charge a nominal admission fee to make it seem worthwhile and soon the town is packed with sightseers who do to the phantom visitors what they’ve been doing for so long, namely mock them, copy them, ridicule, point and mock their silly outfits, mimic their expressions and gestures and generally, in every way, make them feel uncomfortable.

And it works, the phantom trolleys appear with fewer and fewer people and then… stop. Jerry is the hero of the hour. Next time he meets Sally she tells him how popular he is throughout the town. People are saying they’re going to elect him to the council. Meaning he will become a councillor. Meaning that headline he saw in the ghostly newspaper will come true and he is due to marry Sally and have twins… ‘Things shimmered a bit’, and then he realises this is the moment when he has to pluck up the guts to propose to her.

Thus it definitely has a science fiction premise, but you can see how the real point of the story is its gentle mocking humour, its mild social satire and, above all, the relationship between bashful Jerry and his strong-willed girlfriend Sally.

P.S. Westwich? Any relation to Midwich?

Opposite Number (1954)

‘Attempts the light presentation of a complicated idea’. Talking of taking familiar science fiction tropes and giving them a whimsical and romantic spin, or even applying sci fi tropes to what are, in essence, romantic love stories, here’s another prime example.

The narrator, Peter Ruddle, is a researcher at the Pleybell Research Institute (p.123). One day he sees a strange man leading his former love, Jean, through the grounds of the institute and decides to follow. To cut to the chase the couple turns out to be his former love Jean and himself! Jean’s father had devoted himself to studying time, despite every researcher who ever worked with him concluding he was barking up the wrong tree.

Now, when Jean’s father died, two years before the story began, Jean and Peter were going through his equipment in what had become known as ‘old Whetstone’s Room’, Jean hoped Peter would continue her father’s work but he demurred and their disagreement quickly escalated into a row, where Peter found himself saying the old man’s research was a waste of time and Jean becoming very angry. They both said words (including ‘callous’ and ‘obstinate’ and ‘selfish’) which led them to break off the engagement and, in the two years since, Peter went on to marry ‘that Tenter woman’ while Jean married Freddie Tallboy (p.126).

The point, the crux, the focus of the story is that Jean and Peter 2 now tell the narrator that in their timeline, the couple did not have a falling out. Instead Peter vowed to continue Jean’s father’s work and, in doing so, won Jean’s love and they got married. Peter 2 now explains that the old man’s work was wrong in many respects, but it opened up new avenues of investigation. To be precise, Peter 2 has discovered that at every second – at numerous moments per second – time branches according to decisions we or anyone or anything else makes, creating an almost infinite number of parallel timelines (explained on pages 129 to 130). Based on this insight Peter 2 has spent the past two years building a device which can jump between timelines.

Peter 2 has built a kind of time travelling machine which doesn’t travel forwards or backwards in time but laterally, across timelines. They call it a ‘transfer-chamber’ (p.135) and it looks much like ‘a sentry box with a door added’ (p.134).

So this is their first journey. Peter 2 and Jean 2 have travelled from their timeline to Peter 1’s timeline, arriving in old Whetstone’s room and then set off round the campus looking for him, Peter 1, only to be amazed to discover that in this timeline, Peter and Jean argued and went off to marry other people.

Peter 2 explains all this calmly and logically to Peter 1, but Jean keeps getting overwhelmed with emotion at the thought that in this world they had such a row and Jean went off and married someone else. Persistently, throughout the boys’ scientific conversation, Jean keeps telling Peter 1 that she, the Jean in this world, has never stopped loving him. She knows this because she is the same person.

And so it is that when Jean 2 and Peter 2 eventually get back into the transfer-machine which vanishes silently, without any fuss, a slightly dazed Peter 1 potters round the old man’s dusty lab for a bit and then decides to go and visit Jean, the Jean in his timeline who married someone else.

And so it is that, as in a romantic movie, when she opens the door to him at the family home she shares with her husband, he is conveniently out. Peter is on tenterhooks to declare that he loves her and has never stopped loving her but they are both frightfully English, and neither manages to actually say it. Instead he fumblingly says he’s come to collect keys to some of the stuff in her father’s room and she says they’re upstairs, so they go and rummage among his old drawers and are coming downstairs, when Jean’s husband walks in… finding them in what, for the 1950s, was a compromising situation…

And here we come to the punchline of the story, Not only because Wyndham has planted a kind of practical joke throughout the text. Because he’s made sure that the couple – Peter 1 and Peter 2 – in their wanderings around the campus to find Peter 1 are seen by almost the entire staff walking hand in hand; then when Peter 1’s wife comes home she finds them, as a couple, in Peter 1’s house; when they go to a cafe to discuss atomic splitting, they are seen by various witnesses together. And finally, Jean’s own husband finds them coming back downstairs from what… from having done what?

And the story concludes with the comic admission that all these sighting were enough evidence to satisfy a divorce court of the couple’s adultery i.e. Jean’s husband drew the wrong conclusion that the couple had had sex and has sued for divorce, and it ends with the comic conclusion that, yes, the evidence is certainly all in his favour, and, in any case:

We have both decided that nothing could be further from our wishes than to defend… (p.139)

Thus the story contains: 1. a fairly familiar science fiction trope, on which is based 2. an equally familiar trope, of the couple who marry the wrong partners but remain secretly in love, but taken from a completely different genre, of slush romance; and then 3. the kind of practical joke Wyndham has seeded throughout the story which leads up to its comic punchline and happy ending, that Jean is being sued for divorce but is perfectly happy about it since it will enable her to marry the love of her life after all.

Pillar To Post (1951)

Most of this thirty-page narrative consists of an account written by Terry Molton of his adventure. He was hit by shellfire during the war which resulted in all of one leg and half the other being amputated. He has spent four years in constant pain and misery only made bearable by morphine and painkillers. One night he takes a particularly powerful dose and wakes up in a very strange bed in a very strange room, and is quickly attended on by a strange looking woman in very strange clothes. And he has legs, two legs, two arms, a fit and healthy young body!

In a nutshell, he has swapped bodies with a man from the far distant future. The woman tending him is named Clytassamine. She tells him he is in a place named Cathalu. She gets him dressed, then they travel in the future’s strange slow-moving hovercars for miles into a pure unspoilt countryside which looks like an eighteenth century park to a vast building where he is questioned by scientists of the future, via Clytassimine who has learned something of the archaic language he speaks.

What’s the news from the far future? Well, humanity has run out of steam. The futurians live almost forever by swapping bodies with the healthy ones of lower class humans when their current one is wearing out. Clytassamine is on her 14th body (p.143). So the technology exists to move souls or spirits between bodies, but her partner / boyfriend Hymorell had been working for some time to develop a technology which could do that across time.

But fewer babies are being born and the younger generation just don’t have the same determination as their forebears. She wonders if the human race is simply winding down, its time is done.

The man from the present and the woman from the far future have the kinds of conversation you might predict. He is desperate to know what happens to our current civilisation and she disappoints him by saying it fizzles out. There are huge gaps in her historical records but it looks like humanity tried to wipe itself out at least five times. Nobody from our civilisation did space travel, but the next civilisation which arose did, in fact they bred different types of human for specialised tasks, but in the end became so specialised that when some kind of disaster came along all the specialised humans were wiped out leaving only a few hundred basic model humans – who had retained the ability to adapt and change – to start over.

This theme, the acceptance of change as the one constant of life, is the philosophy propounded by Uncle Alex in The Chrysalids where he speculates that the attempt to keep things just so and as they are, according to fixed models and forms, is futile because the essence of life is change. Clytassamine says our civilisation died out because it was too addicted to fixed forms.

But all good things come to an end. One day Terry wakes up back in his broken body in bed in the 20th century. Hymorell has managed to manufacture a soul transporting machine from resources available in 1950, and has left it by the bedside. What happens next is a sequence of pinging and ponging back and forth between bodies, for Terry manages to fix the transporter and transport back to Hymorell’s body but he realises the body, Terry’s old body, must be destroyed after he leaves it (obviously not before) so he constructs a booby trap using a gun pointing at his body in bed, to be triggered a few hours after he plans to transport.

So he uses the device Hymorell built to successfully transport back in the far future (where, incidentally, he discovers Clytassamine has been brutalised by Hymorell, whose character has been traumatised by the experience of intense and unending pain in Terry’s body – the inhabitants of Cathalu never experience any pain or discomfort). He has some weeks there, living in high anxiety, then wakes one morning back in his bed, back in the old body. (For some reason the transference process can only take place when the mind is completely at rest and detached from the nervous system of the body it inhabits i.e. during sleep.) The big jar of liquid morphine is by his bedside but he immediately suspects Hymorell will have poisoned it, so he throws it away and gets the doctors to (grudgingly) give him a new prescription.

It’s weird and unsettling and funny. On one of his last visits to Cathalu he suddenly sees Clyta as she really is, immensely old and tired, and realises she is bored of him and wants Hymorell back. Finally, fed up of this ping-ponging Hymorell affects some kind of triangulation whereby Terry’s mind is sent back but not into his broken old body, instead into the body of a ‘mental defective’ named Stephen Dallboy, whose mind, presumably, is sent into Terry’s broken painful body. That’s the end of the mind-travelling to the far future and the last page of Terry’s narrative describes how he’s got used to being in the body of a complete stranger (after all, he’s done it once already).

And now the top and tail of the story make sense, for the main narrative we’ve just read was introduced by a letter from Jesse K. Johnson, Medical Director of the Forcett Mental Clinic, Connecticut, writing to a firm of lawyers and giving the background to the ‘case’.

For reasons Johnson doesn’t understand the mental defective Stephen Dallboy, who has been an inmate at the home has undergone a complete change of character, is suddenly alert and intelligent, articulate and educated. However, he insists that his name is not Stephen Dallboy, it is Terry Molton and he even appears to know the names and loads of personal facts about genuine friends of Terry Molton, all of whom, however, claim never to have met this Stephen Dallboy. The letter concludes that the whole thing is a remarkable example of ‘a well-integrated hallucination’ (p.168) and that the clinic will keep Dallboy in care for a time to allow them to dispel ‘the whole fantasy system’ but will release the patient in due course.

