Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!


McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.

Related links

Related reviews

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!

Related links

Related reviews

Close-Up by Len Deighton (1972)

‘Two goats in the Mojave Desert. Have you heard it, Viney?’ Weinberger shook his head.

‘They find a tin of film. One of them nuzzles it until the lid falls off. The film leader loosens around the spool and the goat eats a few frames. The second goat eats some too, and they all pull the film off the reel until they have eaten the whole of it. There is nothing left except the can and the spool. The first goat says,”Wasn’t that great?” and the second goat says,”The book was better.”‘

Stone laughed heartily and Weinberger joined in although he’d heard it before (p.191)


After spies, comedy and war, this is another deliberate new departure, or experiment by Len Deighton – this time into the glitzy glamorous world of movie-making and Hollywood film stars.

Deighton had quite a bit of experience of the movie world and no doubt that’s what gave him the inspiration and much of the material for this book. His hugely successful début, The Ipcress File, was turned into a movie in 1965 and there are plenty of photos of Deighton showing its star, Michael Caine, how to cook. Deighton formed a production company with photographer Brian Duffy to produce the film adaptation of his own comic novel, Only When I Larf (1968), and the same company helped produce the screen version of the hit stage play Oh What A Lovely War, for which Deighton also wrote the screenplay (1969), one of the classic British movies of the 1960s.

Thus Deighton knew what he was writing about when he turned to creating a novel about an English actor caught up in the Hollywood machine. However, there isn’t exactly a shortage of novels about Hollywood, quite a few of which reveal that it’s a cut-throat business full of cynical studio bosses, jaded directors, egotistical stars, gagging starlets, alcoholic writers and so on and so on.

What Deighton did for the spy novel (bring a completely new, wonderfully fresh and irreverent style to it) he doesn’t do for the movie-world novel. Close-Up is well-imagined and well-written but it doesn’t break any moulds. In fact, considering the extravagance, cynicism and obscenity of some of the competition, Close-Up is quite cosy and conservative. It fits very snugly into ‘the mould’.


Marshall Stone is the main character. He’s in his late 40s, risen from suburban dullness (real name Edward Brummidge) to work his way up the ranks of provincial stage actors, before being spotted and given the lead in the wildly successful Western Last Vaquero (1949) (no, it doesn’t exist and doesn’t sound as if it could have been a classic Western). He manages to keep a foot on the English stage with a decade-defining Hamlet i the 1950s, before making more movies through the 60s and now, in the early 1970s, reaching his 50th birthday, he faces difficult personal and professional choices, which the novel describes and dramatises.

Leo Koolman is the unsmiling head of a Hollywood studio who is over in London partly to fête Stone, to make sure he turns up for the filming of his current project, Stool Pigeon, but mainly to coerce him into signing up for a series of TV dramas, a move Stone is understandably reluctant to agree to.

Jake Weinberger (Viny), former publicity manager who is now Stone’s long-suffering agent and confident, and who is being squeezed by Koolman to bring pressure on Stone to sign the contentious TV deal.

Kagan Bookbinder, the stocky producer of Stone’s breakthrough movie, who appears in numerous subsequent scenes as his career intersects with Stone’s, espcially in the climactic scenes where Stone gets talked into starring in an ill-fated independent movie of Bookbinder’s which goes seriously wrong.

Edgar Nicholson, another English actor who appears in the famous breakthrough movie, but whose part is savagely cut to foreground Stone, and whose career never recovers, who appears in verious subsequent scenes as a permanent reminder of the price others paid for Stone’s success.

Suzy Delft is Stone’s illegitimate daughter, now in her early 20s and herself trying to break into the movies. Something odd is going on because since puberty she has had to fend off Stone’s rather more-than-fatherly embraces and outright groping. Is he an incestuous pedophile? Or is Suzy, in fact, not his daughter at all?

Peter Anson was a one-time movie hopeful whose career was shafted and so became a writer. Now he’s been commissioned to write Stone’s biography, so gets to meet him and his family and poke around in his past. Given added piquancy because he is married to Stone’s former wife, Mary.

Slow plot

There are lots of leisurely long scenes between these and a few other characters which allow Deighton to display his knowledge of the finances, deals, technology and psychology of movie-making. The novel is long on leisurely conversations (it’s 345 pages in length) and fairly short on plot.

There’s some technical interest in the way chapters alternate between an omniscient third person narrator and the first-person narrative of Peter Anson as he compiles his biography.

