Impressionists in London @ Tate Britain

Mention ‘impressionism’ and the ears of a million grey-haired ladies across the Home Counties prick up. Coach parties are organised, lunch dates diarised and crowds descend. I got there ten minutes after opening time and this EY Exhibition of ‘Impressionists in London’ was already so packed you couldn’t see some of the exhibits.

Still, it’s a hugely enjoyable show, a chocolate box full of old favourites and new wonders, many loaned from private collections and so only available to view this once.

Disparate themes

The most striking thing is the way the curators have managed to pack into the eight and a bit rooms of the downstairs exhibition space at Tate Britain about four different themes or ideas, a good deal of which – maybe half – has nothing at all to do with impressionism.

First there’s a room entirely about the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), linking on to one about the early experiences of the French painters who fled to England.

Then there are three rooms about artists who are in no way impressionists: James Tissot, Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

It’s only in room five that we finally get to see impressionists paintings in significant numbers, with depictions of London and surrounding suburbs by the likes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley.

Room six is a small space devoted to Whistler, poet of London fogs.

Room seven is, from the impressionist addict’s point of view, the highlight, with eight big canvases by Monet at the height of his powers depicting the Thames and Houses of Parliament, through London fogs, with the shimmering orange sun at various heights and angles. Most of them appear to be on loan from private collections i.e. this is a unique opportunity to see them. This is the Room of Rooms.

The show could easily have ended there, but in an odd postscript, or ‘coda’ as the curators call it, they have hung three super-vibrant works by the Fauvist painter André Derain, who was commissioned in 1906 to paint London scenes.

Acknowledging his debt to Monet, Derain painted many of the same scenes as the master had in  his London series, but in a completely different style, using the wild vibrant colours of the Fauves.

The curators’ idea is to demonstrate how certain views in London – specifically the House of Parliament from the river – became a recurring motif in French art, and almost a kind of manifesto in which succeeding generations of artists declared their colours (literally) by doing their version of London.

Nice idea, maybe, but the small white room and wild colours were quite a change of gear after the mushroom-coloured walls and muted lighting of the Monet room.

So, let’s start at the beginning:

The Franco-Prussian War and the Commune

The Emperor Napoleon III of France was fool enough to let himself be goaded by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia into declaring war in July 1870. All Europe thought the vast and gaily coloured French army would stomp the Germans, but the reverse happened. The Prussians slaughtered the French at a series of lightning strikes into France, demolishing their main army at the Battle of Sedan and eventually marching all the way to Paris. The Emperor abdicated and fled to England. The government fled to Versailles. The Second Empire was over. The Germans besieged Paris for three terrible months at the end of which the government (in exile in Versailles) surrendered. The Germans marched up and down the Champs Elysees then retired to positions surrounding the city. At which point a bloody uprising took place within Paris, led by proto-communists who set up a Commune. First they went on the warpath, trying and executing their political opponents. Then the French army set about recapturing Paris from the revolutionaries, a battle which descended into fierce street-to-street fighting, followed by summary reprisals and executions. In just one week some 20,000 civilians died. Nightmare.

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

I’ve described the events at length in reviews of two classic books on the subject.

The first room of the exhibition collects together illustrations of the war and of the Bloody Week at the end of the Commune during which some 3,000 Parisians were massacred. They include a haunting symbolic painting by Corot, a set of early photographs of the ruins (apparently, a book was published titled A Guide Through The Ruins of Paris). There are some excellent prints by James Tissot, who served as a stretcher bearer, of injured soldiers and makeshift hospitals.

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

There are some vivid sketches done in charcoal on paper by Manet who witnessed shooting squads at first hand. Apparently, he had a nervous breakdown.

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Emigres and exiles in England

Thousands of French nationals fled to England, then, as later, a sanctuary from violent mayhem on the Continent. Among their number were many of the painters who would go on to form the core of the Impressionist movement.

(N.B. The impressionists got their name in 1874 when the satirical Parisian magazine Charivari singled out qualities of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, to form the basis of a witheringly satirical view of the first joint exhibition which Degas, Monet et al, held in 1874. The name ‘impressionist’ stuck and spread to all the painters involved. I.e. at the time they fled to England and painted London, none of these painters were known as or thought of themselves as ‘impressionists’ and there was no such movement as ‘impressionism’).

The room explaining this includes the fairly well-known paintings Camille Pissarro did of Sydenham and Dulwich, familiar because they are owned by the National Gallery and are routinely trotted out for this kind of show. Poor Pissarro lost his entire life’s work in the war when his house was taken over by the Prussian army and ransacked, paintings used as kindling for fires or to wipe soldiers’ bottoms.

The exhibition is heavy on biography and anecdote. Besides the usual room introduction and wall labels for each painting, each room also includes biographical panels about specific artists, often very interesting.

Monet also moved to London, fleeing conscription with Mrs Monet, who he had only just married. He didn’t paint much because apparently he didn’t have enough money to buy materials.

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 - 1871) Claude Monet

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 – 1871) Claude Monet

The commentary picks up on the Japanese vase on the mantlepiece, hinting at the massive influence of Japanese decoration and design on this generation. I was more impressed by the rucked-up folds of the chintz sofa. God, you can smell the dust and mustiness.

James Tissot

To my immense surprise, room three is devoted to lots of wonderful works by James Tissot (with a Millais (The Huguenot) thrown in, because Millais was among the English artists who helped James) and several paintings by Giusseppe de Nittis, who I’d never heard of before. De Nittis was a friend of Tissot’s, like him, became a member of the select Arts Club in Hanover Square and, like him, painted large, super-realistic pictures of modern English life and urban landscapes, though Tissot tended to focus on River Thames-based scenes whereas de Nittis liked the grimy streets.

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

When I was a teenager I was mad about the Impressionists and rejected everything else – but over the years I’ve come to appreciate late-Victorian art, whether its anecdotal realism or pre-Raphaelite visions or the strain of high aestheticism which mutated into the Roman fantasies of the so-called ‘Olympian’ painters (Leighton, Alma-Tadema et al). And, despite being French, Tissot and de Nittis fit right into that world.

Tissot covered a range of subjects:

Tissot may well have been French, and he was certainly a refugee from the war, and I really enjoyed getting to see a dozen or so of his wonderfully naturalistic paintings, as well as some intriguing prints of the East End of the Thames – but he is no impressionist, almost the opposite. He was painting nin the highly naturalistic style of the Salon painters of his day, albeit of everyday folk, not heroes and historical figures.

And the same is even more true of the subjects of the next two rooms. They are not impressionists at all.

Alphonse Legros had settled in London in 1863 where he became friends with luminaries of the art world such as Whistler, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts. He was appointed Slade Professor of Art in 1876 and so, as a well-established and well-connected artist he was a port of call for the impoverished young painters fleeing Paris. He was especially supportive of the Communard sculptor Jules Dalou and so this is a pretext for the room to feature a number of big sculptures by Dalou.

Thus every piece in this big room tells a story about Legros’ network of friends and connections in the London art world, which are all interesting, biographical snippets and anecdotes (the portrait Laurence Alma-Tadema did of Dalou, his wife and daughter which was reciprocated by a bust Dalou did of Alma-Tadema’s wife, Laura). Legros and Dalou were instrumental in introducing the work of the young Rodin to the British, and this justifies the presence of a rather wonderful portrait of Rodin.

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

All very interesting, but almost the opposite of impressionism – extremely realistic, figurative Salon art.

Which is even more true of the room about the most famous sculptor of the Second Empire (1853-1870), Jean-Baptiste Carpaux who arrived in England in March 1871, shortly before the defeated and overthrown French emperor Napoleon III.

Once again, we are given a lot of detail about the social networks he brought with him from France and the patrons and collectors he soon found in London. The biggest thing in this room is his sculpture of Flora.

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

When I saw that this statue is owned by Tate I had a strong sense of déjà vu, remembering the long line of exhibitions at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust, Folk Art) which have often seemed like excuses to dust off some of the more obscure and unfashionable items in their vast collection and find a pretext to put them on display.

Fair enough, in a way, since they do have a remit to show and display the collection. And it would explain what Carpeaux, Legros and Tissot are doing in an exhibition ostensibly about impressionism. The exhibitions sub-title, French Artists in Exile, is a far more accurate description of the central half of this show.

British society through outsiders’ eyes

After all this polite and decorous Salon art it is quite a shock to walk into the next room, which genuinely is filled with impressionist art, with painters like Monet, Sisley and Pissarro depicting scenes like Kew Gardens, Westminster bridge, Hampton Court and so on.

Pissarro rented a flat at Kew Green (I used to walk past the blue plaque on the wall on the way to work) which he used as a base to paint Kew Green, St Anne’s church and the environs.

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Sisley painted rowers at Hampton Court bridge (the label points out that he avoided painting the historic Court whatsoever, but instead used the relatively new cast-iron bridge as a key element in the design. Despite their dreamy reputation today, it’s always worth remembering that the impressionists painted the contemporary world.)

Monet painted Hyde Park and the rhododendron walk at Kew Gardens.

But still mixed in among these authentic impressionist works, were a number of further hyper-realistic scenes by Tissot and de Nittis. We learn in this room that de Nittis, in particular, was commissioned to paint twelve large street scenes of London by his patron Kaye Knowles. They are highly evocative and totally naturalistic.

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

I doubt if it was the intention but putting the hyper-realism of de Nittis and Tissot in the same room as the soft impressionism of Sisley, Pissarro and Monet sort of prompts the visitor to choose: which vision of the world do you prefer?

Which do you prefer?

The fog master

Oscar Wilde asserted the primacy of art over life in his 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say they were. But no one saw them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.

I laughed out loud when the audio guide claimed that the American expatriate artist in London, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was the master of fogs, or the Fog Master. Thus this room shows a trio of Whistler’s nocturnes, the Thames through evening fogs.

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

I know they’re famous but I’ve never really liked them. I prefer Whistler’s women, like the Symphony in white, or his etchings of ramshackle London slums, which I saw in an exhibition some years ago. Again, the exhibition contrasted hard core impressionist works with the realist Tissot (surely there’s more Tissot here than any other painter).

I feel like I’m failing some kind of aesthetic test, but it was the realists I preferred.

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Monet’s Thames series

Around his 60th birthday (1900) Monet expressed an interest in exploring earlier motifs ‘to sum up impressions and sensations of the past’. For three consecutive winters (1899, 1890, 1901) he took rooms in the Savoy Hotel and painted the River Thames. At one point he had some 100 canvases on the go at the same time. Imagine the visual sensation of walking into those rooms!

Eight of them are gathered here, many from private collections, hung in a room with dimmed lighting on mushroom-coloured walls and the effect is completely magical. What a genius. From the envelop of London fog the orange sun appears, in some paintings high and dominant, in others remote and wintry, in some not in vision but casting a refulgent light over the foggy silhouette of the House of Parliament.

It’s worth the admission price just to be able to walk round this room inspecting each painting carefully, and then sitting quietly, letting the achievement of the Impression Master, the luxe, calme et volupté, really sink in.

Derain

The show could easily have stopped at this climax, letting the dazed visitor stumble out into the cold light of day with visions of Monet swirling round their minds. Instead there is this odd ‘coda’, a white room displaying three vibrant, bright paintings by the Fauvist painter André Derain designed to make the point that London landscapes remained a kind of litmus test of the vision and style of French artists. Derain explicitly mentioned the Monet London series in correspondence about his set, but then goes on to defend his own very different style.

It’s a vivid if slightly odd end to an exhibition which feels like it has only intermittently been about the impressionists.

Again, I failed the impressionist test, by preferring the Derain to most of the Sisley and Pissarro, which I nowadays find a little washed-out and pallid.

Conclusion

Looking back, it’s an odd, uneven exhibition but:

  • it contains a whole load of sumptuous wonderful paintings, many many works of really stunning beauty
  • it does give a strong sense of the artistic networks among French exiles and emigres in England, before during and after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War
  • and it allows you to compare and contrast a range of artistic styles and visions available around the 1870s, prompting you to decide which ones you like, and why
Installation view of the Tissot room

Installation view of the Tissot room (with Millais’s The Huguenot in the middle)

Impressionist merchandise

My daughter is 16. When she goes to gigs she and her friends always buy a few pieces of merchandise, or ‘merch’. As usual, I was staggered by the amount of merch you can get at art exhibitions these days. Just for Derain, one of his vibrant London scenes was available on a scarf, a bag, a glasses case, a jigsaw, you could buy a Derain coaster, table mat, fridge magnet, mug, print, shortbread tin, tea towel, key ring, book mark, oyster card holder, tea tray, post card or set of postcards. Same for Monet and Whistler, whose foggy bridge image was available as all the above plus lavender soap, a ring, a pair of ear rings, a pocket mirror, a diary and calendar.

I do find it funny that there is also a special Impressionist lunch available to accompany your visit, as well as a cheese and wine pop-up, and a one-off ‘Taste of France’ experience.