Dumb Martian (1952)

It is the future. Interplanetary travel is common. Duncan Weaver has got a five-year contract as Wayload Station Superintendant on Jupiter IV/II, which is a rocky asteroid circling Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. It’s a lonely job on an isolated outpost, so while he’s still at Port Clarke on Mars he shops around for a Martian woman to, in effect, be his slave for the five years. In the end he pays £1,000 for Lellie.

Weaver is a redneck, an uneducated bully. They take a space ship to the wayload station. The guy finishing his contract, who Weaver is scheduled to replace, shows them round the shabby two pressurised domes, which contain books or music records to pass the time, then he leaves on the rocket ship, leaving Weaver and Lellie alone together.

Quite quickly Weaver gets irritated and frustrated by Lellie’s inflexible expression, her inability to pronounce English properly, the permanent expression of surprise that Martians have on their faces. There’s no hint at all of sex, just his frustration. He tries to teach her to use cosmetics to ‘look more like a proper woman’, but she doesn’t know how. Eventually he beats her. He tries to force her to pronounce simple English words, like yes, correctly and when she struggles but can’t, he slaps and punches her as she cowers crying out, ‘No no no.’

Everything changes when the next scheduled rocket brings with it an unexpected cargo, a scientist who’s been assigned to the way station for a year, Dr Alan Whint. Whint is intelligent, he’s brought a lot of books with him, he respects Lellie from the start, in fact he starts to teach her how to read. It is no accident at all that the first time Lellie speaks of her own volition, it is to look up from the book Whint has given her and ask the two men, ‘What is “female emancipation”?’

Resentment between the two men simmers for months and then breaks out into an open confrontation, Whint calling Weaver a bullying pig. You can’t really have a fight in low gravity, so both men are forced to bottle it up, but Weaver gets to paranoid fretting about Whint and eventually sabotages his little space hopper so that the scientist sets off to prospect some site on the other side of the asteroid and never returns.

By this stage I’ve realised that the story is, to some extent, a portrait of a low-class, uneducated, paranoid man who’s quick to anger and violence. Having dispensed with Whint he then spends weeks anxiously worrying that Lellie will react somehow, anger, tears, violence. But she is a ‘Mart’, one of a race who appear (from this story) to be an utterly inert, impassive race, half humanoid (although with disconcerting physical differences).

Lellie carries on making him food and cleaning the place impassively, but otherwise shows no sign of distress and doesn’t mention the fact that Whint has never returned. Instead, she takes to reading intensively and becomes more educated about lots of things, including some of the basic engineering of the dome and related equipment.

Right from the start the story has shown how mercenary and money-minded Weaver is and her sudden interest in self-education prompts him to think she’s becoming more valuable, he’ll probably be able to sell her at a tidy profit when his five-year assignment finishes and he returns to Mars.

Till one day he sees off the latest routine cargo rocket from the launch pad, returns to the dome and discovers that… the airlock is closed. Not only closed, but locked, unopenable.

This is the final phase of the story, in which Weaver tries, with increasing desperation, to break back into the dome, eventually, in desperation, deciding to use a kind of oxy-acetylene kit to burn through both sealed walls of the some. OK the air inside will rush out, but once inside he can fix it and restore pressure. However, Lellie has anticipated his plans: now we realise why she has been reading so intently, especially about the dome and all its equipment – it has been a slow-burning plan for revenge.

She comes on the radio intercom and tells him not to try and breach the dome wall and when he looks through an observation window, sees that she has rigged up a bomb set to go off automatically if the air pressure drops: then they’ll both be killed. Weaver has one last, desperate hope. In the warehouse are cargo canisters which have their own propulsion units. He can rig one up with lots of padding to carry him inside and then launch it towards Callisto, the moon his asteroid circles, not too far away, which has its own outpost on and will pick up the incoming pod on radar. It’s a bit desperate but it might work.

But while he’s in the middle of adjusting the padding and figuring out the logistical problems he starts to feel cold and looks at the power gauge on his spacesuit. Suddenly it’s collapsing, the heating element is failing. Lellie must have fixed this, as well. Now he has only a matter of minutes till the temperature inside his suit matches the absolute zero outside, so he reverts to plan A and takes giant weightless strides back to the dome and tries to resume work with the burning tool, but he can’t even bend to lift it and the last few lines describe how Weaver’s body is overcome by extreme cold, first the hands and feet, then his arms and then, in a great rush, he breathes in freezing air which freezes his lungs and heart.

Impassively, from inside the dome, Lellie the ‘Mart’ who he bought and beat and abused, watches his lifeless body in its space suit gently float a few feet off the ground. Not such a dumb Mart after all.

The story dramatises more than any other Wyndham’s feminism and real hatred of the way so many women let themselves be bought and sold, moving from passive obeyers of their fathers to passive punchbags for abusive husbands, all leading up to the domestic slavery of endless pregnancies and child-rearing. Well, not for young Lellie!

Compassion Circuit (1954)

‘Short horror story.’ It’s the future. Robots are commonplace, from angular mechanical machines which do ugly everyday tasks to impressively humanoid-shaped bots which can acts as companions and carers.

Janet has been in hospital. She is ill with what, it is implied, is a terminal illness, becoming weaker and weaker every day. Her husband George Shand is desperately concerned. She is very reluctant to have a robot helper, she’s a traditionalist. But after her most recent stay in hospital, the doctors recommend complete rest and advise one, so she eventually agrees.

She and George take delivery of a big heavy box, which the robots from next door help to carry into the house. They unpack it and there’s some fuss about locating her activation panel. In a fit of prudishness, Jane insists that her husband not fiddle with the robot’s clothes and ‘body’.

And then, once she’s found the ‘On’ switch’, the robot helper stands up, impressively tall (5 feet ten inches) perfectly skin and hair, but not attractive (Janet had specified that when she and George selected from the catalogue), dressed as a traditional ‘parlourmaid’. Janet names her Hester and Hester quickly becomes invaluable, doing all the housework, carrying Janet from the bed to the lounge sofa and back again, while George is at work. Over the next four months she becomes Janet’s closest confidant. Her eyes and skin are perfect, her body is immaculately designed, but cold, so cold to the touch.

They have many conversations, during which Janet laments having a weak and feeble body and Hester gives a brisk, no-nonsense replies, agreeing that humans’ bodies are remarkably inefficient, a big chemistry set bits of which are forever going wrong, ‘uncertain and fragile’; whereas Hester is designed to perfection, never tires or weakens or gets ill. Sometimes Janet feels so feeble she cries at how unworthy of George she is in her dying body, and Hester rocks her to sleep like a child.

And this leads into the short story’s denouement: One day George gets a message at work that his wife has fallen ill again and been rushed to hospital. He himself hurries there but is told she is too weak to see him. The robot on the desk gives him a form to sign for emergency operation which, after some hesitation he signs.

Days later, he gets another message at work that Janet has been taken home. He rushes home and up to the bedroom where she is lying quietly in bed tended by Hester with the sheets up to her neck. He sits by her, ‘Janet darling’ etc, and reaches to touch her hand under the sheet… and is shocked to discover it is cold, everso cold. He reaches up along her arm to her shoulder, cold, all cold. He shrieks in horror! They have transplanted her head onto the body of a robot!

George runs out the bedroom, trips at the head of the stairs and falls down the entire flight. Janet walks calmly to the bottom and assesses the damage. Looks like he’s broken various minor bones but more importantly broken his back. Maybe he’ll never be able to walk again. Unless, of course, he has the same operation as Janet. Calmly she rings for an ambulance and begins to make the preparations…

Wild Flower (1955)

‘Where one has encouraged science fiction to try the form of the modern short-story.’ This short short story is clearly an attempt at something different. The plot concerns Felicity Fray, a teacher. She dislikes the modern world with its noisy machines. She wakes up in a floaty diaphanous mood, resenting the noise of diggers and lorries and traffic, trying to focus on clouds and sky, walks to work and takes a class of children. She is struck and moved that they have picked a flower for her which is in a vase on her desk.

It is a strange-looking flower, one Florence has never seen before. One of the smallest prettiest girls, Marielle, explains she found it among a clump of flowers. Oh, where? asks Felicity. Up at the site of the plane crash, Miss.

This is the core of the story. A year ago, on a beautiful midsummer evening, Felicity had been walking through the field, her mind full of poetry, when she was disturbed by the droning of a plane overhead. Then something went wrong, she could tell by the sound, looked up, and saw a big explosion and the silver shape disintegrate into fragments which came plummeting towards the earth at terrifying speed. She fell to the ground and cowered amid the grass, as fragments large and small of the plane fell all around her, as she prayed to God to be spared. A hundred yards away a large section landed and exploded sending shrapnel in all directions. Something else fell with a sickening thud nearby (it is implied that these are bodies, or parts of bodies).

She stayed like that, pressed into the ground and shaking, till the rescue party came, lifted her into the ambulance and took her to the hospital. Shock, and the modern reader is now familiar with the expression post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps the entire attitude which flavours the story reflects her ongoing trauma.

Felicity asks Mariella to take her to the site where she found the flowers and they walk out to the fields. For a long time the site was fenced off. Not only was it a crash site but the plane had been carrying radioactive cobalt ostensibly for hospital equipment in the Middle East. Somehow it leaked. The army sealed the site off and the scientists cleared it, but the implication is that these flowers are radioactive mutations. This seems to be a very naive view of radioactivity i.e. that it triggers viable forms of organic life which are just deviant or mutated. I thought the current understanding is it just kills things rather than produce an array of florid new forms.

Anyway, when they arrive at the field, Felicity and Marielle discover one of the sons of the farmer who owns it is there with some canisters of a new pesticide. He has just comprehensively sprayed the entire area. He doesn’t want these mutated flowers taking over his crops. For Felicity this is piling desecration on desecration. Even the new forms of life struggling to exist after a nuclear calamity must be obliterated by the never-ending destructiveness of male science.

