Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003)

This is the first novel in what became known as the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy. I was wondering what Blue Ant would turn out to be, my mind alive with images of mutating insects, or maybe it was the nickname of some groovy digital weapon, or a piece of cyberspace code.

But no, my heart sank when I learned that Blue Ant just refers to a fictional advertising agency set in the contemporary world i.e. turn of the century New York and London and Tokyo. And that the lead figure in the book is a ‘brilliant’ young logo expert, 32-year-old (page 2) Cayce Pollard who is a freelance fashion spotter, ‘an actual on-the-street cool-hunter’ (page 32), ‘a very specialised piece of human litmus paper’ (page 13):

  • ‘What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognise a pattern before anyone else does.’ (page 86)
  • All the time she’s spent on the world’s various streets, scouting cool for the commodifiers. (page 195)
  • ‘I find things, or styles, for other people, companies, to market. And I evaluate logos – trademark emblems.’ (page 231)

Just like the character Count Zero in the Neuromancer trilogy or Colin Laney in the Bridge trilogy had special, almost supernatural gifts for spotting trends, nodes and emerging meanings in the endless flow of data in cyberspace, so Cayce is credited with a special, almost supernatural gift to spot new fashion trends –

She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backwards, asking the next question. She’s that good! (page 32)

Except that Count Zero and Laney were dealing with the genuinely weird, visionary idea of dataflows, set in interesting futures, whereas Cayce has a special ability to spot… the latest trends in footwear. Or shirts. Or handbags. It feels like a crashing descent into the banal.

In the first 150 pages of this book the one piece of actual work which Cayce performs for the Blue Ant agency is they show her a new logo designed for a client which looks a bit like a sperm.

‘They wanted me here to tell them whether or not a new logo worked.’ (page 190)

She doesn’t like it so it’s sent back to the designer (Heinz) in Germany, who amends it to more of a squiggle – which she does like. That’s it. That’s how her supernatural abilities are put to use. Felt pathetic, to me.

The novel opens as Cayce arrives in London for a meeting with the Blue Ant advertising agency with a bad jet lag.

She’s here on Blue Ant’s ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering carnivores. (page 6)

The prose from the get-go is whip-smart and street savvy and cool and all those other adjectives, but cannot conceal what for me, as a person completely indifferent to fashion, is the crushingly dull and vapidly narcissistic world of fashion and marketing. And this is the first novel in which the real thinness of Gibson’s plots became clear.

Characters

The book is cleverly constructed and has a number of strands. Cayce is staying at the flat of a mate of hers, Damian, who is off shooting a documentary in Russia. The Blue Ant agency was founded and is run by the preposterous Hubertus Bigend, who drives a fast car, wears a stetson hat, looks like Tom Cruise with big teeth, and has advanced views about how advertising bypasses the rational mind and goes straight for the primitive hippocampus, the basic mammalian stem of the brain (page 69). Just, in fact, like all the pretentious, high-talking heads of all advertising agencies are ‘visionaries’, ‘gurus’, ‘geniuses’, prophets, intellectuals, blah blah blah.

Hubertus Bigend and contempt for the reader

Calling his central character Hubertus Bigend struck me as being a gesture of contempt by Gibson. In the third of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, Hannibal (1999), written some time after the smash hit success of the Anthony Hopkins movie version of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Harris has a scene where the psychopath moves amid the crowd in the London Dungeon and freely expresses his loathing and contempt for the shallow philistines who love being titillated by gruesome murders. Peasants! Plebs! It seemed to me that Harris was deliberately gobbing in the face of the people who bought his books and paid to see the movies.

Something comparable struck me as happening here. It seems to me Gibson that is taunting his readers, saying if you can believe in a character I’ve named Hubertus Bigend, you’ll believe anything; if you swallow this stupid, insulting name, it just goes to prove what gullible mugs you are, falling over yourselves to associate yourself with my shimmering street-savvy prose, to slip on a leather jacket and shades and a ripped t-shirt and pretend to be in on the latest thing, in a pathetic attempt to hide from yourself how middle-aged and white and boring you are.

In fact it’s not only Hubertus Bigend who has a stupid name, they all do:

  • Cayce Pollard
  • Hubertus Bigend
  • Damian Pease (page 104)
  • Boone Chu (page 100)

In the Neuromancer trilogy Gibson really did feel like he was writing about gutter punks strung out on future drugs as they hacked in and out of cyberspace in gorgeously whip-sharp prose. You are totally in that world.