And in the way the time frame leaps around, rooted in a present where Stone is feeling his age, insecure, unhappy filming his latest movie and stressed about the TV deal, but abruptly switching to Stone’s youth in the 1940s, to scenes surrounding the making of his breakthrough Last Vaquero, Anson gets hold of Stone’s first wife’s diary of the late 1940s and 1950s and these are reprinted verbatim.

All this is cleverly handled but there is no tension or forward pull to the narrative. It could have gone on like this for a few hundred more likeable pages. Deighton is always engaging, if never quite believable, company.

I thought the business with a lover of Stone’s in his early days, who Koolman says is blocking his career and needs to be got rid of – I thought it might emerge that she was murdered or something. There’s also a permanent shimmer of uncertainty around whether Suzy Delft is or isn’t the illegitimate daughter Stone claims her to be… And there are unlikely suggestions that Stone’s ex-wife had an affair with Koolman…

But none of these build up to anything: there is no big plot revelation at the end. Instead, in the final pages the book becomes unexpectedly post-modern as the biographer, Anson, confronts a Koolman gloating about finally persuading Stone to do the TV deal – and then, in a slightly surreal way, Anson announces he’s not going to write a factual biography of Stone anyway, he’s going to turn the actor’s story into a fiction – ‘A book of fiction can get closer to the truth than a biography.’ (p.344) whereupon the studio owner enthusiastically joins in, suggesting ideas: how about they call the star actor ‘Marshall Stone’; and how about the scheming mogul is called ‘Koolman’ – ‘Say, that’s not a bad name for me – Koolman: cool man, yes, I like it.’ Thus the fiction closes with the fictional characters creating it and the entire book ends with Anson saying he’s just composed the opening to his novel – and quoting the opening paragraph of this book 🙂

Clever though this kind of ending is, it doesn’t add to or undermine the preceding fiction, which we have engaged with too much (or to little) to be swayed by a final throwaway device. I already knew Koolman and Stone were fictions. They’re in a novel. Having the novel say they are fictions doesn’t alter my experience of the text in the slightest.

The risks of writing a Hollywood novel

Writing a Hollywood novel is a high-risk undertaking from the start for at least three reasons: 1) fictitious movie star names and movie titles always seem silly 2) it quickly dates 3) you can’t out-gross the gross things we already know.

1. There is a very big, costly publicity machine working all the time to make sure everyone in the world knows what the new movies are, who the top actors are, who’s making what with whom, and all the gossip and scandals of their private lives. The advent of the internet hasn’t exactly damped down celebrity culture. The reverse, it’s become an all-consuming, hyperactive machine and goes at an incredible pace. Everything in it dates so fast, product moves to dvd and then box set in months and we have moved onto the next thing, it’s impossible to avoid the daily diet of ads or news snippets, reviews on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, espcially the annual brou-haha about the Oscars. Hundreds of millions of consumers pride themselves with being bang up to date about the movies.

Thus we are all sensitised to the names of the actors and actresses and hit movies of our time – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson – without trying, I feel I know all about them. They are, in fact, very ordinary names (George) but attached to people of extraordinary skill and amazing charisma who, through their talents (and good looks) and the efforts of a multi-billion dollar multinational industry, have become household words or brands. Name recognition is immediate and total, the mind is flooded with images and emotions evoked by their roles like the palate is by the taste of chocolate.

No work of fiction can compete with that depth of aura. Marshall Stone, Valentine Somerset, Suzie Delft – heard of them? They are the made-up names of the ‘hugely famous’ movie stars in this novel. Except they are not remotely famous. And so their names fall flat. When le Carre invents the spy George Smiley or Forsyth invents Inspector Lefebre, their names barely matter, they are ‘ordinary’ people we would never have heard of. Their character emerges from their actions in the narrative. But the movie novel must persuade us that the whole world knows Marshall Stone, he is mobbed wherever he goes, everyone’s seen his movies, as the premise of the story, for it to make sense. But we haven’t heard of him and we don’t really care what happens to him.

Creating names for fictional movie stars is uniquely difficult because we know to within a millimetre all the names of current and previous generations of stars, as well as having warm feelings for eg Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen. To insert ‘Marshall Stone’ in among such names in the narrative is like a bad special effect, is like the appearance of Zelig with famous people in the Woody Allen movie of the same name, or the scenes where Forrest Gump meets famous people – instead of weaving his characters into a seamless fiction, namedropping real movie stars only highlights the empty, connotation-free, arbitrary quality of the fiction.