So the girls can pick these beautiful flowers but farmer’s son has just condemned them to death. At this moment yet another jet plane screeches overhead and the little girl Marielle raises her eyes to the sky and shouts, ‘I hate them, I hate them’. Felicity tries to comfort her. Yes, she hates them too, but she holds in her hand a remedy, an elixir, the power of flowers. Despite all the attempts of male science to destroy the world and beauty, women and nature will triumph.

Thoughts

Range There’s a lot of range isn’t there. Most of the stories deal with familiar science fiction tropes – Mars (3), time travel (2), space travel (Meteor and Survival) and robots, all familiar stuff – but it’s striking how Wyndham succeeds in applying different approaches and tones to them.

Possibly the two dominant threads are humour and romance, meaning many of the stories are cast in a humorous mode, in a way to encourage dry smiles and a chuckle at their black humour or comic contrivances. Or concern husbands and wives or courting couples and spend as much time on the minutiae of dating and romantic dialogue as on the supposedly science fiction trappings. I’m thinking of the love story at the heart of Chronoclasm, the light-hearted romance at the centre of Pawley’s Peepholes, and the happy-ending love story at the centre of Opposite Number, in particular.

Gender And, at the risk of sounding modish, Wyndham is consistently interested in the issue of gender i.e. the stereotyping of the sexes. The point of Survival is that everyone disapproves of young Alice Morgan accompanying her husband on a flight to Mars because she is only a weak and feeble woman and yet, when calamity strikes, she turns out to be by far the most ruthless survivor, and ends up killing and eating all the men. In a very different way, Felicity Fray may be a stereotype of the poetry-loving schoolmistress and yet Wyndham goes out of his way to be on her side.

Nowadays the thousands of studies with titles like ‘Gender and identity in the novels of X’ all too often amount to an imposition of ideological and literary theory onto authors and works which don’t necessarily justify them. In Wyndham’s case, though, his work is crying out for a thoughtful exploration of his attitude to gender and the social stereotyping around men and, especially, women in the 1940s and 1950s, as this is a really obvious and dominating feature of his work.

Voices It’s worth noting the effort Wyndham takes to distinguish his characters through their narrating voices. This was true of the stories in Jizzle which included a wise-guy working class circus operator, and is true of some of these, too. Only three of the stories have first-person narrators – Pawley’s Peepholes, Opposite Number and Terry Molton’s account in From Pillar To Post but Wyndham makes an effort to distinguish the voices, especially the larky, jokey tone of Jerry in Peepholes. Maybe the most obvious attempt at characterisation is not in a first-person account but the character of Duncan Weaver in Dumb Martian, who is successfully depicted as an uneducated brute and bully through the description of his paranoid, small-minded mental processes. The traumatised, distant character of Bert, in grieving for lost planet earth in Time To Rest is another distinct voice and presence.

Again, by concentrating on the sci fi minutiae it would be easy to overlook the care Wyndham took to craft and individualise each of these stories.


Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

The Lost Ones by Samuel Beckett (1970)

So true it is that when in the cylinder what little is possible is not so it is merely no longer so and in the least less the all of nothing if this notion is maintained.

The last half dozen Beckett prose pieces I’ve read take their lead from his 1953 novel The Unnameable in being extreme close-up descriptions of individuals, either the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or highly self-centred, solipsistic descriptions of trapped consciousnesses, in which sentences come apart at the seams and cluster or blocks of words are endlessly recirculated, in the case of Lessness using chance processes to order prefabricated sentences.

The Lost Ones is significantly different from its predecessors. For a start almost all the sentences make sense, albeit many are long-winded and with sometimes demanding word order. But they are not like the conglomerations of phrases joined together without any punctuation which you find in its half dozen predecessors, which demand a lot of interpretation or which you can relax for the effort of parsing and let create a kind of dynamic alternative to traditional prose, a kind of poetry of repetition in your mind.

The Lost Ones is more like a report, an anthropological study, of a particular environment and its inhabitants. It’s almost like a piece of science fiction, the kind of sci fi story which gives a detailed account of a new and bizarre alien society. It is definitely not a story: there are no characters, no events and no dialogue. But it is laid out in a logical structure and the sentences make sense.

The abode

The cylinder Beckett describes a cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high, populated by about 200 human beings. The cylinder is all they have ever known. It is their life. He refers to the cylinder throughout as ‘the abode’. If you do the math you discover that each of these individuals is allotted ‘a little under one square metre’ of space.

One body per square metre of available surface.

This explains why ‘lying down is unheard of in the cylinder’.

The light The text (about 20 pages of a normal Word document, 8,240 words)  moves on to give precise description of the interior of the cylinder. One of the main features is that the permanent yellow light which suffuses it (from no identifiable source) grows dimmer and then brighter on a regular cycle. Long term exposure to these oscillations of light leads to blindness.

The temperature The oscillations of light are accompanied by changes in temperature from 25°C down to 5°C, occasionally as low as 1°C, the changes happening within four seconds! These drastic alterations have the effect of destroying the skin and drying up the mucus membranes, rendering sex (sex appears in most of Beckett’s texts, no matter how degraded) very uncomfortable, although some lost souls still fling themselves at it.

The walls are made of a rubber-like substance:

Floor and wall are of solid rubber or suchlike. Dash against them foot or fist or head and the sound is scarcely heard. Imagine then the silence of the steps.

The niches The next thing to note is the existence of 20 niches set in the walls:

cavities sunk in that part of the wall which lies above an imaginary line running midway between floor and ceiling.

The tunnels They are arranged in a cunning pattern of quincunxes (‘a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center’, like the number 5 on a dice) but are undetectable from floor level. Some of the niches are connected by tunnels. There is one long unfinished tunnel which many have set off crawling along only to reach the blockage and have to shuffle backwards all the way back to the opening.

The ladders For those who want to find the niches, who are called searchers, there are fifteen ladders ranged along the cylinder walls. They vary in length but are all broken and missing some of their rungs. Some of the inhabitants not interested in ‘searching’ use them to hit each other or defend themselves.

The queues Those who want to mount the ladders have to queue because there are only fifteen ladders. Beckett goes into the rules of queueing for the ladders in great detail, but then he goes into great, obsessive detail about every aspect of the cylinder and its inhabitants.

This tendency to not be at all interested in character, psychology, plot or dialogue but to give obsessively precise descriptions of the physical aspect of a location and, above all, to give long and complete enumerations of every possible permutation of a particular physical activity (the classic example is the two pages devoted to describing all the different ways Molloy could transfer 16 stones from one pocket of his jacket to the other, giving each a good sucking on the way) is a core and central characteristic of Beckett’s prose. It’s odd that it is so overlooked, critics and commentators much preferring to focus on his schoolboy nihilism.

Categories of inhabitant This compulsion to categorise and enumerate comes into play when Beckett turns to describing the inhabitants of the cylinder, which include:

  • the searchers, keen to find a way out
  • the carriers (of ladders)
  • the climbers
  • the sedentary (‘if they never stir from the coign they have won it is because they have calculated their best chance is there and if they seldom or never ascend to the niches and tunnels it is because they have done so too often in vain or come there too often to grief.’)
  • the vanquished who, as the name suggests, have given up, who believe that ‘For in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery’ — the narrator estimates there are about 185 searchers which means about 15 vanquished
  • the watchers, who only sit and watch
  • the blind, their eyes worn out by the fluctuations in light

Wall space Because the ceaseless motion of the milling crowd would seriously interfere with the activity of the searchers moving ladders from one position to another up against the walls of the cylinder a convention has arisen to leave the yard or so closest to the walls free, creating a space for the searchers. In fact, Beckett quickly categorises the types of floor space available within ‘the abode’:

  1. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished.
  2. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery.
  3. Finally the arena proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres round numbers and chosen hunting ground of the majority.

Escape And why this endless effort to climb ladders, find niches and crawl along the tunnels? Because some of the inhabitants believe the tunnels are a way out, and will lead to a wider world:

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.

Although here, as in everything else, things fall into sets or series although, in this case, only two:

  1. One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries.
  2. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining.

These can be taken as allegories of religions, in the way you encounter strange religious sects in all manner of science fiction stories – one sect is seeking Nature, the other Heaven,

Law of ladders There’s quite a bit more detail about the laws and conventions governing the moving of the ladders, and the climbing of the ladders (only one at a time; if someone is coming down any ascender has to go back down to the floor to let them), the timing of the fluctuation of the lights and the temperatures, the behaviour and beliefs of the different types of inhabitant, but that’s the main gist.

True north A bizarre aspect of the abode is the way the first woman to give up all hope, and squat down, head down, naked, not caring any more about anything, has come to be taken by the others as a kind of lodestar, the only fixed point in the endless shuffling round the arena of all the other inhabitants.

There does none the less exist a north in the guise of one of the vanquished or better one of the women vanquished or better still the woman vanquished. She squats against the wall with her head between her knees and her legs in her arms. The left hand clasps the right shinbone and the right the left forearm. The red hair tarnished by the light hangs to the ground. It hides the face and whole front of the body down to the crutch. The left foot is crossed on the right. She is the north.

Hell

The abode is, of course, a version of hell, and Beckett brings out one or two hellish aspects, for example the way the inhabitants are filled with the horror of contact and yet are compelled all their lives by lack of space ‘to brush together without ceasing’.

Beckett also makes no bones about namechecking the chief imaginer of hell in the Western tradition, Dante. Dante also had a very mathematical, geometric, categorising kind of mind, clearly imagining the geography of the nine descending circles of hell and carefully categorising all the different types of sin, before imagining all manner of colourful punishments for them. You could say he co-ordinated the confused host of punishments his Christian predecessors had imagined for various sins into one huge and coherent system whose comprehensive structure combined with vivid poetic touches and a sympathetic insight into human nature in all its many manifestations has impressed everyone who’s read his great work, The Divine Comedy, for the past 700 years.

Maybe Beckett imagined himself doing something similar, he was certainly a lifelong devotee of Dante – except that the wonderful cohesiveness of medieval philosophy, medieval theology, medieval society and medieval culture had long since been lost and fragmented by the mid-20th century.

Maybe a modern approach to the same problem – a deeper analysis of the human condition which seeks to probe beneath the superficial details of character, plot and dialogue – can only be achieved via fragments, offcuts, shards and that explains Beckett’s approach.