Desire

The audio guide by curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons is admirably informative, clear and sensible. I thought I’d got right to the end of a contemporary exhibition without anyone mentioning sex, eroticism, bodies, gender or desire, but I see that, among all the talks and events to accompany the show, there is one on ‘Buildings and Bodies in France and London’: a ‘discussion on how gender and sexuality have shaped experiences of London and Paris’. Phew. They managed to squeeze it in.

Video

Here’s a BBC report on the show, featuring co-curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons.


Related links

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Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


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Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951)

The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. (p.248)

Camus was already one of the leading writers of his day when he published his long philosophical essay, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, in 1951. Many critics consider it his best and most important book. At 270 pages in this Penguin translation, The Rebel is well over twice the length of his previous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. It is a very long recapitulation of the history of political violence from the French Revolution to Stalin’s show trials, designed to refute arguments for revolutionary violence or state terror, and to affirm positive, humanistic values.

But because it comes out of the French tradition it takes a long time to do all this, in sentences often convoluted with philosophical attitudinising and verbal paradox. It gives a lot more credence and leeway to the exponents of political violence than you’d expect – as the French left-wing tradition generally does.

Above all, it is framed in terms of Camus’s own rather personal ‘philosophy’ or vision or worldview of the Absurd. It attempts – despite what often seem like long detours into the works of Hegel or the meaning of the contemporary novel – to create one continuous logical argument which starts in Camus’s vision of the Absurd and ends with an (admittedly embattled) affirmation of humanism.

The Rebel’s place in Camus’s works

One of the introductions to Camus explains that while still in his twenties, he developed a Grand Plan for his writing career. He would consecutively address major topics or issues of the day – and depict each one via the differing formats of a novel, an essay and a play.

The first topic was his early philosophy of the Absurd, his semi-nihilistic belief in the absurdity of human existence which he developed during the late 1930s. The resulting ‘cycle of the Absurd’, the works which define and explore all its implications, are the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the play Caligula and the novel The Outsider, all written about 1940.

10 years later, in his introduction to The Rebel, Camus is able to look back and describe The Myth of Sisyphus as being very much a response to its time, which he calls the ‘Age of Negation’. Not being a historian he doesn’t give precise dates but is presumably referring to the period between the wars with its pessimistic and even nihilistic political and philosophical culture – Spengler, Heidegger and so on. For Camus the central question of this period of ‘humiliated thought’ was whether life was worth living at all in a ‘godless universe’, epitomised in the issue of suicide. If there is no God, and life is meaningless, why go on? This is the central subject of the Myth of Sisyphus.

At the start of The Rebel, Camus says that now, in 1951, he and his readers are living in a new era, the post-Second World War era which he describes as ‘the Age of Ideologies’, an era which has seen the uprooting, enslavement and murder of some seventy million human beings, an era of:

slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman… (p.12)

Things have moved on from worrying about suicide. Now the central question of the day is whether we – whether anyone – has the right to murder their opponents. Is the widespread culture of political murder at all justified – because it is certainly the political culture of Europe.

Every dawn, masked assassins slip into some cell: murder is the problem today. (p.12)

Why murder?

How does that follow? Why is murder, and specifically political murder, worth writing a 270-page long essay?

Because in 1951 many leading intellectuals of the day, and organised workers’ parties all across Europe, saw the communist party as the only way out of the dead-end of failed capitalism, the only alternative to the bankrupt bourgeois values which had characterised the 1930s and which had been shattered to pieces during the unspeakable catastrophe of the world war.

Many intellectuals and a huge number of the working class joined the communist party and voted communist despite knowing that the revolution it calls for entails violence, suffering and death – in short, for political murder. Political murder is at the core of the communist revolution which so many of Camus’s contemporaries were calling for – so it really was a central and very pressing question: Can political murder ever be justified?

Camus’s answer is ‘No’. He reaches this conclusion through two routes: a purely philosophical argument about the nature of human existence, and via his long historical review which is designed to bring out the nihilism and murderous tendencies of all totalising revolutions, which he opposes to his own person concept of revolt or rebellion.

1. The philosophy of the Absurd validates all human life

To take the philosophical argument first, Camus sets out to make a philosophical case against political murder and for the sanctity of human life. To follow it we have to go back to his reflections on suicide, which he recaps early in The Rebel.

Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ – that the universe is blankly indifferent to our longing for meaning and consolation – logically requires two components: the subjectivity which wishes for meaning, and the universe which is indifferent to it. Like two plus two makes four, both parts must be present for the equation to exist.

1. Now, to commit suicide would be irrational because it would remove part of the Absurd equation.

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises.

To say that life is absurd – one must first be alive.

Absurd reasoning thus recognises life, human life, as an irreplaceable component of the Absurd equation. Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd requires human life for it to exist. Human life is an irreducible requirement of Absurdity. You have to fully accept and buy into this premise to follow what comes next.

2. Because the moment it recognises this basic premise, Absurd reasoning also recognises the importance of all human life.

The moment life is recognised as a necessary good, it becomes so for all men…

Absurd reasoning validates all human lives.

3. Then Camus takes a big leap –

Murder and suicide are the same thing; one must accept them both or reject them both. (p.14)

His Absurd philosophy of revolt embraces all life. He is vehemently opposed to nihilistic thought because it not only tempts people to suicide – but by denying the importance of life it simultaneously tempts people to murder. If life has absolutely no meaning, not only suicide is possible, but murder, too.

You can see what he’s trying to do here – build the validation of all human life up from the pit of despair.

Going down into the depths of psychological anguish, into the blackest pit of suicidal misery, Camus grapples with the apparent ‘solution’ of suicide and rejects it – because suicide destroys the premise of the worldview which drove you to suicide in the first place. Committing suicide because of your sense of the Absurd would destroy the Absurd. It would be logically self-contradictory. And by recognising that life, human existence, is a vital component of the philosophy of the Absurd, you recognise that value for everyone – you acknowledge that all human life is vital.

And if you reject suicide – one form of the denial of life – you must also reject its fellow, its partner, its equal in denying the value of life. You must reject any form of murder.

(In the kind of tangential insight with which the book abounds, Camus points out that history provides many examples of the intimate link between suicide and mass murder. The example fresh in everyone’s minds in the post-war era was the way the mass murder of the Nazis culminated in the mass suicide of the Nazi leadership, huddled in their bunker, passing out the cyanide pills. Suicide and murder both stem from a profound negation of all human values. In the German language the connection is more obvious – the word for suicide is Selbstmord, literally meaning ‘self-murder’But Camus’s insight also made me think of all those people in our time who go on a killing spree at their local high school or shopping mall before turning their guns on themselves. Or the men who kill their wives and children and then themselves. Yes, many suicides may be solitary acts, but a certain number do seem to involve the nihilist deciding that they will – that they must – take out as many other people as possible before killing themselves.)

If Camus’s argument is a little hard to follow I think it’s because it is in many places more willed than really argued or thoroughly proved. But by repeating it again and again Camus wants to make it so, and it was only by reading it again and again, in numerous reformulations, that I began to accede to its emotional logic.

To repeat: The entire book is devoted to showing that from the ruins of a post-theological waste land, bereft of God or any transcendental source of moral values, Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd offers a reasoned, logical set of steps to help people affirm the value of their own lives – and then of everyone’s lives – and then to create a morality based on self-knowledge and a realistic assessment of the limits of human freedom and power.

2. A historical review of revolutionary nihilism

This philosophical argument is most clearly spelled out in the book’s first 20 pages (though he then invokes it repeatedly at key points throughout the text).

The next 250 pages are mostly devoted to a historical account designed to show how the revolutionary absolutism which stems from the Enlightenment – by overthrowing God and by claiming no limits to abstract ideas of human freedom, human virtue, human achievement or whatever – unwittingly undermine the practical freedoms of real flesh and blood people in the here and now. Camus goes back to the 18th century to examine the thought of a succession of European writers – thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche – having dispensed with God, struggled to identify an alternative source of ‘values’, and to define the nature of man’s freedom.

Camus’s review shows how, for thinker after thinker, this meant freedom from all restraints. But he shows how freedom from all restraints, a purely abstract and total concept of human freedom, tends to lead to freedom from respecting other people’s freedom. Ignoring the autonomy or rights of other people. It ends in tyranny.

Thus the Marquis de Sade takes the theory of personal sexual freedom to the limits and beyond, but discovers that his untamed appetites require an infinite number of men to torture and kill and women to use and destroy.

Similarly, Camus shows how the revolutionary Virtue of Saint-Just, the outspoken apologist for the French Revolutionary Terror, defeats itself. The Jacobins demanded an impossible level of ‘revolutionary’ purity from the people but instead found weakness and treachery everywhere, and was led to an downward spiral of violence, guillotining criminals and counter-revolutionaries by the cartload, in what became known as The Terror, until the people – or at least their political representatives – overthrew the Government of the Virtuous in the name of government of the practical – and the exponents of state execution – Saint-Just, Robespierre and their colleagues – were themselves executed by the unforgiving state they had created.

150 years later the Bolsheviks asserted that the proletariat must be led to freedom by a communist party, stripped of any sentimentality or bourgeois morality, which reserves the right to punish anyone hesitating or questioning its right to rule and lead humanity to its promised utopia. By identifying itself with the unstoppable force of History, the Party claims total control of human reality. Anyone questioning it must, of course, be eliminated.

And so his historical survey shows that:

All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler. (p.146)

The same logic which drives Stalinism, also drove Hitlerism – it is the attempt to place every single individual in a society under the control of one totalising value (History, the proletariat, the Volk, whatever).

The book really lifts off when it gives a long explanation of the preposterous totalising ambitions of the German philosopher Hegel – and then takes this criticism on into a devastating critique of Karl Marx and the Communist Parties he inspired.

This anti-Marx section is full of all sorts of insights and angles – I was particularly struck by the way Camus claims that lots of Marx’s insights were the common currency of his time: the economic analysis of capitalism had already been established by the bourgeois economist Ricardo; the appalling conditions of the industrial proletariat were copied from British Government reports; a blind belief in the power of an ever-improving science and technology to transform humanity was a truism among bourgeois propagandists of his day.

For Camus, Marx’s great failure was his vagueness, his changing opinions, his contradictory statements about the single most important element of his vast political philosophy – just how and when the dictatorship of the proletariat would end and the utopia of the classless society begin.

The lack of any definition on this crucial point in effect gives carte blanche to the communist party which leads the ‘revolution’ to rule forever. Also since – as he shows – almost all revolutionary regimes provoke or are subject to war (the French Revolutionary regime declared war on all the kings f Europe, the Commune of 1870 only occurred because of the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian Revolutionaries called for world revolution), they almost inevitably rule under the embattled conditions of wartime, which justify them in taking the most drastic security measures necessary. Forever.

Camus is echoing George Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian party of the future with its jackboot crushing a human face. Forever.

3. Camus opposes tyrannical revolution with his own idea of limited rebellion

Is there an alternative? Yes. For as the book progresses, in each of the detailed analyses of European thinkers, Camus distinguishes between the post-theological revolution, in the name of some Absolute Value, like Virtue or History or Das Volk, which is always bound to fail and end in repression – and his own, much more personal notion of revolt or rebellion against man’s fate, against the human condition and so on but which – crucially – respects the limits of the humanly possible.

If rebellion could found a philosophy it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. (p.253)

Rebellion, by virtue of the way Camus has defined it, must acknowledge its limits and respect the freedom of others. Rebellion cannot give itself to any totalising ideology because it is a permanent tension, a permanent opposition to human fate and destiny, which also opposes all impositions on the human spirit.

Absolute revolution supposes the absolute malleability of human nature and its possible reduction to the condition of a historical force. But rebellion, in man, is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men, which eludes the world of power. History, undoubtedly, is one of the limits of man’s experience; in this sense the revolutionaries are right. But man, by rebelling, imposes in his turn a limit to history, and at this limit the promise of a value is born. It is the birth of this value that the Caesarian [i.e. communist] revolution implacably combats today because it presages its final defeat and the obligation to renounce its principles. The fate of the world is not being played out at present, as it seemed it would be, in the struggle between bourgeois production and revolutionary production; their end results will be the same. It is being played out between the forces of rebellion and those of the Caesarian revolution. The triumphant revolution must prove by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications that there is no such thing as human nature. Humiliated rebellion, by its contradictions, its sufferings, its continuous defeats, and its inexhaustible pride, must give its content of hope and suffering to this nature. (p.216)

There are lots of ways of parsing this fundamental dichotomy (and Camus works through them with fascinating and sometimes bewildering thoroughness).

One key aspect, mentioned in the excerpt above, is that the totalitarians believe there is no such thing as human nature – that human beings are infinitely malleable and so can be turned into Model Workers (which Camus interprets as Unquestioning Slaves). By contrast, Camus asserts that there is such a thing as human nature and that at its core is revolt, revolt against the apparent futility of human destiny, against the apparent meaningless of life in a godless universe, revolt in favour of life.

(You can see how this would have alienated Camus’s ‘frenemy’, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existentialism is based on exactly the opposite premise – that there is no human nature and that, as a result, everyone is ‘condemned’ to absolute freedom and that we all create ourselves with our free choices. We cannot blame any pre-existing human nature for limiting our decisions: our decisions are ours and ours alone to justify and bear.)