The Bridge trilogy which followed felt to me more contrived: its focus is on solidly lowlife types, or people bumping along the bottom of society – a security guard and ex-bike courier and rasta shopkeeper and a damaged teenager – giving the impression of a world which is fly and sharp and cool and street and happening, man. It’s only when the story refers to the authorities who actually run all the amenities of post-earthquake California – for example when the fire brigade gets called in to put out the climactic blaze on the Golden Gate bridge – that you realise that beyond Gibson’s handful of street types and scandi noir assassins, there is actually a great big world of grown-ups, where taxes are gathered to pay for schools and hospitals and police and fire brigade, where bureaucrats and businessmen commute to work every day and get things done. Where people aren’t lowlife drifters, living in cardboard boxers, mixing with cool assassins in long black coats.

Suddenly, the story felt…well… juvenile, wilfully focusing on a handful of rather pathetic outsiders with no particular redeeming qualities or features, certainly in no way representative of the wider world.

The Blue Ant novels feel like they continue this downward arc – that what began as something genuinely subversive and new in Neuromancer has metamorphosed into something shiny and empty and corrupt. The triumph of style over soul. It feels like he’s sold out. The Clash lyric, ‘Huh, you think it’s funny – turning rebellion into money’ kept coming to mind (The Clash are actually quoted on page 130 and the novel features Gibson’s usual clutch of supposed rock stars and fake rock bands).

When you’re a kid you think the music and look of your time is the big deal which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order. Then you watch as the record labels and promoters and stadium bookers and the TV pundits and fashion journalists and style gurus turn it into just another brand, and next thing you know it’s being sold back to you at extortionate prices, marketed and advertised by would-be cool, creepy, slimey, 40-something sell-outs in designer leather jackets.

That’s what this book felt like to me: a creepy exercise in cynical box-ticking set among a jet-setting international advertising and media elite who know all the right people and who are all so fabulous – fabulously well dressed, fabulously well connected, fabulously stylish, and so fabulously interesting, dahhhling, Hubertus has just got the most fabulously interesting theory of why advertising works, dahling, you must hear it, the man is a complete genius!

Absolutely fabulous characters

Cayce, as is repeatedly pointed out, is supernaturally gifted at spotting fashion trends, and this is one of the obvious examples of pattern recognition which crop up throughout the book. Her father was Win Pollard, a leading security expert who made American embassies round the world secure. He had many wise words and sayings like a good father should, well, certainly in an airport thriller.

He advised her to always ‘secure the perimeter’. He warned her against apophenia which is the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things when there are none. It is a way of overdoing pattern recognition, a form of paranoia. (It crossed my mind, reading this, that creating patterns out of human activity is, in a broad sense, the core approach of all narratives.)

Cayce’s mother, Cynthia is equally as interesting and eccentric, a gen-you-ine Virginia eccentric (page 31) who lives in a nutty community who all believe in Electronic Voice Phenomena, a form of pattern recognition gone wrong (page 115).

Cayce had a therapist, Katherine McNally (page 253) (later this turns out to have been a string of therapists). She goes to a café in Camden and bumps into the famous Billy Prion, lead singer in the famous band, BSE. Her friend Damian is off in Russia making simply the most amazing documentaries ever.

In other words, her life is just so effortlessly glamorous, dahhling. It’s a Sunday Times Style supplement version of cool.

The shiny people in their black leather jackets, black Fruit of the Loom t-shirts, black skinny 501 jeans (page 2) and black shades, collars moodily turned up on their long black coats, or black leather and shiny nylon and squared-off shoes (page 153), smoking Gitanes like Albert Camus, drinking expensive Colombian coffee, hanging out in their cool redesigned interiors and stylish cars are like the pencil-thin, heroin-chic young things out of any number of indistinguishable fashion shoots from the last 30 years, or which populate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cynical, smooth, stylish, utterly empty car ads.

An ex-boyfriend of Cayce’s (oh, dahhling, how many have there been?) once compared her to a Helmut Newton portrait of Jane Birkin. Well, of course he did. A character she knows looks like Michael Stipe on steroids – ‘Oh I simply love REM, don’t you!’ (page 21).

Later Boone’s luggage is described as ‘one of those Filson outfitter bags that look like L.L. Bean on steroids’, page 172. In other words Gibson is starting to write in clichés and to repeat those clichés.

Cayce’s New York apartment is painted a shade of blue she discovered in Northern Spain and had the paint people mix from a Polaroid she took of it, she’s that good!

The book keeps up a steady stream of name-dropping, trailing any number of undergraduate cultural references from Tarkovsky to Baudrillard (page 48) because the book has intellectual pretensions as well, in much the way that high-end fashion magazines and style outlets like to quote Deep Thinkers, or at least put their faces onto t-shirts, turning them into yet another kind of shiny surface reflecting the characters’ bottomless shallowness.