Hence the shortness of Beckett’s later prose pieces, along with the sense that they are approaching the same thing over and over again, but each time from a slightly different angle. ‘Fail again fail better,’ as one of his t-shirt mottos has it.

So the cylinder of The Lost Ones may well be a vision of hell but there are no flames or demons and it is a weirdly modern, almost absurdist, hell – a hell of rubber walls, damaged ladders and tunnels which don’t lead anywhere.

Sentiment

Beckett clearly set out, in both his prose and plays, to reject bourgeois conventions of plot, psychology or character. Difficult to achieve in plays where the human actors generally require at least some kind of identification, even if they’re three mannekins in jars, as in Play, or three old ladies on a bench, as in Come and Go. Much easier to achieve in prose, which is one of the things which makes his run of prose works during the 1960s so interesting:

  • All Strange Away (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Enough (1965)
  • Ping (1966)
  • Lessness (1970)

But something that’s often overlooked by critics who focus on his fifth-form nihilism, is the way many of these texts include unexpectedly sentimental passages, especially at the end. He fights it, he resists it, but endings are difficult, just ending, point blank, somehow feels crude.

Thus it is that, rather than concluding The Lost Ones after he has exhaustively described the inside of the cylinder, Beckett provides a kind of coda, in which he imagines the behaviour of the very last survivor. Some time in the remote future all the other inhabitants will not exactly have died, but been worn down to immobility. Leaving just one (male) survivor) to totter over to the sitting woman who represents ‘north’.

There is nothing at first sight to distinguish him from the others dead still where they stand or sit in abandonment beyond recall… And sure enough there he stirs this last of all if a man and slowly draws himself up and some time later opens his burnt eyes. At the foot of the ladders propped against the wall with scant regard to harmony no climber waits his turn. The aged vanquished of the third zone has none about him now but others in his image motionless and bowed…

There he opens then his eyes this last of all if a man and some time later threads his way to that first among the vanquished so often taken for a guide. On his knees he parts the heavy hair and raises the unresisting head. Once devoured the face thus laid bare the eyes at a touch of the thumbs open without demur. In those calm wastes he lets his wander till they are the first to close and the head relinquished falls back into its place. He himself after a pause impossible to time finds at last his place and pose whereupon dark descends and at the same instant the temperature comes to rest not far from freezing point.

Hushed in the same breath the faint stridulence mentioned above whence suddenly such silence as to drown all the faint breathings put together. So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers one first of whom if a man in some unthinkable past for the first time bowed his head if this notion is maintained.

This final sentimental scene wasn’t at all necessary. It reminds me of the scene at the end of The Time Traveller where the protagonist stings our imaginations by describing the final, expiring days of the dead earth; or any other science fiction story which portrays the last survivor of some tribe or group (‘this little people of searchers’) that the reader has become attached to, and so tugs a bit at our heartstrings. This sentimental coda is strangely at odds with the clinical reportage of so much else of the text.

Notes from The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett

  • Beckett wrote the original work in French with the title Le Dépeupleur then translated it himself.
  • The Lost Ones is Beckett’s longest later prose work.
  • He began it in 1965 and worked on it intermittently till publication in 1970.
  • The final paragraph which, as I point out, brings out a plangent, sentimental mood, was written separately from most of the text, just before publication.
  • This ‘softening’ is also detectable in the change from the French to the English title. The French title means ‘The Depopulator’ which suggests Death and that the entire work is a sort of allegory of being dead. Whereas the English title, ‘The Lost Ones’, is much softer, more romantic, echoes the sentimental name of ‘the lost boys’ in Peter Pan. I doubt if Beckett consciously intended this, but I think it is there in the finished work.
  • The cylinder has 205 inhabitants: 120 climbers, 60 remaining on the floor looking for their loved ones; 20 sedentary searchers; five vanquished, chief among them the woman known as The North.

What are we to make of The Lost Ones?

I don’t think you need to think about it too much. I’ve read hundreds of science fiction and other types of tales which give you the exact dimensions of a spaceship or room, give a detailed description of its contents, which is all preparation for moving onto the human action. Phrasing it like that makes you realise that a lot of these Beckett prose works amount to an obsessively detailed description of the mise en scène and then… a kind of walking away before what you could call the human or humanistic element begins.

That said, The Lost Ones differs significantly from his other prose works of the period because it is so readable. The sentences work, and contain the familiar elements of subject, verb and object. The following passage is typical of many and extraordinarily accessible for Beckett:

The ladders. These are the only objects. They are single without exception and vary greatly in size. The shortest measure not less than six metres. Some are fitted with a sliding extension.

What does it all mean? Well, the reference to Dante is an unmistakable nod to the notion of hell and the afterlife, but pretty much all the other details militate anything like a conventional idea of hell. And I don’t think there are any (and the Beckett Companion doesn’t mention any) riffs or references to any other traditional aspects of hell or Christian theology.

No, it feels more like a standalone imagining which we, the readers, can situate anywhere we want to. It reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant science fiction novel, Rendezvous With Rama, which is about a mysterious hollow cylinder full of strange artefacts. And the constantly circulating crowd jostling against each other remind me of two of J.G. Ballard’s short stories about an overpopulated world, Billennium (1962) and The Concentration City (1957). And the last man standing who staggers over to the barely alive last woman remind me of countless ‘last survivor’ stories.

For these reasons, although The Lost Ones is weird, it is at least readable, and that alone makes it quite a bit less weird than most of the other prose works Beckett was writing at the time.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

Edward Upward was born in 1903 to a middle class family in Birmingham. He went to prep school and then Repton public school and then ‘up’ to Cambridge, before going on to (try to) become a writer. These are all classic characteristics of members of the so-called ‘Auden Generation’ and, as it happens, Upward’s father was, like Auden’s, a doctor.

But Upward had a particularly close connection to the Auden Gang because at Repton he became good friends with Christopher Isherwood, later to be W.H. Auden’s collaborator, friend and sometime lover. At Cambridge, Upward and Isherwood invented an English village, Mortmere, which became the setting for various surreal, obscene and satirical stories. He was introduced to the great Wystan in 1927.

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

1. Teacher After leaving university he became a teacher (as did Auden and Isherwood) in 1926 and remained one till he retired in 1961. For 30 years he taught at Alleyn’s private school in Dulwich. Nowadays Alleyn’s annual fees are £21,000.

2. Communist Somehow Upward managed to reconcile teaching at private schools for the rich with being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He became a ‘probationary member’ in 1932, then a full member in 1934. From 1942 Upward and his wife, also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, were investigated by MI5 for their communist activities. (MI5 should have been investigating those pillars of the establishment Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt). It was only in 1948 that Upward quit the British Communist Party and that wasn’t in disgust at the show trials or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, but because he thought it had gone soft and was becoming ‘reformist’, i.e. ceasing to be revolutionary and instead truckling to the post-war Labour government, then at the peak of its power.

Despite winning poetry prizes at Cambridge, publishing some poems and hanging round on the fringes of the literary world, Upward only managed to publish one novel in the 1930s, Journey to The Border, in 1938. This describes in poetic prose how a private tutor rebels against his employer and how this and the darkening international situation triggers a breakdown from which he only emerges when he realises he must throw in his lot with ‘the workers’. (Presumably by teaching at a fee-paying, exclusive private school for the wealthy.)

Then came the Second World War. Upward continued his teaching career but struggled to write anything. When he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, in the 1950s, specifically to write his Great Novel, he found he couldn’t and suffered, like the fictional character of his first novel, an actual nervous breakdown. Only slowly did Upward work up a story about a posh private schoolboy who goes to Cambridge and tries to reconcile the conviction that he’s a writer (a poet; they’re always poets) with his commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A ‘story’ which is, in other words, completely autobiographical.

Slowly the idea turned into a trilogy which came to bear the overall name, The Spiral Ascent. In the second volume, Rotten Elements (1969) our hero terminates his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain because he thinks it’s gone soft and ‘reformist’ (ring any bells?). In the final part, No Home But The Struggle (1977), the protagonist is reconciled to the new forms of radical politics of the 50s and 60s and joins the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.

In The Thirties, published in 1962, is the first volume of The Spiral Ascent and introduces us to its lead figure, would-be poet Alan Sebrill.

In The Thirties

The Penguin paperback edition I picked up in a second-hand bookshop is 237 pages long, so average novel length. It’s divided into 14 chapters. Its protagonist, Alan Sebrill, is supposed to be a young, aspiring poet. The title of this book leads you to expect that it might capture some of the youthful exuberance and heady excitement of those strange and threatening times and it certainly describes the idealism, naivety and gaucheness of youth.

Chapter 1

Chapter one is by far the longest at 40 or so pages. Having finished the book I can now see that Upward intends it as an introduction to his lead character and fills it with incidents designed to show how young, privileged, idealistic and naive he is.

It is the summer of 1931. (This isn’t explicitly stated, we deduce it from two pieces of evidence. 1. In chapter two a character says it’s nearly ten years since he took part in the great Hunger March of January 1922 [p.58], so just under ten years after Jan 1922 must be December 1931 at the latest. 2. Later on, the narrator tells us that the meeting where the character said yhat took place in October i.e. October 1931. Since the events in chapter 1 take place in the summer of the same year, we can deduce they take place in the summer of 1931.)

Young would-be poet Alan Sebrill has packed in his job as a teacher at a posh preparatory school and taken up the invitation of his friend, young would-be poet Richard, to come and stay with him on the Isle of Wight so he can complete his Great Long Poem. Richard moves Alan into a spare room in the boarding house he’s staying at, kept by a strict Miss Pollock.

They are innocent young chaps, full of banter and absurd idealism. They walk down to the beach and along the cliffs, playing with words and terms for the birds and geological strata and wave formations, convinced that their special feel for language and the acuteness of their perceptions will make them poets, great poets, place them among ‘the English poets’.

The doomed

Alan develops the idea that they are ‘doomed’ because they are so much more sensitive and alive and alert than ordinary people, and especially the hated ‘poshos’.