Camus continues that this personal revolt against death translates into the social value of rebellion, rebellion against any one totalising ideology which is imposed on it, and – consistent with its origin in the Absurd – rebellion against death in all its forms. Rebellion into life, if you like.

Another way of thinking about it is to address that old chestnut: Do the ends (a communist utopia in some remote future) justify the means (terrorising society in the here and now)?

As you might expect by now, Camus’s answer is a resolute No. He goes to great lengths in the long sections on Hegel and then Marx to demonstrate that both these German thinkers take the Absolute Value formerly attributed to Christian theology and reassign it to new entities: to the progress of the World Spirit in Hegel, or to Marx’s concept of History conceived of as an unstoppable machine moving through successive stages of social relationships up until the advent of capitalist society which will itself, with unstoppable inevitability, give rise to the revolution, the triumph of the proletariat and the End of History coinciding with Paradise for All.

The mistake of both of them, according to Camus, is to preserve the Totalising and Transcendent Value derived from Christianity and attribute it to utterly abstract, inhuman Ideas. With hideous inevitability, you end up sacrificing real people to an unreal inhuman Idea, an Idea (the end of history) which can never be attained because it isn’t real. This is another way of saying that communist repression would be, potentially, forever, because it is based on working towards an impossible Ideal which will never arrive.

Instead, argues Camus, you must start from a realistic assessment of fragile, limited, actual human nature which – for him – has at its irreducible core, this one notion, this movement, this gesture, this impulse, to revolt, to rebel against death in favour of life, to cling on, to survive, to battle and overcome.

A realistic political programme can only be based on this vision of mediating between countless conflicting wills. (Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, this is obviously a philosophical underpinning for the idea of democracy).

Back to ends and means. Camus very neatly says the question isn’t, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ Given that there is in fact no end – there is no ‘end of history’, no final revolution, no paradise and no utopia – the real question is, ‘Do the means justify the end?’

In other words, you should judge the (purely notional and maybe unattainable) outcomes of a political system by its effects here and now. In which case, the permanent terror state and political murder practiced by all the communist regimes is quite clearly the exact opposite of the freedom, peace, security and justice which they preach. Judged by their means – by the methods they are using, the values they are putting in practice in the here and now – whatever ‘end’ they claim to be holding on for cannot possibly be justified.

When the end is absolute, historically speaking, and when it is believed certain of realization, it is possible to go so far as to sacrifice others. When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common dignity of man. Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought [communist theory] leaves pending, rebellion [Camus’s philosophy] replies: the means.

Reversing the usual order, Camus says the end itself – if deprived of some kind of supernatural underpinning, if deprived of the German ideological conviction that the end is the guaranteed moment when History comes to an end in the triumph of the World Spirit (Hegel) or the classless society (Marx) – if there is never in fact going to be an end — then all you are left with is the means. And if the means – the entire methodology of political murder and state terrorism – are rotten, then so are the ends.

He doesn’t say this but it occurs to me that the means are the ends, because there are no ends. History will never ‘end’. There will be no classless society or reign of the Just. It’ll just carry on in the same kind of way. Meanwhile, all we have is the means. The means is how we will be judged.

Conclusion of Camus’s argument against political murder

Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd insists on the value of human life. The individual’s revolt against the absurdity of the human condition transfers, on a social level, into men’s general rebellion against nihilistic systems of thought and against the vicious oppression which follows in their train.

History testifies, in fact, to the irreducible human spirit of rebellion throughout the ages.

But where this rebellion has turned into, or been commandeered by, the totalising and nihilistic values of revolution, it always ends in disaster – in war, state terror, torture and mass murder – in repressive regimes worse than the ones the revolutionaries set out to overthrow.

The philosophy of the Absurd – and the act of rebellion – by their very nature are against murder and political murder. They are not only for human life, they logically require human life to exist and to be respected.

Thus, via both his philosophical argument and his long review of European history, Camus hopes to demonstrate that human nature, and human values, will always revolt against the totalising oppression – and political terrorism – entailed by the inhuman absolutism of ideologically-driven ‘revolution’.

Although it begins as an ostensible investigation of the problem of political murder, this is where The Rebel ends up – as an impassioned defense of the fundamental human act of revolt against individual destiny and against social oppression. And this explains and justifies the title – L’Homme révolté.

(It’s a shame the force and power of the phrase L’Homme révolté is not really captured in the English translation of The Rebel. The literal translation of ‘The Revolted Man’ means something quite different. Revolutionary Man is the extreme opposite of what is intended, since the values of ‘revolution’ are portrayed throughout the book as the ultimate betrayal of humanity. Some editions of the book have a sub-title, Man in Revolt, which seems better to me than the nominal title.)

Earning the right

From our Anglo-Saxon point of view, it takes Camus 270 pages to arrive at a version of liberal humanism with a respect for universal human rights which many other people (for example, most Americans) never questioned to begin with.

So where’s the achievement?

Well, what made the book so important in its time was that it started out from absolutely nothing, from a crushing sense of the absurd meaninglessness of life – from the place of profound depression and moral devastation which afflicted many millions of Europeans after the horrors of the Second World War – and also takes account of the very real threat of the communist party, not only in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe but in the West, in Italy and France in particular, imposing its rule by terror and political violence – it starts in a stricken and embattled place which is difficult for British and American readers to really appreciate — and then it claws its way on a long, difficult odyssey upwards, through the long litany of betrayal by European thinkers and revolutionaries, before finally arriving at these hard-won conclusions.

We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, page 59)

The Rebel isn’t complacent. It earns its arrival at a morality of common decency. It has worked its passage.

Thus, although many readers may have fallen asleep during the detailed analyses of de Sade or Dostoyevsky, of the Russian Nihilists or Hegel’s theory of the Master and Slave – if they managed to make it to the end of the book they would be aware that they had been on a long journey across 200 years of nihilistic thought – but a journey of hope, a journey which assured them that common decency can be justified and established in the godless universe of the Absurd, in the post-war rubble, amid the clash of homicidal ideologies.

And so, despite its longueurs and its frequently impenetrable phraseology, The Rebel is a really moving and stirring call to human dignity and morality in a world seemingly hell-bent on destroying both.

Helen’s Exile

It is useful to read alongside The Rebel the essay Helen’s Exile, which is included in the Penguin edition of The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in 1948, Helen’s Exile gives a much pithier version of the central idea of The Rebel but starting from a different place, starting from a consideration of ancient Greek culture.

Camus points out that central to Greek thought was the idea of human limits: the Greek myths and legends are packed with cautionary tales of people who ignore or overstep these human limitations and are savagely punished for their hubris.

It is this self-knowledge of the Greeks, of the necessity of limiting our wishes, our freedoms and our actions in line with the recognised limits of human nature – contrary to the totalising tendency of modern ideologies which assert that human nature is a blank sheet to be written on at will by revolutionary dictators – which Camus thinks we have lost and must regain.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks.


Discussion – a fragile argument

The entire argument, although it ranges widely over European philosophy and art of the last 200 years, is framed within the constraints of Camus’s own peculiar and very narrow theory of the Absurd. The crucial logic, the key explanation, is all dealt with in the first twenty pages or so:

The Absurd point of view logically leads to the rejection of suicide, because suicide negates the Absurd equation. Since suicide and murder are two sides of the same coin, rejection of suicide means rejection of murder. This rejection of suicide/murder is the bedrock of man’s revolt against the Absurd condition of life. And it is not only a NO to the godless universe but implies some kind of positive value in favour of which one is revolting/rebelling. Because as soon as one rebels against the Absurd condition – rejects suicide/murder and chooses life – one affirms the value of all human life.

Thus: Man’s Revolt against suicide/death is an affirmation of all human life everywhere.

And this revolt which is at the core of man’s being can never acquiesce in totalising revolutions which practice political murder in the name of abstract ideologies which claim to be able to erase and rewrite human nature. Human nature will always rebel.

Out of the depths of the Absurd comes an irrefutable affirmation of human life and a vehement rejection of any theory which denies it.

Good. Fine.

But all this is built on the idea that you accept Camus’s highly specific and, in the end, highly personal definitions of ‘the Absurd’ and of ‘Revolt’; and that you can follow the ‘logic’ of the arguments he extracts from them.

a) It’s unlikely that many, if any, of his readers really genuinely accept his very specific premises.
b) Every time I’ve reread and summarised the key passages in the book I’ve been very aware that several steps in the argument are willed rather than convincingly argued.

Possibly that’s why he made the book so long – because he hoped that by reiterating and rephrasing his claims, in the detailed analyses of a succession of great writers and of historical events, he would achieve by sheer repetition what he was uneasily aware was logically very fragile if stated clearly and briefly.

The sheer weight of text, its length, its numerous repetitions, and the repeated rephrasings of his humanist conclusions certainly do make for a stirring and inspiring read.

But beneath all the rhetoric, the philosophical analyses and the literary criticism, the fundamental, founding idea that suicide must be rejected because it negates one half of the Absurd equation (living human + indifferent universe = the Absurd), that murder is the same as suicide and so must similarly be rejected because it is illogical for a believer in the philosophy of the Absurd (and in ‘rebellion’) to abolish a key ground of their beliefs — these form an abstract, academic and very fragile basis on which to base an entire worldview and a complete political morality.


Reception

Although like-minded liberals warmly welcomed this elaborate endorsement of their views, the powerful mouthpieces of the French communist party, as well as many professional philosophers and intellectuals, came down on it like a ton of bricks. This was mostly because the book amounts to a sustained attack on communism and most French intellectuals of the time flirted with or became communists. But they were also able to focus their attacks on the fragility of its ‘philosophising’.

Camus had hoped to create a philosophical argument strong enough to lift Europe out of its despair; but the unrelentingly negative reactions to the book from the French intellectual élite, and their demolition of his philosophical arguments, plunged Camus into a personal depression. He never again tried to write a ‘philosophical’ work.

Only a few years later, in 1954, the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Camus found the well-spring of his creativity – his love for the harsh sensual beauty of his homeland – threatened in a new and unexpected way. The oppressed ‘natives’ of his homeland were enacting his narrative of revolt in a way he had completely missed from his long analysis of the contemporary political scene.

So, while the Paris intellectuals attacked his intellectual shortcomings, the Algerian revolutionaries undermined the basis of his creative vision: Camus was embattled from all sides. In the circumstances it is amazing that he managed to go on writing, creating the foggy allegory of The Fall and then the suite of passionate short stories collected in Exile and the Kingdom, as well as returning to his first love, the theatre, where passion and feeling are more important than clarity or logic.

Thus, amid very difficult political and personal circumstances, Camus did his best to explain and defend human freedom and dignity. It feels like a heroic achievement.

At the very end of The Rebel Camus’s argumentation gives way to the high poetic lyricism, to the sensuous imagery of fierce Mediterranean sunlight and the warm blue sea which are always lurking just beneath the surface of his writing. And to ancient Greece, where men knew the limits of themselves and their societies, and so were genuinely free.

At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn. With this joy, through long struggle, we shall remake the soul of our time… (p.270)

(Amusingly, Conor Cruise O’Brien chooses just this quote as an example of ‘Camus’s most lamentable Mediterranean-solar-myth vein’ [Camus: Modern Masters p.56].)


Credit

L’Homme révolté by Albert Camus was published in France in 1951. This translation by Anthony Bower was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1953. All quotes & references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)

Background

French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.


P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.


Related links

Related reviews

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak — Strube’s ‘little man’— the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate! No, it isn’t like that that one was meant to live. One’s got to get right out of it, out of the money-stink. (p.51)

In Orwell’s previous novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, the seducing cad, Warburton, cynically suggests to the naive young Dorothy that money makes the world go round; in fact, he suggests that the famous chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be brought up to date with the word ‘money’ replacing ‘charity’. One year later this novel was published and its epigraph satirically does exactly what Warburton had suggested.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…  And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

This weak, unsubtle gag accurately summarises Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is the unremittingly dingy, depressed and ultimately monotonous story of short, miserable, failed poet Gordon Comstock who is obsessed with money and his lack of it.

Gordon Comstock

Gordon is 28 and works in a grimy second-hand bookshop in a seedy part of north-west London. He seethes with resentment against his miserable fate, resentment he takes out in the form of withering satire on his customers, the wretched adverts on hoardings opposite the shop, the weather, London, the depressing spirit of the times, everything. Everything – his clothes, the shop, the boos, the street, the customers, the boarding house, the landlady, the other lodgers – everything, seen through his eyes, is seedy, run-down, grimy, filthy, mangy, mildewed and manky.

Orwell pays minute attention to every humiliating aspect of Gordon’s shabby, poverty-stricken little existence. He takes two pages to describe the lengths Gordon has to go to in order to make a cup of tea in his own room (a practice banned by the landlady) which includes sneaking downstairs to the privy to flush away yesterday’s tea leaves, and heating the water on his room’s wretchedly underpowered gas ring.