They’re just names on labels, like all the other brands the text carefully namechecks – Tommy Hilfiger, Levi 501, Volvo, Agnes B, Molton Brown, Burberry, Gucci (127), Prada (188), Gap, L.L. Bean, Louis Vuitton (188), suede boots from Parco, Armani, Versace (271), Cartier (309), Hermès (310).

Everyone is just so fabulously fabulous, thus:

  • Hubertus is a philosopher king who founded the coolest ad agency anywhere (‘He’s brilliant, isn’t he?’ gushes a member of his staff on page 87)
  • Cayce’s friend Margot is doing a course at NYU in disease-as-metaphor (‘Oh how wonderfully Susan Sontag of her!’), as it happens, she is a former girlfriend of Bigend’s – small world, when you’re this brilliant and that good !
  • the text drops key names from an undergraduate media studies course like car keys – Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Jameson, August Strindberg, Andrei Tarkovsky (at least three times pp.146), Truffault, Peckinpah, Apocalypse Now (180), William S. Burroughs (186), James Joyce and Tennessee Williams (286), it’s a shopping list of rather dated intellectual ‘cool’
  • characters wonder whether the director of the fragments is some kind of ‘Garage Kubrick’ (page 47)
  • film-makers are all auteurs
  • Cayce is stopped in the street by someone who thinks he saw her at a fabulous event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (page 19)
  • not one but two of her former boyfriends were fans of Japanese actor Beat Takeshi, star of existential gangster films (page 167); of course they were, haven’t you heard of Beat Takeshi, oh dahling, where have you been hiding?
  • Cayce keeps bumping into rock singer Billy Prion, you all remember Billy Prion the famous rock singer, don’t you?

The text drops not only names but fashionable buzzwords, too, like a checklist from a student reading list of critical theory – liminal (54, 253), discourse, semiotics (‘semiotics of the marketplace’ 2, ‘a semiotic neutrality’ 89, ‘semiotic agoraphobia’ 264), hegemony, hermeneutics, God aren’t we clever and well-read.

As you can tell, I found Pattern Recognition unbearably pretentious, elitist and dull. It’s such a shame because in the Neuromancer novels Gibson seemed to have invented a dazzlingy jazzy, funky, street prose style to match the extraordinary goings-on in his digital future. But in a book like this, the style is broader, deeper and more accomplished, but now feels like it is dressing up distressingly lame, boring, fashion magazine material.

The McGuffin

All Gibson’s previous novels managed to cook up a sense of expectation and mild dread because they all contrived to have a Big Secret at their centre, a secret the characters slowly stumble across and which, in the case of the Neuromancer books, is genuinely mind-expanding (in the second novel a self-conscious, self-aware being emerges from the world’s data; in the third novel, it becomes aware that there are others like it out in space).

However, this entire Big Thing-at-the-heart-of-the-story strategy begins to run out of steam in the Bridge trilogy: in the last of those books we spend the entire narrative being promised that something big, really, really big is going to happen, something that is going to change the world forever, so we spend the entire novel on tenterhooks. And then… it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens at all. Well, the Golden Gate catches fire and then, er, is put out. That’s it.

The McGuffin in this novel is ‘the fragments’. Someone is releasing onto the internet brief fragments of what appear to be a movie. This cryptic procedure has spawned a community of obsessives around the world who have swiftly assigned themselves a ‘cool’ name, the ‘footageheads’, who have wasted vast amounts of time speculating what The Footage means, who took it and why and where it’s all going to end. Footageheads are obsessives and addicts. They think repeated watching of the various fragments, in various orders, gives them a sense of an opening into something, a universe, a narrative (page 109).

There are web communities devoted solely to analysing The Fragments, including one named F:F:F, which stands for Fetish: Footage: Forum, maintained by someone named Ivy, with about 20 regular posters including Parkaboy, La Anarchia, Maurice and Filmy, and where Cayce has been posting thoughts for some time.

As the novel begins and Cayce flies into London to undertake her brief job assessing the new logo for a Blue Ant client (why couldn’t the logo have been emailed or faxed or posted to her?) she is fussing and fretting over the release of the latest fragment, #135.

This silly idea really is the centre of this long novel, I kid you not. When, on the evening of her 1-minute logo-disapproving meeting, Cayce is invited out for dinner and then drinks with the swashbuckling Hubertus Bigend (‘Isn’t he brilliant?’), Hubertus takes Cayce to a cool designer bar in cool Clerkenwell (natch) where he springs on her the real reason he paid for her flight from New York — turns out Hubertus is a footagehead himself and is prepared to pay Cayce big bucks to find out who’s making The Fragments and why.