‘What makes people vile is being successful or comfortably off. That’s why most of the hotel visitors are so poisonous. They are the wicked, the devils. Only the doomed are good, and we must be on their side always.’ (p.20)

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

Richard is convinced he is ‘well in’ with the local working classes. He gets a drunk local lad, Basher, to show off his tattoos to Alan. How frightfully working class! Richard enjoys talking to ‘the working classes’ on the beach-front esplanade in a loud voice.

‘It surprised the stuck-up public school gang staying at the big hotel. I’ve realised lately that the time has arrived for me to show definitely that I’m against the plus-foured poshocracy, and for the cockneys and the lower orders.’ (p.8)

‘Poshocracy’? Richard and Alan both agree their poetry will contain plenty of ‘Marxian’ ideas although, when pushed, it turns out that all Marx means for Alan is that he was the great repudiator of the ‘upper-class mystique’ which dominated his ghastly prep school. Now he’s left the school Alan doesn’t find Marx so compelling any more.

Outsiders

Alan is on the short side, chronically shy, specially round girls. He feels like a misfit. He thinks writing poetry makes him special. He thinks it makes him different and better than the ‘poshocrats’ who dress for dinner up at the grand hotel. He tried reading Marx (Capital) but the reader can clearly see that he uses the German philosopher as a psychological prop to counter his excruciatingly self-conscious sense of inferiority around the effortlessly tall and stylish ‘poshos’, both at his former prep school, at the hotel on the island.

For example Alan and Richard see other young people dancing outside the pub they frequent, but Alan is too shy to approach any of the girls, despite fairly obvious encouragement.

After a week Richard abruptly announces he is leaving. Alan is at first upset that he is breaking up their poets’ conclave but Richard is bored of the island, is not writing anything, wants to go back to London. Well, when you have independent means you can be free and easy like that. (Later on we learn that Richard has left England to live abroad. Alright for some, p.197).

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

Alan stays on in Miss Pollock’s boarding house for weeks, squeezing out four or five lines of verse a day for his Great Poem. In the entire book we are shown only one couplet of Alan’s poetry and it reads like pure Auden. Here it is:

Central anguish felt
for goodness wasted at peripheral fault (p.12)

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

  • omitting the definite or indefinite article – ‘the’ or ‘a’ – where you’d expect them (in front of ‘central anguish’ or ‘goodness’, for example) in order to convey a more robotic/ominous meaning
  • technocratic diction – ‘central’, ‘peripheral’ – which somehow makes it feel part of a science fiction film or laboratory report
  • half-rhyme (‘felt/fault’) cf. Auden: ‘Fathers in sons may track/Their voices’ trick’

Peg

After Richard has left, Alan summons up the courage to talk to the red-haired girl who he’s noticed staring at him. She is far more experienced and forward than him. They talk and then dance (the foxtrot) to the band on the esplanade at the bar/pub/restaurant on the beach. She’s called Peg and rather surprisingly tells him she has a fiancé up in London, but this is a holiday romance so it won’t count. She discovers Alan’s middle name is Thorwald, and playfully introduces him to her two friends as the poet Count Thorwald. Playful undergraduate stuff.

Peg invites him for tea at her aunt’s house where she’s staying. The aunt is eccentric. Confident Peg tells the disconcerted Alan that that night she’ll leave the scullery window into the house unlocked (the aunt firmly locks all the other windows and doors). So a lot later that night, Alan has to go through the rather degrading experience of sneaking down the lane to her house, shimmying up the wall and squeezing through the narrow window, stepping into scullery sink and elaborately down onto the floor then tiptoeing through the house up to her bedroom.

Sex in the Thirties

Eventually they arrive on her bed where, to the modern reader’s bemusement, they lie side by side ‘for a very long time’ (p.27) chatting. Really? Eventually they turn towards each other and embrace but then lie in this position ‘for almost as long’. Alan postpones any movement at all as it would have seemed like ‘an affront to her, an impudence, a crudity’ (p.27). The very next sentence is: ‘After the climax they stayed awake talking about what they would do next day.’

Sex is strange – an odd, uncanny, disruption of everyday life and manners and conventions. Reading about anybody else’s sex life is almost always disconcerting. But the oddness of Alan and Peg’s behaviour makes you think: is this really how our great-grandparents thought and behaved, with this odd combination of knowingness and timidity?

Is the scene here to indicate just how young and timid and shy and inexperienced Alan is? Why does it jump from them lying completely still to ‘after the climax’? Was it the Censorship – remember Ulysses and a number of D.H. Lawrence novels had been banned for their sexual content? Maybe the very strict rules about depicting sexual activity meant novels were allowed to tell you all about the before and the after but all descriptions of the thing itself were simply removed?

Or is it me? Are my expectations of sexual behaviour thoroughly debauched from watching thousands of movies and pop videos in which scantily-clad dolly birds adopt a series of stylised and stereotyped poses and positions – and I’ve come to think that that’s what sex is or should be? That I’ve lost touch with a world before TV, movies and pop videos, magazines and advertising saturated us with fixed ideas about what sex, or behaviour around sex, should be?

Is this scene a) incomprehensibly innocent and dated or b) a fairly accurate description of some people’s often clumsy and embarrassed experience of sex?

The oddity of the scene suggests how books like this have at least two values over and above any literary ones:

  1. as social history, to show us how our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents thought and felt.
  2. by doing so, to broaden our horizons about what human behaviour and feeling can be. To show us that we’re not trapped in an Instagram / Tinder / ‘hot priest’ world, where each new TV series tries to outdo its predecessors in sexual frankness and explicitness. That we can escape from the crushing conformities of the modern world.

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

Anyway, after whatever it is that happens that night, things go awry. He is initially elated and wants Peg to become his beloved, but she continues prattling on about her fiancé in London (John) and casually mentioning that even after she’s married she intends to have lots of lovers. Deflated, he stumbles back out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He can’t be bothered to go through the fol-de-rol of climbing out the scullery window and just unlocks the backdoor and walks out. Stuff the security-minded aunt.

Next day they meet on the beach and their relationship deteriorates further. Alan presses his love and Peg is increasingly distanced and detached and then announces she’s going back to London earlier than expected. He wants to take her in his arms but is convinced she will rebuff her. But he can see that she still has feelings for him. Cross-purposes. Later that day she catches the coach for London, he doesn’t bother to see her off.

The struggle to write continues

Abruptly Alan decides romanticism is the enemy. He must be hard, forget all about Peg. For the next fortnight he struggles with the Long Poem, writing a handful of lines each morning. Then he realises it is all wrong because it’s based on this notion of the ‘doomed’, sensitive young men. No no no. Start again. He wakes up one fine morning and decides he is going to throw all that sentimentalism out and write a Great Marxist Poem. Right. Now. Sit down. Get blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand. Er…

God, this is hopeless. He looks in the mirror and sees himself for what he is:

It was the face, he thought, of a self-fancying spoilt darling, of the overvalues don from a bourgeois family who had been unreasonably expected and had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all, that he was a pampered young or no longer quite so young shirker who considered himself too good for the kind of everyday job in which he might perhaps have been of some slight use to the community. (p.34)

But even here, there is a big difference between looking in a mirror and, in a sentimentally depressed kind of way, confronting yourself (or a rather dramatised version of yourself), a big difference between doing that – and actually going out and getting a useful everyday job.

Suicidal thoughts

Alan melodramatically concludes that his life is a failure and decides to walk to the nearest cliff and throw himself off. But he is so entranced with the soulful beauty of the idea that without even realising it, he walks out the boarding house, under the hawthorn arch, into the lane and in the opposite direction from the clifftops, walking in a dream up to Peg’s aunt’s house before he realises it. He moons around looking through her bedroom window, hoping against hope that she is still there, but she isn’t.

Then Alan does find himself walking up to the cliffs, looking out over the scintillating sea, thinking about jumping off and realising it’s impossible, it’s hopeless, he’ll always be this miserable unless he makes some seismic change, finds some kind of ‘way of escape’.

(That phrase prefigures Graham Greene’s use of it for the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, published in 1980. They had all the advantages life could give them, these young men of the 1930s, but they still managed to be desperately unhappy.)

As he stands on the cliff Alan thinks maybe he should join the church, become a vicar, yes, ‘In his will is our peace’. He spies the Congregationalist church down in the village and remembers visiting the Congregationalist chapel of his grandparents. Hmm. It was quite grim. Maybe something more ornate. Maybe Catholicism. Great poets had been or had converted to Catholicism, it was meant to be easy once you’d made the initial leap of faith.

Or what about Marxism? Yes it was on the side of the ‘doomed’, against the hated ‘poshocrats’, maybe it would help him to write his poetry.

Communism was the only force in the world which was uncompromisingly on the side of the doomed and against those who wanted to keep them doomed. It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public-school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again (p.43)

Summary

All this happens in just one chapter, the first 40 pages or so, the first eighth of this 240-page-long book.

I initially found its upper-middle-class locutions and earnestness (‘Oh super idea, Richard!’) silly and off-putting. But if you bear with it, then my experience was that the story slowly grows on you and turns into an engaging portrait of a naive, confused young man.

Upward is a patient and very detailed chronicler – he describes in detail the appearance of a room, its furniture, and curtains and mirrors – and in the same meticulous way describes dialogue, people’s appearances and precisely how Alan feels at every moment, how his feelings are swayed and buffeted by trivial incidents. It’s a key quality of Upward’s mind and approach which he attributes to his alter ego in the narrative.

In revulsion from the platitude he tried to be more precise (p.161)

Once I got past Alan and Richard’s naive poshness I realised that most sensitive, bookish, young people have probably had one or more of these experiences, and began to respect and enjoy the precision with which Upward depicts them.

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

It is the end of October 1931 (p.46). Alan has come down to London for an interview to work as a teacher. The chapter opens as he travels by tram to an office of the Communist Party. He’s scared to go in, thinking they’ll despise him.