Orwell takes a sadistic glee in rubbing the reader’s face in Gordon’s all-conquering sense of failure and the sordid practicalities of his existence. The squalor, the shame and the thousand petty humiliations of a) living on the edge of poverty b) being a wretched failed poet, are drilled home on page after page.

Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is Orwell’s least interesting book: the subject of being a failed writer in London is extremely clichéd, and Gordon’s diatribes, either in his own head or to anyone who will listen, are above all very repetitive; by page 100 they’re just boring.

So this is not such a good book to read as the splendidly descriptive Burmese Days or the experimental and reportage-filled Clergyman’s Daughter.

The plot

Second hand books We’re introduced to Gordon, rotting and miserable in the dingy second-hand bookshop. He takes the mickey out of the customers. He goes home to his dingy miserable boarding house and makes a secret cup of tea. He reminisces about his large and hopeless middle-class family of losers, the wretched Comstocks. He traipses north to a literary party which turns out to have been cancelled to his vast chagrin, so he ends up walking all over London, looking wistfully into pubs and lustfully at passing girls and feeling immensely sorry for himself.

Back story He reminisces about his miserable time at private school where he was mocked for his genteel poverty. Then his time at an advertising agency where he turned out to be good at copywriting but despised himself for being in on the ‘great money-scam’, ‘worshiping the money god’ etc. This is all below Gordon who considers making money sordid and disreputable. So, to the despair of his hard-up family, he quits this excellent job to work in the bookshop out of some misguided wish for moral purity. What an arse.

Ravelston Gordon goes for a few beers in a squalid pub with his rich friend, the magazine editor and champagne socialist, Philip Ravelston. Gordon spends the entire time moaning about how miserable life is on a measly two quid a week, never having enough money to eat properly, to go out, to make friends and contacts, never having the peace of mind to write blah blah blah. The trouble is – we know the problem is entirely of his own making. The kindly owner of the advertising agency made it clear that Gordon can go back any time he wants to. It is obstinate to the point of imbecility to make himself and everyone around him so miserable.

Rosemary He has a girlfriend, the diminutive but tough Rosemary Waterlow. They meet for a walk (Gordon’s landlady won’t allow young women to even enter the hallway). This descends into another long bitter rant against his poverty by Gordon, combined with the bitter accusation that, after two years of going out, she still hasn’t let him sleep with her. The third-person narrator attributes this refusal to her upbringing in a big happy rambunctious family. Rosemary wants to preserve her happy sexless girlhood for as long as possible. She is ‘fond’ of Gordon and wants to mother him etc but can’t bring herself to say yes. He, for his part, is tormented by frustrated lust: it is all he can think of half the time, and all twisted up by the thought that it is essentially his poverty which prevents them either getting married or even being able to afford a hotel to have sex in.

No sex please, we’re British Gordon and Rosemary go on a set-piece outing to Burnham Beeches, catching the train from Paddington station to Slough. The winter sun warms and animates them but they can find nowhere to eat except an over-priced hotel by the Thames and here Gordon is, characteristically, overawed and bullied by the pretentious waiter, finding himself forced to use up all his money on a rotten meal of cold beef and muddy wine.

Eventually, miserable and humiliated, the couple walk on into woodland where they find a warm nook, Rosemary strips off her clothes and prepares to ‘sacrifice’ herself to him. She will ‘give’ herself, although she doesn’t really want to, solely in order to make Gordon happy. This is disheartening enough, but at the vital moment Rosemary realises Gordon isn’t wearing a condom and panics. He is rebuffed. They argue. Standing looking down at her naked body, he is disgusted with himself and with her. The sun goes in and the whole thing suddenly appears unbearably sordid and mean.

Rosemary bursts into tears and gets dressed. They walk for miles in silence, but Gordon is no longer brooding on the failed sex, he has moved on to his more familiar routine of being more worried about not having enough money to pay the fare back to London, after spending more than he meant to at the posh riverside hotel.. Eventually, after prolonged sulking, he reluctantly admits this to Rosemary who promptly points out what an idiot he is: she has more than enough and is happy to pay. But with his ludicrously antiquated sense of ‘honour’ he simply can’t let her and prefers to stew in a juice of humiliation and endlessly pontificate about the ruinous effect of poverty. By this stage we know that what is ruining his life is his ruinous imbecility.

A drunken binge In chapter eight there is an astonishing turn of events as Gordon receives a cheque from an American magazine which has inexplicably decided to publish one of his poems. £10! He insists on taking Ravelston and Rosemary out for a slap-up dinner. The more they urge caution, the more insistent he becomes to go to the finest restaurant, order champagne and generally drink himself stupid. Reeling through the West End he hustles Rosemary into a back alley and tries to have sex with her but she fights free, slaps him and disappears. Completely plastered Gordon finds himself being taken over by two whores and Ravelston mournfully decides he ought to go along to protect his pathetic protege. In the event Gordon is far too drunk to get it up and passes out on the floor. This compares with the Saturday night party scene in Down and Out in Paris and London as a very convincing portrait of the progressive stages of drunkenness, from light exuberance, through gorging on booze, to staggering incoherence. It’s the best passage in the book.

Arrested Gordon wakes up with an incredible hangover in a police cell. After being booted out by the prostitute he wandered Piccadilly swigging from a wine bottle in the street (illegal) and when stopped by the police punched the sergeant. Orwell gives a reliably factual account of a police cell, being taken in a Black Maria to the holding cells at the court, being sentenced to £5 fine or a month in gaol. In fact his fine has already been paid by his sheepish champagne socialist patron, Ravelston, who takes Gordon back to his luxury pad in St John’s Wood. Gordon sleeps in silk pyjamas in a downy bed beneath an electric light – unimaginable luxury.

And this is the central imaginative flaw of the novel – all Gordon has to do is say Yes, Yes to help from his rich friend, Yes to getting his advertising job back, and he would have money and Rosemary’s attitude would soften and he would have her, too. It is the opposite of some searing portrait of Depression-era Britain – it is the portrait of a mean-minded, resentful, selfish little idiot who ruins ‘his own and everyone else’s life for the sake of his ‘meaningless scruples’.

Staying at Ravelston’s After the drunken night and arrest something snaps in Gordon: he accepts Ravelston’s offer of a comfortable place to stay for a while but his bitter resentment at Ravelston’s charity ends their friendship. Ravelston eventually finds him a job with a Dickensian grotesque, a misshapen dwarf who runs a seedy bookshop renting out the cheapest kind of thrillers and romances. Gordon moves into a substantially worse flop house, reeking of haddock and ringing to the arguments of the proley inhabitants. He ignores Ravelston on his one visit to him. He spurns the appeals of Rosemary and his sister, Julia.

Down, down The final chapters become dominated by his death wish, by his wish to sink down, down, down below the realm of decency or class, to submerge into what he calls the ghost-kingdom below class and society. He finds he likes the job, the grinding boredom, the idiotic clientele who borrow the sad cheap two-penny novelettes. He sits and reads cheap magazines all day (Tit BitsThe GemThe Girl’s Own Paper) and lies on his bed smoking looking at the ceiling all night.

Sex at last One evening Rosemary knocks on the door (in this low lodging house women are allowed, unlike the grimly correct rooms of his previous landlady, Mrs Wisbeach). She thinks maybe finally losing her virginity to him will somehow galvanise him and persuade him to take the mythical job back at the advertising agency. (It turns out she has gone in person to see his old boss at the agency to beg, and the boss willingly agreed to have Gordon back.) But Gordon is too far gone. They reluctantly do the deed then lie with their backs to each other. She dresses and leaves without a word.

The baby A few weeks Rosemary turns up in the bookshop. She’s pregnant. She won’t force her to marry him but she wants to keep it. There is the usual squalid discussion about a back-street abortion (such as features in the Michael Caine movie, Alfie, Kingsley Amis’s novel, You Can’t Have It All, and in the Jean-Paul Sartre novel, The Age of Reason) which you are meant to be repelled by. Gordon goes to a public library where the disapproving lady librarian lets him look at medical textbooks in which he leafs through illustrations of foetuses making himself, and the reader, feel sick.

He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time – a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly – the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye – or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. (p.261)

Gordon gives in But he capitulates. He agrees to marry Rosemary and take the job at the advertising agency, though advertising represents the acme of everything he finds meretricious and trashy in contemporary culture. To his surprise he is immensely relieved. He realises it was his destiny all along. He feels as if he has finally grown up.

Gordon takes the job. He has a gift for copywriting and is soon working on a campaign for a soap client to persuade the British population they have smelly feet and need as much soap as they can buy. Rosemary and Gordon get married at a registry office. Ravelston is the only guest. He gives them a crockery set. They move into a top floor apartment off the Edgware Road. They have barely moved in before they have their first argument. He insists on buying an aspidistra to furnish the room. At first Rosemary thinks he’s joking, but he means it. In Gordon’s mind everything he rejected – including the aspidistra plant which had been, for him, a symbol of craven respectability – it has all won. Genuinely won. With no irony or sarcasm he insists they buy one and display it in the front room for everyone to see. He has joined the grown-up world. Like everyone else he will keep the aspidistra flying.


Comments

Pathetic

Gordon isn’t principled, he’s pathetic. He’s as wretchedly timid and scared as Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter but without her dignity or integrity. He daren’t go into the pub to see his friend because he’s embarrassed about only having a three-penny bit to his name. He’s afraid of going up to the flat of his rich patron, Ravelston, because he’s intimidated by its moneyed comfort. He’s scared of offending his landlady and so hides his illicit tea-making. He is, in short, frightened of life. He is a mouse not a man. Chapter 9, where he lets himself be taken in, is a catalogue of Gordon’s moral cowardice.

  • He wanted to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage…
  • Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise…
  • But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet…
  • From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way…

and spending three hundred pages in his company – despite the appeal of Orwell’s ever-lucid prose – is depressing.

  • He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life. (p.38)
  • He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes. (p.209)
  • He didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. (p.216)
  • He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he wanted, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. (p.

He takes every opportunity to offend anyone close to him, starting with his family and continuing with the patron Ravelston, he’s beastly to his girlfriend, bullying and arguing with her. I particularly disliked his snobbish superiority to all popular culture – he despises the cinema, hates the products he used to write advertising copy for – especially the new American trend for ‘breakfast cereals’ – despises the ‘villa culture’ of the suburbs. The pathetic ineffectual intellectual snob.

They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. (p.143)

And pretty much all the vast verbiage about ‘poverty’ is nothing more than bitterness and resent against the better off. The whole book is a vast crate of sour grapes.

A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dogs. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with dispatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! (Chapter 4)

The money-stink and war

In all Orwell’s previous books he had interesting things to observe or to explain about imperialism, poverty, coal-mining, sleeping rough, hop-picking and so on. This is the first book where almost everything the protagonist thinks and does is worthless.

Gordon’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ and ‘money worship’ is so naive and childish as to be barely worth discussing. Orwell satirises Gordon’s contempt for money-making, for seeking a good career, a good place, he especially hates go-getting American types and he loathes advertising agencies etc. Every page is packed with new formulations of Gordon’s simplistic hatred of the money god, the money-stink, capitalism etc.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments. One for the employers – the elect, the money-priesthood as it were – ‘Thou shalt make money’; the other for the employed – the slaves and underlings – ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’

It sounds good – like so much of Orwell’s it has a strong rhythm and great clarity of phrasing which drives the words home – but it is undermined by our clear knowledge that Gordon has an easy way out of the trap any time he wants to. Just ring up his old boss at the advertising agency. But no, he prefers to suffer and complain.

In a feeble sort of philosophical conversation with his wealthy patron, Ravelstone, the latter tries to argue Gordon into believing in Socialism – despite showing little or no understanding of what that would actually mean. Ravelston’s reading of Marx seems to amount to the notion that a) present capitalist society is on its last legs b) a communist revolution is inevitable and will sweep away all injustices and usher in the Golden Age. Like some of the book, this has a certain value as social history, as a presumably reasonably accurate of what educated Englishmen of the time thought.

But in any case Gordon dismisses Socialism as bunk; he is too consumed by sheer hatred and resentment of anyone better off than him. With obsessive violence he fantasises about planes flying over London, over the dingy boarding houses and squalid flats and windswept streets and lonely people and bombing it all flat, consuming London in a great conflagration. He wants a massive war to come and Ravelston sadly points out he’s not the only one.

‘Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’
‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’
‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

Maybe this is the best way to read this book – because it is not much value as a ‘novel’ – maybe it’s best to think of it as a kind of portrait of typical angry man who encapsulates the unhappiness and humiliation of the borderline poor, of the frustrated lower middle-classes, a representative of the clever but frustrated intellectuals of an entire generation. In the hands of a continental writer Gordon could, conceivably have turned into the portrait of a fascist, an angry young man who dreams of violence cleansing the world of parasites and decadence. Encourage his anti-Semitism and throw in a shiny uniform and you have a Nazi.

All over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom – bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.

This fetid War Wish of Gordon’s suggests just how little people learn – or intellectuals, anyway. There was a similar mood among the volunteers for the Great War, that it would cleanse and sweep away a corrupt and sick society (see Rupert Brooke). And here, 20 years later, we have the same kind of minor intelligentsia having the same kind of thoughts all over again.