Before she knows what’s happening, Hubertus introduces her to a Chinese-American named Boone Chu. Cayce initially says no to the whole proposition, but, like Cayce herself, Boone is a genuine footagehead and his passion is contagious.

Tokyo

Cayce spends the first hundred and fifty pages mooching round the environs of her mate Damian’s flat in Camden i.e. up to the Lock, around the market, there are walks up Primrose Hill, she meets people in cafés, has a bizarre encounter in the street with three dudes who are buying and selling a suite of fake hand grenades which contain wind-up calculators (named Voytek and Ngemi), the nips over to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road. Then there’s all the taking of cabs to and from meetings at Blue Ant’s HQ in Soho. In other words, fashionable north and west London are given a good going over in Gibson’s slick stylish prose. Cool.

But via the community of footageheads Cayce has learned that there are various footage experts in Tokyo and so, once Boone Chu has helped persuade her to agree to Hubertus’s commission to track down the footage maker, she finds herself handed a Blue Ant Mac, ipad, mobile, credit card and plane tickets to Tokyo and whoosh! she’s aboard a British Airways flight to Japan. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

There’s quite a bit of reportage about what it’s like to arrive in Tokyo, deboard the plane, catch a cab into town, all the skyscrapers, the bombardment of foreign signs which every tourist since Roland Barthes has felt compelled to write a book about. The Blue Ant Tokyo office is terrifyingly prompt and efficient and, after she’s checked into a luxury hotel, arranges an hours-long pampering session with seaweed facials, wax and haircut. Then a new outfit, all in black, obvz.

Then, finally, we arrive at the point of the whole trip, which is some of her pals in F:F:F have identified a certain ‘Taki’, a Japanese footagehead, who claims to know of a ‘coven’ of other footageheads who have discovered a watermark on fragment #78.

Do you care? No, neither do I. Her friends then devise an elaborate scam which is to invent a horny, porny anime babe, call her Keiko, and persuade this Taki to a meeting on the promise that in exchange for his information, he’ll get a picture and contact details for this Keiko. I suppose they could have just rung him up and asked him or asked to meet for a coffee and asked him, But this way creates more cloak-and-dagger suspense.

So Cayce meets Taki in a seedy bar which he has chosen, he hands over the number he claims is in the watermark of fragment #78 and she hands over the bosomy photo of a made-up Japanese babe, goes for a pee and Taki is gone when she gets back.

Out in the dirty alley she is mugged by two guys dressed all in black (obvz) who seem to have Italian accents. But it turns out Cayce was trained in self-defence by her spy father (of course she was) and gives one of them a Glasgow Kiss before stamping on the other’s one’s shoe with her stilleto and running. At the end of the alleyway a lone figure on a moped is waiting, who lifts the visor of his helmet to reveal… it is Boone Chu! He flew out on the same plane as her and has been tailing her.

Long story short, he sweeps her off to a hotel, drinks and recovers and throws on new clothes (all black, natch), then a plane back to London.

Back in London

Boone and Cayce are collected by Hubertus in a cab, so he can debrief them about everything that happened. Boone does the talking and leaves out the mugging and his rescue of Cayce.

Back at Damian’s Cayce is disconcerted to discover Damian has returned to his flat from Russia, and brought along a moody sulky Russian girlfriend, Marina (dresses only in Prada, only in black, natch). Cayce crashes, the others go for meals, Camden is so cool.

Burglary I forgot to mention that after Cayce arrived in Damian’s flat she unpacked then went for a walk. When she came back she realised someone had been tampering with the laptop she uses i.e. had broken into the flat, but using the correct keys. This led to an outburst of paranoia which led her to barricade Damian’s door, then to get new locks.

Logophobia I also forgot to mention that Cayce has a severed phobia which is the other side of her having such a phenomenally good feel for fashion and logos, which is a phobia of logos. Thus a visit to Harvey Nichols upscale department store makes her nearly pass out, and conversation leads to the fact that the Michelin man, logo of Bibendum in Knightsbridge, gives her panic attacks. Thus it is no accident that when she gets back to Damian’s flat after some outing she finds a model of the Michelin man nailed to the door. She nearly throws up and has to detach it without looking directly at it.

Now, no sooner has she arrived back in London than she’s called to a meeting at Blue Ant with Hubertus. On the way in she almost collides with… the man who tried to mug her in Tokyo and is sporting a very broken nose. When she asks reception who he is, reception tells her that’s Dorotea’s driver, Franco (page 199).