They would be intelligent, politically experienced people who would see him as he was; yes, and who would see through him, would guess the self-regarding quasi-religious motives, the sickly wish for his own salvation, which had brought him to them. (p.46)

In the event it’s a shabby room with some people preparing leaflets, others hanging around. The apparent leader Ron Spalding takes pity on the shy young man, says they need more posh people to help them, and suggests he goes out leafleting with a couple of the comrades, young Elsie Hutchinson and Wally Ainsworth (p.53). An election is coming up and they’re leafleting for the local communist candidate, Joey Pearson.

With chapter 2 the book immediately gets more grip and drive. The reality of the shabby hall is described with Upward’s trademark attention to detail, as are the half dozen communists. What stiffens it, though, is that right from the start the characters discuss the current economic and political situation in concrete terms, the number of unemployed, the reality of unemployment benefit, recent bills and votes in Parliament – and combine this with the sweeping generalisations about the crisis of capitalism which they have learned about in Engels and Marx. Out leafleting with Wally the pair discuss Feuerbach, Plekhanov, Lenin.

Leafleting complete, Alan says goodnight to Wally and walks away feeling elated.

He had found a place among people who wanted him and with whom, however inferior he might be to them in courage and in strength of will, he felt an affinity because they were members of the lower class to which he too, the would-be poet, in a sense belonged. He would do all he could to be worthy of them and of the great cause for which they were working. From now on he would be dedicated to the Revolution. (p.46)

Chapter 3

It is four months since his first contact with the party (p.86), so presumably January 1932. Alan has a teaching job at a boys school, Condell’s (‘‘It calls itself an Academy and likes to pose as a public school.’ p.60). He devotes a page (p.110) to describing in detail how much he despises its shameless aping of public school customs and terminology.

In part one of the chapter Alan has just plucked up the courage to pin a leaflet about a communist party meeting to the staff noticeboard. This is spotted by the Second Master, and triggers a fascinating debate between the two of them. It’s almost a dramatised version of a political pamphlet.

Alan says the crisis of capitalism is inevitable, as Marx predicted. The other teacher, Aldershaw, points out that Marx predicted the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist countries whereas in fact it occurred in by far the most backward, Russia. Alan counters that both Lenin and Stalin had written that Marx was indeed wrong about this and the revolution of necessity broke out in the weakest link of the capitalist system.

Aldershaw highlights another wrong prediction of Marx’s, that the proletariat would become steadily more impoverished until revolution became inevitable. Alan counters with mass unemployment. Aldershaw says modern young men have motorcars and the cinema and cigarettes and radios, a lifestyle his own parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Alan counters that malnutrition statistics show mothers and children aren’t getting enough to eat. Aldershaw counters that’s because most mothers are completely ignorant of the basics of diet and nutrition and send their kids with packed lunches full of buns and jam tarts.

Alan says society will never be free till all businesses are owned by the people. Aldershaw counters that lots of businesses are run by shareholders. Alan says workers will only be free when the state owns everything and Aldershaw lures him into asserting this is the case in the Soviet union.

Aldershaw says the Soviet Union is the worst place in the world to be a worker because if you make a wrong word of criticism about the system or Stalin you’ll be hauled off to a labour camp. Alan asserts that the camps are necessary because of reactionary and bourgeois elements who are trying to sabotage the worker’s paradise. Communists accept a temporary phase to dictatorship because it is a step on the path to a totally free and equal society. Aldershaw counters that no dictatorship ever willingly evolved into anything else. Dictators cling onto power until they’re overthrown.

Alan counters that dictatorships which oppress the Negro or try to keep women economically subservient to men deserve to be overthrown, but dictatorship in the name of communism i.e. creating a free society, can be justified.

Several points about this exchange.

  1. It is very well done. Upward really captures the way both men become steadily more infuriated that the other one isn’t seeing the obvious sense of his arguments.
  2. It suggests how schematic the entire novel is, how carefully constructed so that each episode contributes to the whole.
  3. It is striking how contemporary these arguments seem, especially about overcoming racism and women’s equality. They were written 50 years ago and put into the mouths of characters from 90 years ago, giving the reader the strong impression that some things never change.

In the second half of the chapter Alan, upset from this argument, tries and fails to keep discipline over his class. They obviously despise him and make a hissing noise as he approaches his classroom. He ends up shouting at them and giving detention to a particularly repellent spotty oik (Dibble) who answers back. Then subsides behind his desk feeling, as so often, like a complete failure.

Chapter 4

Description of a workers march on Trafalgar Square which starts in a street with warehouses, presumably in the East End. Alan learns to his surprise that Roy, the leader of their cell who greeted him so kindly on his first visit, has been arrested and is in gaol on charges of burglary – he and mates stole timber from a timber yard. He’s been expelled from the Party.

Upward pays attention to the detail of people’s appearance and behaviour, to what Alan sees and feels, as the disciplined march is blocked by a police cordon and he lets himself be led away through back streets to the Square by the tall and reckless comrade Bainton. When they get there Whitehall is cordoned off by mounted police and then a file of riot police move in with truncheons and start battering the workers, hitting many to the ground.

As the crowd disperses Alan gets a bus and notices comrade Elsie is on it. He is attracted to her again, goes and sits with her and tries to make conversation but she mostly upbraids him for failing to attend recent meetings.

Chapter 5

It is 18 months since Richard and Alan were at the seaside village (p.116), so presumably the autumn of 1932. Alan is called to see the headmaster of the school. While he waits for the appointed hour (9.30am, after Assembly) Alan looks out the window at the autumnal trees and experiences a characteristic series of thoughts about the squalid reality of being an educator upholding the corrupt capitalist system. He vows to become utterly mechanical in his tuition, an automaton, reserving his energy for working with ‘the Party’ in the evenings.

Unfortunately, the headmaster is pretty critical of the way Alan can’t seem to control or win the respect of his class. Alan is coming up to the end of his first year’s probation. The head doesn’t sack him, as he fears, but says he’ll have to toughen up. The boys need to be driven. And has he considered beating some of the offenders?

Alan zones out of the entire conversation, becoming absorbed in the reflection of the autumnal trees outside the window in the glass frontage of a bookcase, making first the books, then the trees come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever read that experience, of completely zoning out of a conversation, be described in such minute detail. I am coming to appreciate that this is what Upward does very well. The real minutiae of experience.

For a while he fantasises that he can pack in teaching and go back to being a poet by the sea, and indeed he fantasises in great detail the experience of walking down to the sea and watching the scintillating waves. Then the headmaster’s voice brings him back to reality. No, he tried that and it was an abject failure. He finds himself saying ‘Yes Headmaster, yes I will strive to take your advice,’ rising as in a dream and leaving the room.

Only his devotion to the Party prevents him falling into bottomless misery and despair.

Chapter 6

The local communist party cell has been renting the upper floor of a coach-house. Alan arrives early for a meeting. We are introduced to the ten or so party members. Alan is hopelessly starry-eyed about them, convinced they know so much more about the ‘real’ world than the ghastly middle-class intellectuals he knew at university. Take Eddie Freans, Eddie works on building sites but in his spare time is a practical inventor. Alan is in awe of his true working class roots.

Eddie might have his moments of naiveté but about things that were really important he had a far better understanding than was to be found in the university-educated intellectual chatterers of whom Alan had met too many. For those, and for members of the middle class generally, Alan could never have the respect that he had for Eddie; and in spite of the things Alan had in common with them – education, accent, manners – he felt much closer to Eddie than to them. He was happier and more at home with Eddie, just as he was happier and more at home with the other comrades here… (p.127)

Turns out this is the meeting where the members vote whether to accept Alan as a member of the Communist Party, they do by a unanimous vote. He is asked why he wants to join, what motivated him to make contact with them in the first place. He had a little speech prepared:

He had intended to say that in the conditions of modern monopoly capitalism the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for individual members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists, and that therefore he had decided to contact the Party. (p.130)

This is actually how all the other members talk and might have gone down well. However, with typical clumsy scrupulosity, Alan realises that is too stereotyped and insincere, and the Party is all about truth! So he actually shares with them that his first motivation came when he was leading prayers in a class at a prep school where he was teaching and was disgusted that he, an atheist, was put in this position, and realised it was not just him, but millions put in false positions by the system, which needed to be completely overthrown. That was the moment he first realised he had to be a communist.

There’s an embarrassed silence, followed by nervous laughter and Alan realises, yet again, that he’s done something wrong. Then the meeting gets down to an extended discussion of the current economic and political situation, which is rammed full of Marxist analysis and Marxist rhetoric and Upward describes very carefully and precisely. Characteristically, Alan finds himself zoning out of the discussion and imagining the whole room being blown up in the coming war between fascists and communists so misses half the discussion.

Afterwards, they lock up the room and go their separate ways. Alan is walking part of the way with Elsie and manages to persuade her to go up a dark alley as a ‘short cut’, where he tries – extremely clumsily – to embrace her. Upward gives an excruciating account of what a tangle he gets his arms in as he attempts a smooch, ending up placing his cheek next to hers and then has a go at a fumble, cupping her breast in the summer dress and then, toe-curlingly, pinching what he thinks is her nipple but might just be a seam of the fabric. During this entire thing Elsie remains utterly silent and unresponsive. When Alan eventually gives up they resume walking to the end of the lane and Alan says a lame goodbye. Well, he blew that.

Communist Party members:

  • Elsie Hutchinson, ‘wore glasses, had a sullen-looking mouth, and whose fuzzy hair rising to a point above her forehead and jutting out sideways at her temples had the effect of a triangular frame.’ (p.53)
  • Jimmy Anders –
  • Willie Dean Ayres, head round as a ball (p.128)
  • Beatrix Farrell, Ayres’ wife, posh (p.128)
  • red-haired Jean Pritchet (Anders’ girls, p.128)
  • Mike Bainton, irreverent and a little insubordinate, he leads Alan away from the marchers blocked in the East End, and by side routes to the main meeting. In chapter 8 he is expelled from the party for his deviant views i.e. denouncing Stalin’s takeover of the
  • Wally Ainsworth, ‘a happy-faced man of about thirty-five, with sallowly chubby cheeks reminiscent of those squeezable rubber faces that used to be made as toys for children.’ (p.53)
  • Eddie Frearns, slim, thinfaced, works in a small workshop which makes lampshades (p.126)
  • Harry Temley, 22, thickset, works as a mechanic (p.125)
  • Jock Finlayson, branch secretary of the AEU (p.127)
  • Sam Cowan, trade unionist and orator (p.127)
  • Lily Pentelow, recently elected to an important position in the Co-op movement (p.128)

Chapter 7

Back at the school. In the playground some of the boys make the contemptuous pssssssing noise they seem to make whenever Alan appears. Infuriated, Alan pounces on the probable leader, Childers, and tells him to report to the Master’s room. He is going to cane him. The entire chapter rotates around this event. He has to borrow a cane off a master who is infinitely more confident and self-assured than Alan.