Down, down – Orwell’s psychopathology

In the end Gordon is an embarrassingly revealing description of Orwell’s own self-loathing, embarrassment, shame and cowardice. A pauper at Eton, an odd-ball in the Burmese Police, an outsider to the Bloomsbury Set and the smart London literati, resenting the doting care and concern of his parents and relations – he had a hopeless psychological urge to escape, to plunge down into the filthiest depths of degradation and, in the end, Keep The Aspidistra Flying all-too-clearly conveys Orwell’s own strange nostalgie de la boue. It gives the game away, revealing the deeply personal motivations behind his supposedly fearless social reporting.

The final chapters are dominated by Gordon’s monomania for sinking below the realm of class and decency, of escaping all those who care for him, especially the womenfolk, Rosemary and his sister, Julia; of sinking down, down, down.

  • He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace. (p.219)
  • He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud… (p.222)
  • Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty – no duns of any kind. That was where he wished to be. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.  (p.227)
  • Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist! (p.233)
  • He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, below all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be. (p.244)
  • He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary. (p.

On reflection, it is immensely apposite that the first word of the title of Orwell’s first published book was down.

Conclusion

If we take a romantic view of writing i.e the author is trying to ‘express’ something, then the author has to find a genre, a format, a style that provides the suitable framework. When it comes to the novel, an author needs to find characters and a plot to provide a structure for the other elements – dialogue, description, reflections and ideas.

Burmese Days is a success as a novel because the wide range of characters and incidents allow Orwell to show and dramatise his experience of British imperialism, with remarkably little explicit editorialising about it. The story and the characters are the message.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a fascinating failure. He wanted to shock his readers by taking a highly respectable Anglican spinster and submit her to the humiliations of begging, sleeping rough, hop-picking, staying in London’s roughest flop houses and so on. But a) he is trying to hit too many targets; the same woman who is supposed to experience the bitterness of sleeping rough is also meant to experience the genteel humiliations of working in a fourth-rate private school. He tries to cram too much of his own experience into one container. And b) the precise mechanism by which she is pitched out of her comfortable middle class existence onto the streets is never satisfactorily explained. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth reading because, if you forget about these problems of the book’s ‘integrity’, then the individual sections – sleeping rough in London, hop picking in Kent, being a shabby teacher – are vividly written; they have the power and insight of his best reportage.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the second example of Orwell trying to find an outlet, a form or structure for what are obviously his own experiences and feelings. (Orwell himself worked in a bookshop in Highgate while he struggled to write; many of Gordon’s thoughts about the pointlessness of even trying to be a writer must come straight from the heart.) But there isn’t enough variety of scene or subject matter to justify a 300-page book. Realising this, Orwell has taken the conscious decision to exaggerate Gordon’s anger and contempt, to turn up his bilious rants and let his acid resentment go on for page after page. My guess is he thought that by exaggerating every aspect of his own sense of poverty, immiseration, humiliation and resentment, he would produce a Great Satirical Portrait; that Gordon would become a Representative Figure of our Age

But it doesn’t come off. Gordon just comes over as an ineffectual wanker, a stew of petty frustrations. It’s no surprise that Orwell forbade the reprinting of this book in his lifetime. The first and only print run sold just over 2,000 copies.


Aspects of style

Orwell’s use of stereotypes

I noticed in A Clergyman’s Daughter how Orwell’s texts are built of ‘types’ which we are expected to recognise, this recognition drawing us unconsciously into the point of view of the narrator, into the book’s world-view. And recognition of ‘types’ is compounded by worldly-wise sweeping generalisations. Both are exemplified in this passage:

  • Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’ s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use — or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’.

There’s plenty more where this came from. It would be possible to take Orwell’s narratives to pieces in terms of blocks or chunks built around these types or stereotypes.

  • It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers.
  • She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully grey hair, and a permanent grievance. (p.24)
  • It had the sort of furniture you expect in a top floor back [room]. (p.28)
  • Lorenheim was one of those people who have not a single friend in the world and who are devoured by a lust for company. (p.28)
  • It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you. (p.31)
  • The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. (p.35)
  • The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself… Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. (p.39)
  • They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.
  • They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things… (p.41)
  • Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. (p.42)
  • His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly out of date. (p.44)

And so on and so on throughout the text. These continual expectations that the reader is familiar with this, that or the other aspect of modern life, with this or that ‘type’ of person or place or situation, stand as continual nudges into the fiction. They both flatter the reader’s intelligence and bolster the author’s aura of worldly wisdom. ‘You and I both know about this stuff, don’t we, old chap,’ and you find yourself reluctantly coerced to go along, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

  • He was the kind of man who never hears of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. (p.56)
  • The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism. (p.54)
  • It was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older… (p.88)
  • He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work. (p.92)
  • It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits.
  • She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. (p.123)
  • This was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. (p.225)
  • Gordon knew her type at a glance. (p.259)

Orwell knows all these types at a glance. He is an expert on humanity. And he expects you to be, too.

Orwell’s humour

All this said, Orwell is always capable of moments of pawky humour:

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle – to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets.

Though it is often a rather grim, unsmiling humour.

Orwell’s use of the macabre

The ghost of Dickens is always hovering over Orwell’s writing, in the combination of urban poverty with sometimes warm broad humour and other times the weird and macabre.

Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors… It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted… He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it… (p.223)

More than a touch reminiscent of Dickens’s malignant dwarf, Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But the advent of Mr Cheeseman, the miserly bookseller, in the final chapters of the book, is also maybe an indication that the whole thing is intended as a grotesque exaggeration, a satire, a hyperbolic fantasy.

Big Sister is watching you

Early on in the book the landlady of Gordon’s wretched lodgings is described as sneaking around and spying on her lodgers.

It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you. (p.31)

Ring any bells? When I noticed this I realised the same thing happens in A Clergyman’s Daughter where miserly Mrs Creevy is constantly spying on Dorothy’s school lessons, and creeping about listening at the door of her bedroom.

The unpleasantness of being continually spied on was obviously an theme of Orwell’s fifteen years before Nineteen Eight-Four was published.

Contemporary relevance

Throughout the novel, among the kaleidoscope of his other thoughts Gordon feels guilty for not worrying more about the Depression and the unemployed and the suffering millions. The Depression and its severe impact on the north of England is exemplified in the repeated notion of Middlesborough as a particularly blighted town.

  • Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun…
  • But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?
  • He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed.
  • In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

As it happens today, Wednesday 9 August 2017, I just listened to a report on Radio 4’s World At One programme about the long-term impact of the financial crash of 2008, and they chose to send a reporter to Middlesborough as exemplifying the enduring negative consequences of the crash. We heard local people saying nothing is done for the town, it’s ignored by southern politicians, there’s no prospects for young people leaving town, not much hope of getting a job and no hope of buying a house. Unemployment is 1 in 6, double the national average and, as a consequence, Middlesborough had the highest Brexit vote of anywhere in the UK.

Obviously lots of things have changed since Orwell’s time, thousands of things, people’s lives have been transformed in countless ways. But some other things, deep structural things, haven’t changed at all.


Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006)

Franco did not so much win the war: the republican commanders, with the odds already stacked heavily against them, squandered the courage and sacrifice of their troops and lost it. (p.476)

This is a wonderfully sensible, thorough, intelligent and powerful history of the Spanish Civil War.

The war started on 17 July 1936 when the Spanish Army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected Republican government. The coup, although carefully planned and co-ordinated between units of the Spanish Army in Spain’s colony in Morocco and on the mainland, managed to seize key towns and areas across western Spain but failed in its bid to swiftly overthrow the government. Instead republican forces, spearheaded by socialist and anarchist trade unions, seized villages, towns and cities in central and eastern Spain, including the capital Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s second city, and capital of the separatist region of Catalonia.

Both parts of divided Spain then undertook a quick holocaust of enemy supporters, the nationalist army executing large numbers of ‘reds’ and trade unionists in their territory, the ‘republicans’ doing the same in their parts. Beevor analyses these numbers in some detail and hesitantly concludes that the nationalists ending up killing as many as ten times the number as the republicans, especially when you factor in that the execution of ‘reds’, trade unionists and anyone who opposed them continued long after the war finished on 1 April 1939, continued through the Second World War (in which Spain was neutral) and right up to the death of General Franco in 1975. Possibly as many as 200,000 Spaniards were killed by Franco’s forces in non-military executions, suicides, tortures to death and so on (p.450).

Meanwhile nationalist propaganda exaggerated and invented republican atrocities, quickly putting out stories about churches being burned to the ground (often true since the Catholic church was seen as the number one defender of the entrenched, exploitative, landowning aristocracy), priests being murdered (true in some numbers, apparently) and nuns systematically raped (this story, though salaciously retailed across the world’s media, appears never to have happened).

By the winter of 1936 battle lines had hardened across a divided Spain (the book has plenty of maps showing the general battle lines and detailed maps of specific battles) and both sides settled in for what looked like becoming a protracted war.

At this point Beevor’s account tends to alternate between detailed accounts of specific (bloody) battles, analyses of the complicated internal politics on both the nationalist and republican sides, and explanations of how the war was internationalised.

1. International war

Immediately the two Fascist dictators in Europe, Hitler and Mussolini, grasped the significance of the war and saw ways to exploit it. Mussolini sent airplanes and pilots and his fleet patrolled the Mediterranean coast of Spain to prevent arms getting to the republican east of the country. He wanted to crush communism in Spain, establish a western ally, and assert the Italian navy’s power in the Mediterranean. Hitler shared the same motives and was in addition delighted at the opportunity to give his Luftwaffe and army real war experience, in advance of his plans for conquest in Europe. German military advisors, and especially the notorious Condor Legion of planes and pilots, gave the nationalist invaluable help. It was the Condor Legion which carpet bombed Guernica, capital of the Basque country in the north, on 26 April 1937, and machine gunned men, women and children fleeing from the burning city.

The legitimate republican government appealed to the western democracies, namely Britain, France and America but – and this makes shameful reading – Britain, terrified of both Hitler and Stalin, led the way in creating the spurious and one-sided ‘Non-Intervention Committee’, arranging with the French and Americans not to supply arms or support to either side, so long as the Axis powers didn’t either. This deprived the republican government of much needed weapons and material, and the British stuck to their non-intervention, even when documentary proof was presented showing without doubt the huge amounts of aid the nationalists were receiving from Germany and Italy.

Worse, Beevor shows (in chapter 13 ‘Arms and the diplomats’) that there were many active fascist-sympathisers at the highest levels of the American and British governments and that, although the majority of the populations of both countries supported the republicans, key leaders in business and politics were both mortally afraid of a socialist/communist victory and actively sympathised with the nationalists’ aims of re-establishing order and religion. Credit, oil and business facilities were made available to the nationalists. In fact, Beevor quotes a Spanish diplomat who claimed, after the war, that

‘without American petroleum and American trucks and American credit, we could never have won the civil war.’ (quoted page 155)

Worst of all, the hypocritical refusal of the democracies to help a fellow democracy, forced the Spanish government into total reliance on aid from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which certainly sent tanks and airplanes, along with drivers, pilots and military advisors – but the price of this aid was submission to the communist way of doing things, planting commissars and secret police into every unit of the ramshackle popular army and the anarchist and socialist militias.

2. The battles

In the entire war the republicans only won one major engagement. In every other military engagement they were hamstrung by lack of arms, ammunition, lack of experience and training, lack of discipline and coherence across a hodge-podge of different forces but probably, as Beevor shows in harrowing detail, appalling military incompetence and terrible decision-making. In the second half of the war republican military decisions tended to be made on the basis of what would provide big, propaganda-friendly victories, largely at the command of the Soviet Union and its military advisors.

But Beevor shows how the war coincided with the height of Stalin’s paranoia, which was finding expression in the series of show trials taking place in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, in which hundreds of old Bolsheviks, having been tortured into submission, were forced to admit that they were anti-Soviet spies, tools of international imperialism, or Trotskyite saboteurs and so on. Partly these were a way of focusing the attention of the Soviet public away from the very obvious failures of Soviet economic policy such as the disastrous famine in the Ukraine in 1933 and the ongoing food shortages and lack of goods. Partly it was an almost medieval response to the failure of the Soviet experiment which had an almost medieval aspect – if there’s a famine, blame the witches or the Jews, and burn them. Partly Stalin was clinically paranoid and believed there were endless conspiracies against him.

A vital element of the general madness was that the Red Army had in the 1930s under the innovatory General Mikhail Tukhachevsky been developing a new modern way of fighting which integrated fast-moving tank forces, supported by airplane attacks and accompanied by well-organised infantry. As part of his mad purges of the Red Army Stalin had Tukhachevsky and everyone who propounded these new theories executed, and labelled the whole approach Trotskyist deviationism etc.

In fact Tukhachevsky was developing the same Blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving co-ordinated attacks which Hitler was to use to such effect in the Second World War. But his execution led to all thinking in that direction being banned, and Soviet military advisors fell back on the old, tried and completely discredited tactics of the Great War – big set piece battles where 19th century artillery barrages softened up the enemy before floods of infantry advanced over no man’s land to be slaughtered in their thousands.