2. And nothing dates quicker than this topical knowledge. The text references recent industry-changing hits like The Sound of Music (1965), Easy Rider (1969) and Love Story (1970), suggests that Tom Jones or Andy Williams sing the title song of the new movie, Laurence Olivier is namechecked as the actor Stone most resembles and Stone’s 20-something daughter is mistaken for Nancy Sinatra, or is it Jane Fonda? It all seems such a long, long time ago.

3. Out-grossing the gross. Part of the appeal of the Hollywood movie is its ‘thrilling revelations’ about the scandalous behaviour of the stars and bureaucrats – look they take drugs, wow they screw starlets, God the studio boss is a cynical Machiavelli! But this is hardly news. The 1959 classic Hotel Babylon set a new low in its scurrilous stories of movieland’s cynicism, corruption and criminality. Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestseller Valley of the Dolls didn’t pull its punches about the sex and drugs world of 1940s and 50s Hollywood.

By contrast, the way Deighton’s studio head is a calculating manipulater who sometimes loses his temper, or the main character a 50-something male actor who’s a bit selfish and egotistical, seem very pale revelations indeed. It seems that the girl he was having an affair with in the early days died having a backstreet abortion and Stone paid for a fake story about her dying in a car crash to appear in the newspapers. That seems to be the most scandalous event in the book.

Deighton is too nice, too decent to give real bite to his satire, let alone convey real fear at Stone’s plight. And although Stone appears to have been cunningly stitched up by Koolman in the end, what does that amount to? He has to make a Dirty Harry-style movie and then ten episodes of the TV spin-off for a vast fee. Oh what a terrible fate.

This is an amiable 350-page read, with lots of the usual pleasures of a Deighton novel eg the crisp sentences, the understated humour and the interesting factual stretches packed with knowledge about cameras and lighting and directing and editing, and with topical conversations which are now quite interesting social history, where characters worry about TV killing off cinemas or the impact of the newfangled technology of tape cassettes on the movie business … but it isn’t the Deighton novel you’d recommend to newbies.

Related links

Paperback edition of Close-Up

Paperback edition of Close-Up

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Last Tycoon by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1941)

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940. He was just 44 years old. He left unfinished his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was published posthumously in 1941. He had shot to fame aged just 24 with the super-romantic This Side of Paradise (1920), followed two years later by The Beautiful and Damned, and a steady stream of short stories about the bright young things of Manhattan which helped define the Roaring Twenties, a brittle doomed mood he captured in with his best-known book, The Great Gatsby (1925). A difficult decade followed as America was hit by the Wall Street Crash and Depression, Fitzgerald’s partying slid into alcoholism and his marriage to Zelda hit the rocks as she experienced increasingly severe psychological problems. It was nine long difficult years before he published his last completed novel, Tender Is The Night, in 1934, to mixed reviews.

The Last Tycoon

The 1941 edition of the novel was assembled from surviving manuscripts and fragments by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson and, 70 years on, is the version still published by Penguin. It is a short 150 pages long, divided into half a dozen chapters, themselves spliced together from short scenes, before the text breaks down in mid-paragraph, and the remaining 40 pages are made up of a synopsis of the rest of the plot pieced together from various sources, a letter to an agent sketching the plot, a diagram Fitzgerald left, and then increasingly fragmentary bits until it is just individual sentences from the notebooks.

In 1994 Cambridge University press published a version which included significantly more scholarly apparatus, more fragments, reordered part of the text and restored Fitzgerald’s preferred title, The Love of The Last Tycoon.


The plot is simple as a fairy story. It is 1935 (not long after the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s) and Monroe Stahr (based on the film executive Irving Thalberg) is the boy wonder executive at a big Hollywood studio. Stahr is phenomenally capable, supervising numerous films simultaneously, handling moaning actors, incompetent directors, drunken writers. All the while he nurses the hurt that his beautiful film star wife, Minna Davis, died and abandoned him. And another secret: two different doctors have told him that his time is limited. He has heart disease. He is going to die.