The boy is waiting outside the master’s room at the assigned time, Alan takes him into the room although it’s the other master who really sorts things out, arranges the desk so there’s enough swing room for the cane, and then stands at the door while Alan administers six of the best. Upward gives a very detailed description which makes you realise how difficult caning actually is to administer. You must be sure to hit the exact same spot on the buttocks six times in a row.

Afterwards the boy stands, says ‘Thank you, sir’, and leaves without a backward glance. Alan feels wretched.

Back in the staff room the report of what he’s done triggers a discussion among the other masters. Almost all of them vigorously approve, the boy Childers is a frequent offender. But their very enthusiasm suddenly prompts a vehement outburst from Alan condemning caning as primitive and barbaric. That throws cold water on everything. Once again Alan has displayed his uncanny knack of throwing away an advantage, of making himself the least popular person in the room.

Staff members:

  • The Head Master
  • Sidney Bantick the Head Master’s assistant, with his black jacket and striped city trousers (p.114)
  • Aldershaw – who Alan has the extended argument about Marxism with in chapter
  • Ampleforth – a very reserved man
  • Barnet, the only master who stands up for Alan, in fact expresses his own extreme disgust with capital punishment
  • Benson – ‘pale-faced and strongly built, moving with large strides, his big glasses calling attention to his pale eyes which had no expression in them.’ (p.145)
  • Brook – disciplinarian, assists at the caning
  • Buckle, ‘brown-eyed pale-faced and physically strong’ (p.180)
  • Gus Chiddingford, ‘rotund’ popular joker
  • Hefford, Head of English
  • Langton, ‘one of the Maths men’
  • Lexton, ‘a bumptious extroverted younger member of the staff who taught Classics’
  • Moberley, the Handicraft man
  • Railton, ‘very tall’, older than the others, tight skin over his skull but heavy eyelids (pp.186, 188)
  • Ransome, ‘a Classics man’

Chapter 8

A meeting of the CP is held and Ben Curtis attends, to judge Mike Bainton on charges of criticising the Soviet Union in public. He’s been overheard slandering the workers’ paradise while doing a holiday job on Bognor beach.

Bainton repeats his criticism to the members. In the Soviet Union congresses have been held less and less frequently. Now the USSR has signed a treaty of non-interference in each others’ affairs (November 1933) and joined the League of Nations (15 September 1934). Bainton sees this as selling out the international revolution and thus betraying the world’s working classes.

As so often, Upward shows us how Alan drifts off during this speech, visualising the early revolutionary workers, and the travails the workers’ paradise had been through.

Then other members stand up to denounce Bainton. He is immediately recognised as being a Trotskyite heretic, i.e. someone who continued to push for world revolution while the official line was the Soviet Union needed forst and foremost to survive in the capitalist world and therefore some compromises with capitalism and imperialism might be called for.

The members vote unanimously to expel Bainton, and he votes with them, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being ironic. When Elsie and Alan leave the meeting they cut Bainton, though both feel bad about it, and try to rationalise this snubbing of a man who had been a good friend till an hour earlier.

if the Party were to disappear from the world there would be no hope for humanity. The showing of kindness to a few deviationist human individuals could lead to disaster for human beings in general. At a time when decaying capitalism had taken the form of Fascism in Germany and Italy and was preparing for an all-destructive war, and when only the Soviet Union stood unequivocally for international peace, anyone who like Bainton spread propaganda against the Soviet Union was objectively helping Fascism and working to bring violent death to millions of men, women and children. He was a traitor not only to the Party but to humanity. (p.171)

Alan feels a sort of exultation because he has suppressed his natural fellow feeling for Bainton in a higher cause. By this point I am really admiring Upward’s unflinching honesty.

The same honesty he applies to part two of the chapter where Alan walks with Elsie who suddenly asks if she can come back to his flat. Alan’s heart skips a beat, this can only mean one thing and is a big surprise after his hideous fumblings up a back alley.

But once again it turns into a peculiar scene. Upward describes with mechanical clarity Alan’s shyness. She sits in the only armchair, he sits at the further edge of the divan, three quarters of a room away. They discuss a ramblers meeting she’s leading. Bursting with tension he eventually picks up a cushion and throws it at her, then bounds to her side and puts his hands on her cheeks stroking them, then has a hurried feel of her breasts in her vest, slips down into the cramped armchair as she squeezes up then slips his hand up her skirt and does something up there for ten minutes or so, during which her expression never changes, they don’t say a word, they don’t kiss.

Then he stops whatever he was doing (‘the activity of his hand’), she stands up, they kiss mechanically, she goes over to the mirror and adjusts her clothes and hair. Is that it? Watching her, he is overcome by repulsion from her, she is definitely from a lower class than him, with a rougher accent and manners. And then he feels disgust at himself for his petit-bourgeois mentality.

As usual, Alan demonstrates his gift a) behaving clumsily and b) making himself miserable.

Chapter 9

The chronology of the book is leaping ahead. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland (p.183).

Back at the school Alan has been given a gizmo to raise money for the ‘The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement. It is a battery with a power plug and lots of sockets. You pay 4d, put the plug in one of the sockets, if it lights up you get 1/6. He takes it to the games room for masters and is, predictably, confused and humiliated. Maybe Alan Sebrill is one of the great losers of English literature.

Alan tries to persuade them that Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland is just the first step. Next it will be Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Was anyone that prescient in 1936? Easy enough to be from the vantage point of 1962.) All the masters in the games room ridicule him. They’ve nicknamed him ‘the Red Menace’ (p.150) or, more amusingly, ‘Rasputin’ (p.180).

There’s an extended description of four masters playing a game of snooker and all their posh banter which is quite funny, but which Upward recites with the attitude of a scientist examining specimens.

Afterwards one of the sceptical teachers gives the battery gizmo a go and loses half a crown to Alan. It’s typical of Alan that he doesn’t understand betting or odds.

He bumps into Barnet and has a conversation in which Barnet agrees with pretty much everything he says, especially the inevitability of a war, and Alan suggests he joins the Communist Party.

Chapter 10

It’s September (1936?). Alan is on the train from his parents’ house up to London. He and Elsie have arranged to be married but, typically, he has already said yes but backed out of it twice. He doesn’t really want to marry her, but sees it as his duty to marry a fellow party member. He also wants to overcome the class gap between them. When Elsie had come to visit, his parents had displayed ‘undisguised and snobbish disapproval of her’ and then, on the railway station platform he had spotted a public school friend, Tom Cumbers, with an unmistakably posh young woman, classy-looking, well dressed… and Alan had felt mortally ashamed of his rough girlfriend with her sometimes ‘pug-nosed’ appearance (p.201), turned his back to try and hide himself and her from the public schoolfriend and – cringingly – told her he couldn’t marry her.

He is a feeble twerp.

Yes, it is 1936 because as soon as he meets Elsie at the ticket barrier they start talking about the Spanish Civil War. For a moment Alan thinks he sees Jimmy Anders in the crowd, Jimmy is due to go off and fight in Spain any day now. His cousin had volunteered to drive an ambulance but has returned wounded (his right arm was amputated).

Elsie takes Alan by tube and bus to a street where new maisonettes are being built. She’s chosen one for them to live in once they’re married. She shows him round. It’s an interesting piece of social history. It’s clean but small and cramped. He looks out the window and sees a big cedar tree like the one at his parents’ spacious home in the country and all of a sudden is flooded with despair that his life has come down to this.

He turns on Elsie and says he can never live here. She is beginning to say she can find another place when he goes further and says he can never marry her. She is stunned. He knows he has to say something irrevocable, and so now says: ‘Oh Elsie, you are so ugly.’

The second he says it, he regrets it, and tries to take it back. Elsie is sensible. She simply says she is not ugly, and some of the men she’s gone out with have told her she’s very attractive. Now, seconds after trying to get out of it, Alan finds himself more determined than ever to marry her and live the life of a communist poet.

Chapter 11

Well, they appear to have reconciled because this chapter opens with Alan and Elsie sitting in armchairs opposite each other in their maisonette. They discuss a review in the New Statesman in which Robert Jordan complains that modern poetry is too obscure. This upsets Alan who seems to think of himself as a poet even though he doesn’t appear to write poetry and has never had anything published.

Wally Ainsworth arrives. They are scheduled to go to a meeting of the British Union of Fascists that evening. It is at least 1937 because the conversation references the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937). They set off for the meeting. Barnet questions a young lad why he’s selling the British Union of Fascist newspaper, Action. Because the Jews are ruining the country, the lad replies. Barnet reveals that he is a Jew and he is not ruining the country. The boy is confused.

The communist group continues to the meeting and Upward describes with characteristic precision the exact appearance of the hall, the look of the fascist stewards they have to pass, the look of other members of the audience.

Alan shares his reflections on the nature of fascism’s appeal to the petite bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, small businessmen, workshop owners, people who aspire to be part of the haute bourgeoisie, and ape its snobbery and pretensions but are economically insecure and thus anxious and thus desperate to blame someone (the Jews) and adulate whoever will save them (the Leader).

The  Leader appears and speechifies in respectful silence for 20 minutes before cranking up a gear and beginning to blame the Jews for everything. At this point Alan and the other communist party members stand and walk out. That’s all they intended to do – make a peaceful protest.

Barnet, the schoolteacher, who Upward had implied was Jewish in chapter 9, is delayed because he lays out leaflets saying ‘Smash Fascism before Fascism Smashes You’. For a moment stewards close in on him and you think there’s going to be a fight. But Alan stands his ground in front of Barnet and the threatening steward straightens up and lets them leave.