Tragically, because the Western democracies effectively abandoned republican Spain, these discredited tactics along with the paranoia, the universal presence of the secret police who arrested huge numbers and carted them off for interrogation, torture and execution, were imported lock, stock and two smoking barrels into the republican forces.

The result was that the Soviet advisors again and again bullied the republicans into launching unnecessary and grandiose set-piece battles (in a bid to win glory and curry favour with Moscow) using out-of-date tactics, which the hodge-podge of republican forces were badly-suited to carrying out (because they required immaculate military precision) and in which they were invariably slaughtered in wave after wave of futile head-on attacks. Thus the massive defeats at the battles of Brunete and the Ebro.

And when wretched defeat and withdrawal (often simple routs when the bloodied survivors turned tail and ran) inevitably occurred, the commissars and Soviet advisors and NKVD secret police all blamed the defeat on Trotskyite traitors, fifth columnists, saboteurs etc and intensified their persecution of their own side.

Beevor gives scores of examples of the political commissars just lining up surviving troops and shooting a set number (in the back of the head) in punishment for their ‘cowardice’ i.e. their refusal to follow obviously incompetent and suicidal orders.

Beevor points out several times that the best way to use the scattered, less organised and badly equipped republican army would have been to mount an organised defence of existing republican territory while despatching large numbers of guerrilla fighters to harass and wear down nationalist forces from the sides and rear. This more unconventional approach might have kept the situation in a stalemate until the general European war – which everyone was expecting – broke out and the republican side could have hoped for a change in the position of Britain, France and America to open support.

3. Internal politics

Alongside the lack of international support, probably the key factor for the republican side was how splintered it was. Beevor spends a lot of time clearly explaining the nature and aims of the different factions. In fact the first fifty or so pages give a history of Spain from the Napoleonic Wars onwards which show how the fundamental divide between Catholic, landowning, aristocratic Spain grew apart from urban, working class, often atheist Spain, increasingly influenced by new socialist ideals crossing the Pyrenees from France and then, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, from Russia. The three years from 1918 to 1920 saw a wave of political strife in the Asturias and Catalonia which became known as the ‘three years of bolshevism’ (p.17) In 1932 the army in the form of General Sanjurjo tried to stage a coup against the republican government, but it was poorly planned, led to massive strikes by the left and was easily quashed.

A strike of Asturian miners in October 1934 quickly spread across northern Spain, turning into a general strike and then an attempt at the revolutionary government. The most intense political mobilisation took place in Catalonia and its capital Barcelona and led to street fighting, before being crushed by 19 October.

The nationalists, the army, the upper classes and the small fascist groups all feared that another attempt at revolution was just a question of time and it was this fear which lay behind the army coup of August 1936.

But in fact the republican side was hopelessly divided. There were regional differences, with both Catalonia and the Basque country thinking that the war would lead to their independence, while conservative socialist groupings in the central government wanted to resist any such independence.

And then the left was amazingly divided, between socialists, who had their own trade unionists, anarchists ditto, an initially small communist party, the larger liberal parties representing the middle classes, and a wide variety of colourful splinter groups, as well as various parties in the would-be independent nations of Basque and Catalonia.

Trying to reconcile the widely divergent aspirations of all these groups was probably impossible right from the start, but it was fatally injured by something which George Orwell and other foreign visitors realised straightaway: which is that the army coup didn’t just prompt the socialists and anarchists to rise up to defend the essentially bourgeois government; it triggered the very social revolution they feared. The anarchists of Catalonia were the fiercest revolutionaries and they burned down churches, abolished bourgeois forms and terminology in the towns (no more senor and senorita, no more ties and posh hats) and in the countryside instituted a wide-ranging policy of forming workers’ collectives. All this had been tried and planned for some time and happened very quickly.

But meanwhile the central government contained bourgeois liberal elements who were terrified of this revolution and sought in countless ways to undermine and defeat it.

The situation would have been complicated enough, without the heavy-handed intervention of the Soviet Union. The main thrust of George Orwell’s classic account of his time spent as a volunteer fighting on the republican side was that he saw at close quarters the surprising fact that Stalin’s communist party formed a reactionary element in this mix. This is easily enough to explain but devastating in its implications:

The struggle between two of the founding Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Trotsky in the late 1920s, was that Stalin was convinced the new communist state must consolidate its existence and pursue ‘socialism in one country’. Trotsky, in contrast, advocated permanent and global revolution, arguing that one communist nation just couldn’t exist when surrounded by a sea of capitalist opponents. Trotsky lost the argument, he and his followers fled Russia, in Trotsky’s case to Mexico, where he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin became (justifiably) concerned about the spread of overtly anti-communist Fascism in Europe, with Fascist governments in Germany and Italy and authoritarian government in East European countries like Romania and Poland. Given this line-up of ideologically opposed and militarily strong enemies, Stalin realised he needed to cultivate friends wherever he could find them and so pursued a policy of friendship with France and as much friendship as he could muster with Britain. If it came to war, he would need them as allies (as indeed happened). Therefore Stalin did NOT want there to be a successful communist revolution in Spain; that’s the last thing he wanted, as it would terrify France and Britain to have a revolution on their doorstep, push them away from Russia and towards the Axis powers. Therefore Stalin used his centralised organs of state, the Communist International (the Comintern), his military advisors, the political commissars, his ambassadors and the NKVD secret police, to all promulgate the Party line that Spain was NOT ready for a proletarian revolution but must work unite in a ‘Popular Front’, a broad alliance of all left-of-centre parties to oppose Fascism. (The same line being peddled by the Stalin-controlled communist party in France.)

It took some time for the idealistic workers and peasants of Spain, for the anarchist and socialist politicians, activists and trade unions, and for the tens of thousands of volunteers who came from across Europe and America to fight for liberty and revolution etc, to grasp the fact that the full weight of Stalin’s communist machine was aligned against them. Sure, the party kept on spouting communist slogans but, on the ground, it worked tirelessly to seize control of the key ministries, to outflank Spanish politicians, taking every opportunity to suppress the genuinely revolutionary anarchist movement.

The repression of genuine revolutionary spirit took a step forward when the nine or so security and counter-intelligence agencies on the republican side were consolidated into the Servicio de Investigacion Militar or S.I.M. which quickly came under the control of the communists and carried out the latest Soviet tactics i.e. setting up secret prisons in Madrid and Barcelona, arbitrary late-night arrests of suspects who were then tortured using beatings, mock executions, disorientation and sensory-deprivation techniques. (p.340)

From this perspective, the history of the war is the story of the relentless rise to power, on the back of threats, violence, torture, secret police and also thanks to the being the only viable source of invaluable planes, tanks and munitions – of the anti-revolutionary communist party.

But although he was good at gaining power, Stalin was far from being all-wise, as his track record in the USSR showed. Just as his policy of forced collectivisation led to mass starvation in the Ukraine and elsewhere across the one-time bread baskets of Russia, so the implementation of anti-revolutionary repression in Spain had counter-productive effects. Not only did communist advisors force the republican army into wrong-headed tactics (as explained above), but the stranglehold of communist policy and terror had the effect of demoralising the huge numbers of socialists and anarchists who formed the backbone of the militias which originally formed so enthusiastically to combat the coup back in August 1936.

Thus morale plummeted as military defeat was followed by communist witch hunts, tortures, imprisonments and executions. Scattered mutinies were put down with mass executions. Volunteers from abroad found they couldn’t return to their home countries, anyone who tried was executed. In fact, the Soviets implemented far and wide the only way they knew how to run anything which was to execute anyone who opposed them or might oppose them or gave voice to any criticism of them. Or just anyone they didn’t like.

This parlous plight was well established by late 1937 and only got worse as the war lumbered into 1938, via the catastrophic battle of Teruel (December 15, 1937 – February 22, 1938) a strategically unimportant town which saw ferocious street fighting in sub-zero temperatures during which the place changed hands several times. The eventual loss of Teruel, with the loss of over 60,000 men, permanently undermined republican morale.

There was still a lot more fighting to go but, psychologically, many republicans of all stripes had given up; many leftists were horrified and disillusioned at witnessing Stalinist lies, violence, torture and pointless executions from close up. Beevor describes how this loss of morale led to defeatism even at the highest levels – from the spring of 1938 the republican minister of war Indalecio Prieto began telling all his colleagues the war was lost; and Beevor details the futile attempts of the Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, to formulate negotiating positions for a peace settlement. None of the republicans realised that Franco didn’t want peace. He wanted complete, unconditional, crushing victory.

After the terrible Battle of Teruel over Christmas 1937-8, the next main military event was the nationalists’ storming campaign through Aragon which brought them to the Mediterranean sea, cutting Catalonia off from the rest of republican Spain, in March-April 1938. Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona, was now isolated.

Beevor then hangs his head and describes the republican effort to score a big propaganda victory by launching the Battle of the Ebro, which lasted 113 days from July to November 1938, a mad folly which led to the virtual obliteration of the popular army amid the usual round of recriminations.

To attack a sector so close to the bulk of the Army of Manoeuvre meant that the enemy could counter-attack rapidly; to choose to fight with a large river behind your front line when the enemy had a crushing air superiority to smash your supply lines was idiotic; and to refuse to pull back after a week when it was clear that you had no chance of achieving your objectives was bound to lead to the useless sacrifice of an army which could not be replaced. It was beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda. (p.400)

Long before this bitter battle was over, republicans of all stripes realised that they had lost.

4. The nationalists

This summary has tended to ignore the nationalist side, partly because the republican story is more complex and fraught. Suffice to say that the nationalists were also divided among various parties. Supported by the Catholic Church (and with the express blessing of the Pope), the big landowners, all business owners and hugely helped by the backing of Italy and Germany, nonetheless there were still complex rival factions among the nationalists which Beevor explains with clarity and persuasiveness.

I was particularly struck by the ferocity of the Carlists, a party loyal to a very old vision of a Catholic monarchist Spain, originally founded to support the royal line descended from Don Carlos, Count of Molina (1788–1855), after disputes over the succession laws and widespread dissatisfaction with the Alfonsine line of the House of Bourbon. The Alfonsine line had in fact come to an end with the forced abdication of king Alfonso XIII in 1931, the abdication which created the Spanish republic and gave the Carlists hope that their man would one day be restored. (In the event this wasn’t to be and Alfonso XIII’s son, Prince Juan met Franco after the war, when Franco needed to broaden support for his regime, and they agreed that Juan’s ten-year-old son, Juan Carlos, should become Franco’s ward and heir. Indeed the little boy would become King Juan Carlos upon Franco’s death, in 1975.)

Beevor also explains the origin of the Falange – Spanish for Phalanx – a frighteningly violent, extreme right-wing party, founded in 1934 and led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera. These and other right-wing parties had their own leaders, rivalries and differing ideologies. Beevor describes them in careful detail and then explains how Franco cleverly played them all.

Beevor shows how cautious, canny and ruthless General Francisco Franco was. Franco had seen action in the 1934 revolution, but the main thing about him was he had been in charge of the Spanish Army in Morocco, and the important thing about this was that the Moroccan force was the only part of the Spanish army which had any kind of battle experience. The army in mainland Spain had never fought a battle, never fired a shot in anger, for Spain did not take part in the First World War. Only the African Army had experience of maintaining discipline under fire and of close-quarters fighting. This gave rise to a mystique surrounding the africanistas, something Franco exploited militarily and politically (p.16).

Beevor shows how Franco never moved until he was completely confident of victory. This goes for his political manoeuvres as much as his military campaigns. Essentially the war was won because the nationalist chain of command was centralised and efficient, and worked smoothly with its German and Italian supporters. But Franco still had to wait patiently until the time was right for him to assert his authority as the leading general among all the others who had staged the coup. This he did by ensuring it was his forces who led the liberation of Toledo. Toledo contained the Alcázar fortress, held by nationalist but besieged by republican forces since the start of the coup. Like Mafeking during the Boer War, its eventual liberation led to widespread rejoicing. And enthusiastic hailing of Franco as its saviour.

On 21 September 1936, at a meeting of his fellow generals at Salamanca airport, Franco, with preparatory work done by his devoted brother-in-law and other supporters, managed to get himself appointed chief military commander with the title Generalísimo.

On 29 September, after the final relief of the Alcázar, Franco proclaimed himself Caudillo (meaning ‘chieftain’, the Spanish equivalent of the Italian Duce and the German Führer). At the same time the disparate nationalist forces – falangist, Carlist, Alfonsist – were amalgamated into one governing nationalist party.

A few days later, on October 1, 1936 Franco’s title of Caudillo was confirmed at a big parade of army and state in the nationalist capital of Burgos. Although some nationalist parties demurred at this rapid consolidation of Franco’s power, their leaders were quickly dealt with, and the entire nationalist mind-set in any case valued strong central authority, so most of the officers and soldiers on the nationalist side were predisposed to accept one strong central command. From now on, that command was Franco’s.