Stahr closed his eyes and opened them again. Zavras’ silhouette had blurred a little against the sun. He hung onto the table behind him and said in an ordinary voice.
‘Good luck, Pete.’
The room was almost black, but he made his feet move, following a pattern, into his office and waited till the door clicked shut before he felt for the pills. the water decanter clettered against the table; the glass clacked. He sat down in a big chair, waiting for the benzedrine to take effect before he went to dinner. (Ch 4)

(‘Clacked’? A characteristic Fitzgerald touch.) One day, during an ominous and allegorical earthquake which causes some damage on the sets, he sees the spitting image of his lost wife. The rest of the fragment describes his pursuit of her, variously named in the fragments Kathleen or Thalia.

Point of view

Interestingly, there are two points of view: the opening chapter and some subsequent episodes are told through the eyes of the daughter of one of Stahr’s business partners, Cecilia or Celia Brady. She loves Stahr from afar and takes a passionate interest in his doings but, though only ten years or so older than her, Stahr is in a different stratosphere, with inconceivable pressures and problems. All the other scenes are told by a traditional omniscient narrator. The only other novel I can think of which does this is Dickens’s Bleak House. Fitzgerald doesn’t handle the switch with subtlety: ‘This is Celia taking up the narrative in person…’

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937 and, although he continued to make most of his income from short stories he went to get involved in the film industry. He spent some time working on scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including some unfilmed work on Gone with the Wind, a project about Madame Curie, a complete script titled infidelity and so on. In 1939, MGM ended the contract and Fitzgerald struggled on as a freelance screenwriter.

Like Chandler, Fitzgerald is aware of the depth to which movies enter people’s souls, affecting their thought patterns and behaviour: entire generations have modelled their hairstyles, clothes, look and dialogue on the super-sharp figures on the silver screen. Thus Cecilia, fantasising about getting Stahr to love her, realises her deepest ideas about love might themselves have been formed by the man she is pursuing:

I still like to think that if he’d been a poor boy and nearer my age I could have managed it, but of course the real truth was that I had nothing to offer that he didn’t have; some of my more romantic ideas actually stemmed from pictures – 42nd Street, for example, had a great influence on me. It’s more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was. (Ch 1)

Though a fragment, the novel paints a vivid, detailed and persuasive portrait of a wunderkind Hollywood studio head. Stahr is seen from all angles and portrayed as a demi-god, the last of Fitzgerald’s sequence of hero-worshipped leading men.

Though Stahr’s education was founded on nothing more than a night-school course in stenography, he had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him. (Ch 1)

The omniscient narrator places him in numerous professional situations, managing directors, designers, actors and actresses and writers. He is described as, and we see the evidence that he is, a master of his trade.

Stahr was a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age. (Ch 3)

Celia is important because she adds a different angle and point of view from the omniscient narrator. Because she has a passionate crush on the great man she allows Fitzgerald to indulge the Ivy League golden boy tones of his early work, mixed with Ayn Rand-like admiration for the superman. She is the device which allows Fitzgerald freedom to write at his most gushing:

Stahr had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously – even frantically – and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth. (Ch 1)

These two points of view, plus the sheer number of scenes in which we see him in action, build up a fascinating portrait of an American mogul. The steady accumulation of detailed descriptions of the minute-by-minute work and decisions and the decisive management of people and deadlines and material and technology are the reason people still call it the best novel ever written about Hollywood.

The first dictagraph messages blew in through the warm morning. While he shaved and had coffee, he talked and listened. Robby [the studio fixer who put in a full day the day before] had left a message: ‘If Mr Stahr wants me tell him to hell with it I’m in bed.’ An actor was sick or thought so; the Governor of California was bringing a party out; a supervisor had beaten up his wife for the prints and must be ‘reduced to a writer’… There was early snow on a location in Canada with the company already there – Stahr raced over the possibilities of salvage, reviewing the story of the picture. (Ch 3)

In fact chapters three and four consist solely of a prolonged account of one day in the life of the head of a Hollywood studio and make fascinating reading.  Raymond Chandler made his bitter hatred of Hollywood and its lousy morals abundantly clear in his sequence of Philip Marlowe novels. But Fitzgerald, despite his own adverse experiences, has nothing but admiration and respect for the talent and skill and hard work that went into the movies. Although he sounds a little world-weary, he is never cynical.


Fitzgerald’s early style was a wonderfully starry-eyed youthful romanticism. The first two novels tell the story of very young men and women falling in love in the privileged world of East Coast Ivy league universities. But it was always an uneven style, with the odd use of words and bumpinesses of phrasing. Nowhere near as simplified and mannered as Hemingway, nor as curt and crisp as Chandler’s pulp style.