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

Elsie’s baby is nearly due so it must be eight months later. The chapter opens with Alan plunged in real misery, about his job, the baby, the coming war, the triumph of fascism, his non-existent poetic career. The future seems like a tidal wave of slime heading for him, for everyone. He doesn’t want to wake up. He doesn’t want to go to work.

He casts his mind back to a few days earlier when there was a knock at the front door of the maisonette. It was Holyman, an old boy from the school come to show them how to put on gas masks. They were talking about Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia so it must be the autumn of 1938. Holyman shows them how to put on the gas mask and explains how babies will be placed inside gas insulators. Elsie is querulous. When Holyman leaves she bursts into tears of unhappiness and wishes she’d never got pregnant.

Now back to the present as they both wake up together. She is heavily pregnant. He has fantasies about dressing, walking to the station but going on straight past it, to the coast, the cliffs, to the countryside, anywhere except to his wretched job.

Chapter 13

The Munich Crisis (September 1938). Alan is at school taking round a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he not submit to Hitler over the Sudeten Crisis for the other masters to sign. No fewer than 15 have signed and it is a symbolic victory when the most sceptical among them, Brook, also signs. To Alan’s surprise the Head Master also signs, but with a few patriotic provisos, reminding Alan that England never had, and never would, break a promise; but that supporting the Czechs was the Christian thing to do. Alan suppresses his disagreement with all this and thanks him.

This segues into a really good scene where Alan tries to get one of the last of the masters, Benson, to sign, and the man turns out to be a Christian pacifist, a really thorough-going and intelligent pacifist. For pages (pp.249- ) Upward stages a very stimulating debate between the two sides – we must stand up to Hitler versus violence only begets violence, look at the last war where both sides ended up losers; except now it will be fought with much more destructive weapons.

What makes In The Thirties so enjoyable is that Upward gives his ideological opponents a very fair crack of the whip. Like the extended debate with Aldershaw, this one with Benson forces Alan onto the defensive. When he says the final war of communism which overthrows capitalism will lead to a world of perpetual peace, he can hear how unbelievable it sounds, and Benson scores a big point when he says that, even if communism did triumph the world over, the communists would fall out with themselves as they already had in Moscow.

As he works his way systematically through the arguments, Upward forces you to consider which side you would have been on. In autumn 1938 would you have encouraged Britain to enter into a catastrophic war simply to uphold France’s treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia?

In fact the argument takes on a surreal twist because when Alan insists on the necessity of struggle, that struggle defines and will always define humanity, they both end up speculating about humanity carrying that struggle on into outer space, into colonising the planets and so on, as the conversation strays into H.G. Wells territory. Benson refuses on principle to sign anything which might provoke violence. Not only that but he points out, quite simply, that it the precious letter will never be read or, if it is, chucked in the waste bin.

A few days later Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement and returns home promising peace in our time. Alan is disgusted, convinced that such kowtowing to Hitler makes Chamberlain and his cabinet more than appeasers but active allies of fascism.

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

‘Nearly ten months after Munich’ i.e. July 1939.

The concluding chapter is deliberately and carefully lyrical. It is set entirely in a ramble by a large group of communist party members in the North Downs. Alan is with Elsie and quite a few others. As they climb into a wood Alan notices, with the same kind of intensity he had had back on the Isle of Wight, the extraordinary variety of shapes made by trees and branches, old and new. Light plays amid the branches and he is suddenly seized by a sense of poetry, that there is a spirit in the woods, some special message, but it won’t come.

Only when they emerge from the woods and all camp down to eat their sandwiches and drink coffee from thermos flasks, does it come to him. To some extent, throughout the book, his strong sense of a poetic vocation had been set against the iron logic and demanding work of the party. Now, suddenly, the two are reconciled, the two modes of thinking become one and he has an uplifting and inspiring vision of the future.

As he sat and continued looking up at the trees, he could not suppress a contrary and a stronger feeling, a gladness, a conviction that the poetic life was not a fraud, not a mirage, was good, was possible. It was possible because he knew from within himself that he was capable of it…

A time would come when human beings would know how to remove the social obstacles which they themselves had been forced to set up against happiness. Then the poetic life could be lived – though he would be dead – by others whose inborn bent would be similar to his. There would be a world in which everyone would have freedom for self-fulfilment, would be expected, would have the prime social duty to become whatever he was born to be. (p.272)

Here on a sunny slope, surrounded by friends and party members, he has an utterly optimistic view of the future. He wants to share it with his wife and – typically – spends some time trying to find just the right words, not sentimental, not patronising, that would express just what he feels for her. He leans over and tells Elsie:

‘I’ve been thinking how admirable you are.’ (p.274)


Details

I slowly came to appreciate Upward’s way with very carefully imagined and precisely described scenes. To give a small example, it takes a couple of pages to describe Alan trying to persuade a sceptical Brook to sign the letter. When he does, Brook takes it from his hands and presses it up against the wall of the school corridor to sign. Except that the school walls are covered in roughcast render and Alan immediately sees that if he tries to write on it, Brook will inevitably tear the paper with his pen. Quick as a flash, he proffers the schoolbook he’s holding in his hand, for Brook to use to write on. Suddenly I could see and almost feel the texture of that roughcast wall, and felt the sudden panic in Alan’s mind that his petition would be torn and ruined.

The novel is full of hundreds of little details like that, which add verisimilitude and clarity to the scenes and situations, making them that much more imaginable and enjoyable.

The rasping of Alan’s shoes against the brickwork of Peg’s aunt’s house as he humiliatingly pulls himself up and through the scullery window is more closely described than the act of sex which, apparently, follows it.

And the reader is reminded of the intense passage back at the start when Richard and Alan go walking along the shoreline intensely noticing everything, leaves, shells, rock shapes, strata, waves.

Upward is well aware that it’s a feature of his style. He even makes a joke about it at the end of the book. After the passage where Alan has made an enormous list of the different shapes and analogies the tree trunks remind him of, he realises:

He had lost the excitement of the wood in the interesting detail of the trees…

In other words, he quite literally can’t see the wood for the trees. But it’s OK. In the euphoric final pages of the novel, details and overall narrative are integrated, the poetic life becomes one with the struggle for a better future, the details and the pattern coalesce – he can see the wood and the trees.

Politics

There is a great deal of thinking about communism in the book. Alan starts by expressing an inchoate longing for the certainties of communist doctrine, then turns up ready with thoughts to his first meeting, and then listens to other communists debating current politics. He himself gets caught up in political arguments, namely the two extended arguments. 1. with Aldershaw which amounts to a checklist of objections to communism and their refutations and 2. with Benson when he really struggles to combat Benson’s powerfully consistent Christian pacifism.

Any time he’s with other party members, even with the party member who becomes his girlfriend (Elsie) the subject is likely to change at the drop of a hat into an extended Marxist analysis of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, or musings about party policy, or how a good communist ought to behave.

Communism dominates the book. It is a novel about an idealistic young communist.

Indeed it’s a striking feature of the book that, whereas the Alan character is depicted as hopelessly confused, self-conscious, timorous and clumsy, the political speeches given to the characters are solid, thoughtful pieces which stand up to analysis even 60 years later.

I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the book isn’t really from the 1930s but was published in 1962 i.e. Upward had had 30 long years to mull over these issues, to see what the unknown future turned out to hold in story, to read, study and listen to Marxist thinkers cleverer and clearer-minded than him.

However, coming fresh from reading Ian Kershaw’s magisterial survey of European history in the 1920s an 30s – To Hell and Back – what interested me was the logic of the communists’ opposition to socialists, a fundamental problem with The Left throughout the period which Kershaw sees as one of the causes of the rise of Fascism.

Because the communists have an iron-strict confidence they are the side of History and the Future, they despise any softening of their calls for the complete and utter overthrow of the system. It is fascinating to read the historical interpretation that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could and should have spread to Europe, and was only stopped by the Social Democrats. Here is party member Willy Dean Ayres explaining:

The only way out from this present crisis was by proletarian revolution and by the abolition of the capitalist system, which was strangling the forces of production, and this way could and should have been taken all over Europe during the period following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. What had prevented it from being taken? Mainly the political attitude of the Social Democrats, who instead of co-operating with the Communists had preferred to try to help capitalism to its feet again and had even been responsible for the suppression by violence of workers’ risings. The Social-Democrats had acted as the faithful backers of senile capitalism, but later, when the crisis deepened and disillusionment began to spread among those sections of the working class who had hitherto trusted them, they were no longer useful to the capitalists. ‘Capitalism in extreme decay,’ Dean Ayres was at the moment saying, ‘is forced to use other means, more openly dictatorial and more crudely demagogic, to maintain itself in power. The Social-Democratic hostility to revolution brings not a gradual progress towards Socialism but – as we have seen in Italy and recently in Germany – the temporary victory of Fascism.’ (p.135)

I, as a left-liberal, read Kershaw’s analysis as tending to blame the hard-line communists for the splits which so weakened the Left during these crucial years. And there’s no doubt from all the objective accounts of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with George Orwell’s, that it was the Stalinist hard-line of the communist party which prompted it to attack the anarchist party in Barcelona and led to the localised but intense and bitter civil war between the parties of the Left, which Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

So it’s fascinating to read, in lots of places throughout this book, the opposite point of view being presented – that the communists were the only real force capable of a) overthrowing capitalism and b) taking on fascism, and that it was the fatal weakness of social democrats propping up the defunct capitalist system which a) dragged out its demise unnecessarily b) left so many working people so immiserated that they threw in their lot with the fascists and their easy promises of renewal.

Fascinating to read that other side of the argument put with logical and imaginative conviction.

Credit

In The Thirties by Edward Upward was published in 1962 by William Heinemann. I read the 1969 Penguin paperback. References are to the online version, see below.


Related links

It’s symptomatic that none of the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent appears to be in print. You can pick up the first volume on Amazon for as little as £4 second-hand, but each successive volume seems to double in price. My Penguin copy cost £1 in Oxfam. Or you can download all three novels in the series from the The Spiral Ascent website.

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

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