5. Defeat and aftermath

The last 100 pages of this large-format, 470-page book make hard reading because it is so depressing to watch the republican side slowly being ground down, losing territory, pushed back, fighting among themselves, with Stalin’s SIM arresting, torturing and executing anyone who queried what turned out to be the hopeless Russian tactics.

The nationalists regrouped and re-equipped after victory in the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938. Then launched a swift campaign to seize Catalonia in January and February 1939. Nationalist forces entered one-time revolutionary Barcelona on 26 January, and by the end of February all Catalonia was in their hands. (It is interesting to learn that Franco hesitated before attacking Catalonia, convinced right to the end that the French were planning to invade and seize it, against all the advice of his own generals and to the frustration of the hard-headed Richtofen. Of course, the terrified French never had any such plan.) This left only Madrid and the area to the south-east still in republican hands.

In March, what was left of the republican army in Madrid staged a coup against prime minister Juan Negrín, who fled to France. But communist forces around Madrid staged a counter-coup against the army, so, once again, the republicans were fighting among themselves when the nationalists launched their final military assault, capturing Madrid on 28 March. By 31 March the nationalists controlled all Spanish territory. Franco proclaimed victory in a radio speech aired on 1 April 1939, as the final republican forces surrendered, and it is that day which goes down in history as marking the end of the war.

What began as a military coup designed to quickly seize power ended up lasting two years and 254 days, with as many as a million deaths, if you combine civilian with military casualties.

General Franco was installed as dictator of Spain and immediately began issuing laws rolling back all the reforms of the republican regime and brutally centralising all aspects of Spanish life. The Basque and Spanish languages were banned. All media became state controlled, as did all industry, railways and other infrastructure. Secret police were everywhere. Even a few unwise words of criticism in conversation could land you in prison or worse.

Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Beevor’s book follows the aftermath of the war, with sections on the wretched conditions refugees to France endured in miserable transit camps.

I thought Franco cannily kept Spain out of the Second World War so was surprised to learn here that he in fact made repeated overtures to join the war on the Axis side. However, he made such extortionate demands for weaponry from Germany, and also demanded to be given France’s colonies in Africa i.e. the rest of Morocco as well as west African colonies – that the Nazi regime was put off and repeatedly refused the offer.

Once the Axis powers began to lose, in 1943, Franco shifted his official position back from Axis support to neutrality (much to Hitler’s disgust).

At the end of the war his regime, so clearly authoritarian and militaristic and with all kinds of ties to the defeated Axis, might have struggled to survive, had it not been for the start of the Cold War between America and Russia. Ironically, it was (the threat from) communist Russia which led the West (i.e. America) to consider an authoritarian but stable Spain better than a chaotic and possibly communist one.

Thus Spain remained in a state of suspended animation until the old dictator’s death in 1975. The country took a generation to recover from the devastation of total war, with cities, towns and villages laid waste, its people, infrastructure and culture scarred for decades. Arguably, many these scars last to this day.

Footnotes

Spanish boasting Criticism of the overweening and unfounded arrogance of the Spanish on both sides crops up in several places. Beevor more than once quotes foreign military experts as well as Spanish officers, who all agree that the Spanish were too proud to dig trenches i.e. holes in the ground. Having not experienced the Great War, most Spanish thought war consisted of valiant charges and heroic stands and refused to hide in holes. The result, especially on the republican side, was that they were mown down or strafed to pieces in their tens of thousands.

The Germans, with their emphasis on efficiency, were particularly appalled at the discrepancy between Spanish vainglory and their chaotic practice. Beevor goes right back to the Duke of Wellington who led the British forces in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon (1807-1814) and who remarked of the preening Spanish officers assigned to his staff, that ‘the national weakness was boasting of Spain’s greatness’ (quoted page 158). For Richtofen, writing in his war diary, nothing at all had changed in 130 years.

New version, new sources Beevor wrote and published an earlier version of this book in 1982. This new longer version benefits from the opening of archives across Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union. Thus accounts of battles and political struggles are backed up by extensive quotations especially from newly accessible Soviet sources.

Still, the most gripping single source is Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen who was sent as an air force adviser to the nationalists and wrote a daily diary commenting on all aspects of the war. He is scathing about the incompetence of the Spanish and Italians and exults in the destructiveness of the German forces, especially his beloved Condor Legion.

Beevor points out that Richtofen pioneered the close co-ordination of armoured forces, infantry and air planes, and developed a new technique of close ground-to-air communications which proved vital in Nazi victories of the Second World War. He was a great destroyer of cities. In Spain his Condor Legion destroyed Durango and Guernica. He went on to be responsible for the destruction of Rotterdam, Belgrade, and Heraklion in Crete, before co-ordinating the bombing of Stalingrad in which some 40,000 civilians died (p.212).

The twentieth century was the great era of mass murderers. It is like looking out over a limitless expanse of burned and bleeding bodies. How can anyone possibly claim that human beings are a rational species?

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

Comrades! Work and fight for the Revolution!

War art The war saw an outburst of art and propaganda on both sides. Beevor points out it was the first war in which control of telegraph, telephone and radio were important. The republican side produced many stirring posters, poems and songs. But no amount of art could make up for a) the lack of foreign backing b) the consequent lack of guns, artillery and planes c) the lack of military training and experience d) the vicious, self-destructive in-fighting led by the communists and e) the idiotic military decisions which led to defeat after defeat.

Related links

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (1998)

One should never underestimate the disruptive force of haphazard actions. (p.104)

A decade or so ago I set out to spend a year reading only books by women authors. Among them, I read half a dozen or so novels by Beryl Bainbridge and loved them all. Having just worked through several books about the Crimean War (Victoria’s Wars by Saul David and Crimea by Orlando Figes) prompted me to dust off my old copy of Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s novel set during the Crimean War.

‘Quirky’ is a quick way of establishing where in the ballpark Bainbridge belongs, but doesn’t begin to capture her depth or complexity or strangeness.

Master Georgie, like most of her novels, is deceptively short and, in this Abacus paperback, has quite large print, resulting in the page having a light, airy feel. The text is divided into six sections and, since several of the protagonists are involved in the then-newfangled trade of photography, the book uses the conceit of naming each section after a ‘plate’ or early-style photograph. Hence:

  • Plate 1. 1846 Girl in the presence of death
  • Plate 2. 1850 A veil lifted
  • Plate 3. 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe
  • Plate 4. August 1854 Concert party at Varna
  • Plate 5. October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice
  • Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile

Each ‘plate’ or section is narrated by a different character. Thus:

Plate 1 – 1846 Girl in the presence of death (Myrtle)

This is told by a young girl named Myrtle (named on page 73), who was found as a toddler next to her mother, dead from smallpox in a slum in Victorian Liverpool, and taken into the household of wealthy if dissolute Mr Hardy. Myrtle is still pre-adolescent when she tells her tale. She has a mad crush on the son of the house, young Master George Hardy (the Master Georgie of the title), who is a medical student, with an amateur interest in phtography. George is wooing young Annie, and he has a friend, a would-be writer named Potter, who is enamoured of George’s sister, Beatrice.

The text is packed with uncanny detail, odd anecdote and strange insights – one of the oddest being that the child Myrtle is side-tracked from her task of accompanying George around town into watching a street performance of a Punch and Judy man. This is told with all the surreal oddity the subject encourages, but with the added twist that a passing horse shies, starts and backs into the Punch and Judy booth, knocking it and the performer inside sprawling. Disgruntled the performer packs his stuff into his gaudily painted van and trots off.

But the main event of this section is that, while George is strolling back from a run-of-the-mill chore, followed by the puppy-like Myrtle, he comes across a house outside which a wretched drunken harridan is wailing about a sick man. Reluctantly, medical student George feels compelled to investigate, is led up to the first floor, where, to his horror, he finds the half-naked body of his father with his trousers down on a bed. Pretty obviously Mr Hardy senior had a heart attack while having sex with the drunk woman, although we see all of this through the eyes of pre-sexual Myrtle who thinks he must have just been sleeping an a funny position.

Keeping his self-possession, George arranges for a street urchin, whose name we later discover is Pompey Jones, to fetch any conveyance he can beg or borrow. This, with typical Bainbridgean bizarreness, turns out to be the wagon used by the local Punch and Judy man we saw in an earlier scene – and, along with Myrtle, the trio dress Mr Hardy’s body, carry it into the Punch & Judy van, rattle back to the Hardy residence, sneak it through the family orchard and upstairs into Mr Hardy’s house, dodging the servants, Mrs Hardy and sister Beatrice. The guilty trio lay the stiffening corpse out on its bed as if he’s had a heart attack, perfectly natural-like. Then they go their separate ways, leaving the body for a maid to find that evening – which results in general hysteria among wife, daughter and servants. Myrtle swears eternal silence to George. Pompey is heavily paid off for his silence.

Plate 2 – 1850 A veil lifted (Pompey)

Section two is narrated in the voice of Pompey Jones (as we learn on page 63), the street urchin who did Master Georgie the immense favour of helping him carry his dead father home four years back. We learn that George subsequently packed Myrtle off to boarding school to ensure her absence/silence. And that George sent Pompey with money to buy the silence of the drunk harridan/prostitute. But the latter is such an alcoholic she’d forgotten the incident anyway, so Pompey kept the money and spent it on a set of his own photographic equipment, figuring to pick up the craft from Mr George and eventually set up in his own right.

We learn that Pompey once scraped a living as a street performer, eating fire, which is how he badly burned his lip, which George tended to free of charge. Through one thing and another, Pompey has become a kind of favoured servant, a fixer and gofer for George, running occasional errands as and when required.

On the day covered by this section, Pompey arrives bright and early as requested by George at the Hardy house. Here, he tells us, while waiting for George to awaken, he’s got into the habit of performing little tricks before anyone’s up, namely moving bits of furniture around, swapping paintings, moving fire irons and so on. Today he carries out his boldest exploit yet by rearranging the living room tiger rug, draping it over the back of a chair so it appears almost lifelike. He takes a glass of the family port and surveys his work with pride. He is a cheeky chappy, an artful dodger, a streetwise kid.

George finally appears and commands Pompey into the waggon with his medical equipment because they are setting off on a bizarre medical exploit where Pompey will be needed, namely assisting at an operation George is carrying out along with a fellow surgeon, Dr Rimmer, to remove the cataracts from the eyes of an aging ape kept in the collection of the eccentric millionaire owner of Blundell Hall.

This requires Pompey to drive George and his boxes of equipment in a lumbering horse and cart on a circuitous route along the seashore out of Liverpool and through what are presumably – nowadays – heavily built up inhabited areas but which were, back in the 1840s, empty countryside or sparse hamlets, thus giving a frisson of recognition to any Liverpudlian readers of the novel. (Bainbridge was Liverpool born and bred.)

Pompey assists at the bizarre operation by applying ether in a rag to the mangy old ape and keeping it unconscious while the two surgeons cut into its eyes! I defy you to think of a weirder fictional scene. Afterwards Rimmer and George celebrate with a drink, the latter overdoing it (since his father’s death, George has become a heavy drinker) so that Pompey has to manhandle him into the cart and drive it back into Liverpool along the wide beach as the sun sets. They stop so George can have a drunken conversation with an old hermit who they find on the shore.

We learn, through Pompey’s quick cynical thoughts and memories, that, on the fateful day of Mr Hardy senior’s death, George made a pass at young Pompey. He makes another, drunken, pass now. So, George is what we would nowadays call bisexual, although it is one of the many appeals of Bainbridge’s books that she imagines people in the past thinking according to their own culture, mindsets, psychologies and categories – which are often remote and strange. Maybe this – George’s wandering sexuality – is the veil which is lifted in this section.

When they arrive back at the Hardy household, and Pompey has helped drunk George up to bed, he is accosted on the way back downstairs by George’s friend Potter, who sternly tells Pompey that his stupid jape of rigging up the tiger rug to look lifelike has caused George’s wife, Miss Anna, opening the door in the dim dawn light, to cry out, turn, trip, stumble and hurt her wrist but, more importantly, it brought on a miscarriage. Surprisingly, Pompey isn’t beaten or whipped but that is the end of his merry japes.

Plate 3 1854 Tug-of-war beside the sweet waters of Europe (Potter)

This first-person narrative is in the voice of Potter (as we learn on page 70), an older friend of George’s who was a geologist. In the earlier sections I had got the impression he was another medical student but now it becomes clearer that he is a geologist – not least because he gives several long descriptions of rocks and geological formations, as well as describing the shock he received on reading Charles Lyell’s epoch-making textbook, the Principles of Geology. Alas Potter has tried – and failed – to make a living by writing and now, sheepishly, lives to a large extent on the generosity of his old friend George.

George, we begin to realise, is the unspeaking central figure around whom all these other lives circle.