In this, his final, text he combines practical A to B prose, with romantic phraseology, and a stream of wonderfully expressed psychological insights, especially about love. He is old-fashioned. He uses ‘whom’ a lot, twisting sentences round to fit it. Various things are brought ‘forth’. Chandler would puke.

From where he stood (and though he was not a tall man, it always seemed high up) he watched the multitudinous practicalities of his world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day had never mattered. (Ch 1)

Fitzgerald persistently uses words oddly, almost as malapropisms. ‘Multitudinous’? Not wrong, just unexpected. He has a strangely-angled vision of the English language and I can see why he might have struggled to produce the straight-shooting dialogue which movies require and Chandler covers whole pages with. In the ‘Stahr had flown’ quote, above, the use of ‘tenaciously’ and ‘frantically’ are not quite right and yet the force of the image overcomes the slight hesitancy of its expression. That sense of something not quite expressed right occurs on every page. But at the same time these slight unexpectednesses, the possible malapropisms, work to create odd insights:

‘Mr Stahr’s Projection Room’ was a miniature picture theatre with four rows of overstuffed chairs… Here Stahr sats at two-thirty and again at six-thirty watching the lengths of film taken during the day. There was often a savage tensity about the occasion – he was dealing with faits accomplis – the net results of months of buying, planning, writing and rewriting, casting, constructing, lighting, reshearsing, and shooting – the fruit of brilliant hunches or of counsels of despair, of lethargy, conspiracy, and sweat. (Ch 4)


Something else again happens in the central sections of the text, the marvellous scenes where Stahr drives Kathleen, the image of his dead wife, up to his half-built millionaire house near the sea and there, in the half-built house, their souls meet and mingle, and then they go down to the shore to watch a local phenomenon, the night-time inrush of silver fish, and have a strange midnight encounter with a black man who is capturing the fish. That the star-crossed lovers might find themselves on a romantic outcrop over the sea is Hollywood ie expected. The strangeness of the mood, and the very strange but intensely memorable scene with the black fisherman on the beach, has all the weirdness of real life and a pregnancy of meaning which makes it literature. The next day Stahr wonders if it even happened:

Was it a trick? As the whole vision of the last night came back to him – the very skin with that peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it – he thought whether it might not be a trick to reach him from somewhere. Not Minna and yet Minna. The curtains blew suddenly into the room, the papers whispered on his desk, and his heart cringed faintly at the intense reality of the day outside his window. If he could go out now this way, what would happen if he saw her again – the starry veiled expression, the mouth strongly formed for poor brave human laughter. (Ch 4)

The papers whispering, his heart cringing… these phrases are slightly heckneyed – but they come from a more innocent time, a less knowing time, a more forgiving time. Right to the end Fitzgerald wasn’t afraid to be starry-eyed, romantic.

Probably because I’ve been reading him recently, the love scenes remind me of DH Lawrence, specifically the way the thing that passes between Stahr and Kathleen is seen as a force bigger than them, and is identified with Life. Lawrence died in 1930 but his influence was immense among intellectuals looking for a purer life of feeling and freedom. This is from the scene where Stahr tracks down and meets the woman who he had glimpsed the day before, and whose likeness to his dead wife haunts him:

There she was – face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Minna’s face – the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs – and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation.
With a leap his heart went out of him as it had the night before, only this time it stayed out with a vast beneficence…
Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.
Stahr interrupted… but there were no words for what he really said. She listened closely without shame. Life flared high in them both… (Ch 4)

 ‘With a vast beneficence’? ‘Slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call’? You can hear his friend Hemingway chortling at the clumsy phrasing, his rival Hollywood hack Chandler sneering at Fitzgerald’s naive romanticism.

We’ll never know whether the finished novel would have hung together – and in his surviving outline the latter part of the plot becomes surprisingly convoluted – but this unfinished text contains numerous powerfully written scenes which shine with Fitzgerald’s undying sense of awe and wonder.

There is never a time when a studio is absolutely quiet. There is always a night shift of technicians in the laboratory and dubbing rooms and people on the maintenance staff dropping in at the commissary. But the sounds are all different – the padded hush of tyres, the quiet tick of a motor running idle, the naked cry of a soprano singing into a nightbound microphone. Around a corner I came upon a man in rubber boots washing down a car in a wonderful white light – a fountain among the dead industrial shadows. (Ch 2)

Cover of 'The Last Tycoon'

Cover of ‘The Last Tycoon’

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