Potter is now married to Beatrice and narrates how they, George and his wife Annie, ‘the children’, and Myrtle – now educated and grown up but still slavishly devoted to George – have decided to take a cruise through the Mediterranean to Constantinople. The initial idea was for the two men to revisit some of the locations Potter first visited as a young man (and which he wrote a not-very-successful travel book about) but first one and then other wife asked to come and the whole expedition just snowballed. Thus they are all together in Malta as they hear rumours of approaching war, and by the time they reach Constantinople it is confirmed that Britain and France have gone to war with Russia in support of the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War has begun. George reports to the British consulate and volunteers as a surgeon, and is assigned to the newly established military hospital up the Black Sea coast at Varna.

Potter’s voice is much the most enjoyable of the three, with his cynically humorous take on his wife, his friend, their families, hangers-on. He gives deliciously acid thumbnail portraits of fellow passengers on the ship and then of fellow Brits in Turkey.

Both George and Potter are particularly irritated when a pompous fellow passenger, Naughton (a bumptiously jingoistic violin maker), becomes infatuated with Myrtle who, of course, has eyes only for George. George and Potter spontaneously start a joke which is to pretend to Naughton that Myrtle is already engaged. Pushed on the identity of her fiancé, they invent a dashing cavalry officer, all of which Naughton believes. Things get complicated later on, when Myrtle gets caught up trying to extricate the family puppy from street dogs in Constantinople, and is helped out by a passing cavalry officer. Naughton sees them returning from this incident and completely misinterprets it to think that this officer is Myrtle’s (entirely fictitious) lover.

And so when Naughton spies this same officer, innocently snogging a local woman in the box next to our chaps at the opera – and Myrtle weeping (entirely because the of the music) – Naughton completely misinterprets the scene to think the officer is behaving outrageously and making the poor aggrieved Myrtle weep. Naughton storms along the passageway, into the box and attacks the officer, who promptly defends himself and accidentally knocks Naughton clean out of the box and onto the stage beneath. George attends Naughton, who is not as injured as you’d expect, leaving Potter to feel sheepishly guilty, while reflecting on the absurdity of life, its randomness and chance complications.

Plate 4 – August 1854 Concert party at Varna (Myrtle)

Section four is narrated by Myrtle, eight years older than her first appearance and a woman of the world. George has volunteered to work as a surgeon up at Varna, where the British soldiers are dropping like flies from the cholera epidemic. The wives – Annie and Beatrice – and the children have been packed off back to Blighty, and Myrtle and Potter have accompanied him to Varna.

This section gives us a sense of the sights and smells of the allied camp at Varna, especially the drunkenness of the British troops. It also slowly becomes clear that George’s relationship with Myrtle is now sexual. Myrtle goes for a horse ride with another Brit they met on the ship over, a Mrs Yardley who openly admits to being in an unmarried relationship with a colonel in the Guards. There is a typically bizarre scene where the pair of English ladies find themselves straying too close to a Turkish farm and being hussled into it by peasants, who promptly offer them bowls of none-to-clean milk while the exhausted peasant mother suckles a baby and a nearby pregnant goat gives birth messily, to the ladies’ horror.

But the main event in this section is a performance by a British concert party, chaps dressing up as women and singing each other sentimental songs. The climax is an explosive display by a handsome young fire-eater. Fire eating ring any bells? Yes, it turns out this performer is none other than Pompey Jones from Liverpool. He had become a photographer’s assistant in Liverpool, the photographer received a commission to come out and take pics of the army in Turkey, so that’s how he’s here in Varna; then one of the performers in the concert show went sick and someone had heard Pompey talking about his fire-eating days so he found himself being dragooned onstage. In other words, it is a staggering coincidence that Myrtle, George and Potter should bump into Pompey like this. But, as various characters reflect throughout the text, life is full of haphazard accidents and random chances.

Before the concert show George had asked Myrtle to prepare for a sexual encounter with him, so she had washed her armpits and ‘other places’. Alas, she waits and waits till dawn but he doesn’t come. She goes over to his tent and is upset to find George asleep in the arms of the handsome, fit young fire-eater. Myrtle is distraught, and finds herself pouring her heart out to Mrs Yardley – but Mrs Yardley and all the others believe in the cover story that George and Myrtle are brother and sister, and so thinks Myrtle is upset merely at the lower class and homosexual nature of George’s affections – she doesn’t realise Myrtle is upset because she feels a lover’s betrayal- and Myrtle, even in full flight of sobbing, realises she mustn’t reveal the truth.

Later, once George has woken and gone about his tasks at the barracks hospital, Myrtle and Pompey sit and talk about old times. Pompey startles her by revealing that Georgie has told him ‘about the babies’. It is via this conversation that we learn the startling revelation that Myrtle is the mother of George and Annie’s babies! After George’s wife Annie’s fourth and final miscarriage – the one caused by Pompey rearranging the tiger rug – Annie was declared infertile and so… and so the trio agreed that Myrtle should be impregnated and bear the children which she now helps to bring up but which George and Annie treat as theirs. She is the mother of George’s children. No wonder she is so besotted by him.

But in the way which I so admire about her historical novels, Bainbridge captures the way all involved acquiesce in the event but keep it hidden, coping with it, rationalising it, in a way inaccessible to our modern politically correct sensibilities.

Annie accepts the situation and the children and Myrtle. George conceals any public displays of affection for Myrtle and keeps her at a distance – and sleeps with young men. Which upsets Myrtle but doesn’t repel her: the homosexuality isn’t an issue. She even wonders whether George’s mother, old Mrs Hardy know but keeps quiet about the ‘scandal’.

The story feels so Victorian, so very much about love and desire twisted and reconfigured in unexpected, secret, repressed ways. People were different in the past. Really profoundly different, in the way they thought about life, lived, in their values and decisions, and Bainbridge’s novels wonderfully capture this difference on every page.

After Pompey leaves her, Myrtle tells Potter that Pompey knows about the babies. Foolish for George to have told him, Potter says. He could do you both harm. An ominous note is sounded. Will the story end in some kind of blackmail?

Plate 5 – October 1854 Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice (Potter)

This is the second narrative told in the voice of by Potter, in which he comes over as significantly more of a bore than in the first one. Shame. I liked his affable cynicism. Now we know, from remarks of George’s to his face, that George is finding him rude and offensive and he is boring everyone with his endless classical quotations.

It is through Potter’s eyes that we see the allied task force of 64,000 soldiers set sail from Varna, cross the Black Sea and land at Eupatoria, on the west coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Potter describes the unopposed landing, the assembly of the troops and then the nightmare march of the soldiers south, without food or drink through the intense heat of a blistering summer’s day, when thousands of soldiers dropped out of line and hundreds died of exhaustion and dehydration, the terrible march I’ve read about in the historical accounts by Saul David and Orlando Figes.

And so the soldiers straggle on to create the armed camp south of Sevastopol. Bainbridge is not a historian and so we only hear about the epic battles of the river Alma and of Balaklava peripherally, as throwaway remarks by Potter who is more concerned about the facilities in the camp where he finds himself, and the relationship with George and Myrtle.

It is a relief we are not shown these battles (as we might be in a more macho, male narrative). Instead the charge of the Light Brigade is only referenced insofar as some of the returning riderless horses ride on in among the hospital tents where Potter was assisting George. He stops one of the fleeing horses and commandeers it, albeit the poor thing has been deafened by the cannon.

There are drunken dinners with soldiers (officers, of course) at which Potter tactlessly prattles on about death and displays his classical and/or geological learning, to the others guests’ boredom or dismay. According to Potter’s narrative he is having more and more intense visions of his wife, Beatrice, who was wise enough to depart Constantinople and return to peaceful Wales, but now appears to him in visions by day and night. Most embarrassingly she appears to Potter when he’s attending a funeral of some officers they knew. Her spirit leads him away to pick an intensely blue cornflower. I suspect these feverish hallucinations are intended to be the symptoms of cholera or typhoid. Maybe Potter is going to die.

A photographer is present to pose the mourners at this funeral, to show ‘the folks back home’ – hence the section’s title, Funeral procession shadowed by Beatrice.

Plate 6. November 1854 Smile, boys, smile (Pompey)

The sixth and final section is narrated by Pompey. His boss, the photographer, has gone back top Constantinople for supplies, leaving Pompey to hang out with the gang – George, Myrtle, Potter – and give us our last sight of them.

Pompey isn’t in the army – he built on the photography equipment he bought with the money he sidelined from George, as per chapter two, to get a job as a photographer’s assistant. We learn that the photography van, painted bright white and containing shelves of cameras, lenses and development equipment, is none other than the Punch and Judy van which Myrtle described back in section one, eight years earlier, and which was used to carry the corpse of naughty Mr Hardy home. Thus do accidents and coincidences litter our lives.

The climax of the book comes when all four are called into action to reinforce British troops being attacked. I think this is an account of the Battle of Inkerman, a bloody battle in which Russian troops again and again stormed British strongpoints on a day of dense fog, in which the fighting was reduced down to bleak and horrific hand-to-hand bayoneting in muddy pits.

Pompey, the tough street urchin, finds himself commandeered into combat but – like the survivor he is – kills his quota of Russians and survives. These last few pages convey the horror, terror and mindless violence of battle and Pompey, the tough survivor is the perfect pair of eyes to see it through.

Then the battle is all over and Pompey and Myrtle are helping injured soldiers back towards a dressing station where George is working, specifically an officer who’s had both feet blown off and whose comrades put his stumps into a barrel of gunpowder to stanch the bleeding. George lends a hand and,when Myrtle calls out because she’s stumbled on a stone, George turns to look at her and at that moment an injured Russian soldier, who had been lying nearby and has propped himself up on a rock, takes one shot at the stretcher party and shoots George dead.

Myrtle cradles George’s head. Pompey staggers off to inform Potter, a man now much reduced from his former witty self, plastered in mud, malnourished, babbling classical quotes while tearing the pages of his precious books to stuff into the stove to keep warm. So much for intellectuals.

In the final act, Pompey returns to the British camp to discover his boss, the photographer, has returned and is taking a photo of five survivors for the folks back home. They need another figure to complete the composition. Pompey jogs off and returns bearing the corpse of George. Not fazed by dead bodies, the soldiers prop George up to look like one of themselves, one of the happy chaps defending ‘Justice’ and ‘Liberty’ and ‘Empire’, as the photographer says, ‘Smile, boys, smile.’

Finis.


The photos

By the end the reader realises that each section contains the taking of a photo: in section one George practices his new hobby by asking the young Myrtle to pose touching the corpse of his father (hence ‘Girl in the presence of death’), and each of the subsequent sections is named after a particular photograph which for one reason or other is taken during the action. Thus the photo of the funeral party in the penultimate section (the one where Potter shames himself by wandering off half-delirious to pick a cornflower) and, of course, the final posed and utterly deceitful photo which ends the text.

As I noted in my review of Crimea, which describes how the newfangled photographs of the war were almost all carefully posed and arranged – the camera always lies.

Literary effects

Humour, often very dry humour, is never far away in Bainbridge’s novels. One simple but effective result of the way the book uses multiple viewpoints is that the impression and story told by one narrator can then be humorously undercut by the next one.

Thus when we see George through Myrtle’s eyes it is through the mind of a lovelorn girl who describes him as a handsome, wise and good young man. It is a shock to have the same George described by Potter as an overweight drunk. Similarly, Potter’s own text narrative is shrewd and witty, so we (well, I) was won over to his witty character. It comes as a shock, then, to have Myrtle, at the beginning of her next section, describing him as an intellectual bore, irritating everyone by quoting ancient poetry in the original, maybe -as Myrtle reflects – as an escape from the brutal realities of the present.

Conclusion: We are mysteries to each other. The world is a mystery to all of us.

Disconcerting

Bainbridge is the Queen of Disconcertment. The broad shape of her narratives, the vivid vignettes which stud her stories, and even passing similes and phrases, all contain the potential to unnerve, ruffle and discomfit the reader. For example, Potter describes their ship setting off from Constantinople:

In our wake flew a swarm of small birds, no bigger than robins, which are never seen to settle, but must always be in flight. The Turks, so I was told, suppose them to be the souls of women whom the Sultan has drowned. (p.106)

Not what you expected from a description of sea birds. Potter describes how the extended group spend an evening at the filthy Istanbul opera house, where the big passionate music of Verdi made Myrtle cry. But the reader is distracted from this straightforward situation by the discombobulating comparison which Myrtle’s weeping brings to Potter’s mind.

Then, some moments before the interval, I heard a strange mewing sound, which instantly brought back memories of Mrs O’Gorman’s kitchen and the cry of the stable cat prowling the bucket in which its kittens lay drowned. (p.100)

Wow. Yes. An endless ability to unsettle and unnerve.

Quite apart from the unsettling drift of the overall narrative, the text is laced with moments where the everyday is transformed into bewildering strangeness. Sometimes the incongruities can be very funny, like the extended deception Potter and George play on poor Naughton about Myrtle’s fictional lover. But mostly they’re weird and discomfiting. And sometimes poetic and evocative, coming and going in seconds, like the flow of experience. A tiny example: in the final section Pompey is sharing a cosy mug of tea with Potter, both of them shrouded in the impenetrably thick fog.

Close by, a horse pissed, its splatterings diminishing as it trotted on. (p.197)

This is a marvellous book, laced all through with the weirdness and poetry of life.


Related links

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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