Dorotea? Yes we met Dorotea Benedetti (page 9) in the early scenes. She is another freelance, this time an imposing executive, who had been liaising with the German designer about the sperm logo. Boone  explains that Dorotea was angling for a senior job at Big Ant and thought Hubertus had flown Cayce to London to consider her for the post i.e. to be a rival. And that’s why Dorotea commenced this barrage of psychological attacks against Cayce.

But in this new meeting at Blue Ant, also attended by Boone, Cayce now discovers that none of it was Dorotea’s idea, she was put up to it by a Russian who paid her, a tax lawyer based in Cyprus (described as being a centre of Russian money laundering, page 204). Not only did this Russian pay Dorotea to unsettle Cayce but someone passed on to her deeply personal information about Cayce’s logo phobia which she had only shared with her New York therapist. I.e. the Russians appear to have burgled Cayce’s therapist’s office.

So there’s some kind of deeper conspiracy against Cayce going on. When all this comes out in this boardroom meeting, Cayce is speechless with rage and calls Dorotea a ‘vicious lying cunt’ (page 203). But Hubertus stuns Cayce even more by announcing that he has hired Dorotea to Big Ant. Cayce reels out and goes to a Starbucks with Boone who explains that Hubertus doesn’t trust Dorotea but wants her on the inside of the tent pissing out.

Boone announces he’s flying to Columbus Ohio because that’s the location of a firm, Sigil, which specialises in watermarking movies. He thinks it might be them who placed the watermark on the fragment which they swindled out of Beat in Tokyo. So we’re back to The Footage, again, as providing the main narrative engine.

Bournemouth

Remember the oddballs Cayce walked past in Portobello Road, gathered round a car boot where she was astonished to see full of hand grenades till she went closer and discovered that they were only novelty calculators, one of the only hand-wound calculators in the world. To add a bit of grit, the story goes on to explain that they were designed by a Jewish designer Herzstark while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

Now we learn that the two guys gathered round that boot were collectors and aficionados, being Voytek the Slav, Ngemi the black guy. They were waiting for a potential purchaser, Hobbs Baranov to show up. But he didn’t, so they packed up and left, disgruntled.

Well, Voytek gets hooked up with Damian somehow I can’t quite remember, and is part of the ‘Camden set’. Cayce sees him a few times in Camden cafés, even round Damian’s place. Conversation reveals that Baranov is well connected as well as being a fanatical collector. He’s the son of a Soviet defector from the 1950s, possibly recruited to American intelligence (page 242).

We are told that a rare and valuable artifact, a prototype Curta calculator, went at auction to a Bond Street dealer, Lucian Greenaway. Cayce finds out the black guy Ngemi is catching a train down to Bournemouth to see Baranov the purchaser and asks Voytek to ask Ngemi if she can accompany him.

Yes. So Cayce catches a cab to Waterloo (with comic descriptions of British Rail announcements, sandwiches and English tabloid newspapers. Yuk.) Train to Bournemouth, borrows a car, drives out to derelict Ministry of Defence test centre, a handful of pitiful caravans, this is where Hobbs Baranov lives. He is very unpleasant but a fanatical collector of early computers and calculators.

The T diagram The F:F:F people continue to dangle the bait of a made-up hot Japanese footagehead babe in front of Taki i.e. continue sending fake emails from her to him and, having been given the photo Cayce gave him, he more than ever believes she is real and big-breasted and gagging to meet her if only he will hand over Footagehead facts. So Taki excitedly emails Cayce a diagram. It is an image which shows a sort of T-shaped piece of geography and written all over it are numbers. One of them is the same as the number watermarked into fragment #78 as revealed by Taki. So presumably they’re all watermarks to do with the Footage.

Now Cayce has come all the way down to this dingy caravan outside Bournemouth to show it to the collector and expert in the arcane, Hobb. She shows the image to Hobbs and he nods knowingly. Cayce makes Hobbs a deal. She’ll buy the Bond Street piece for him in exchange for information: she wants the email address to which the particular encrypted number Taki gave her was sent.

Back at Waterloo Ngemi tells Cayce that Hobbs, before he became a shambling alcoholic recluse, was something to do with setting up Echelon, an American system that monitors the entire traffic on the web. As so often with Gibson, this snippet is heavy with implied meaning, but light on actual content.

So Ngemi and Cayce go to this Bond Street dealer who is the epitome of superior snobbishness but sells them the Curta calculator, which they promptly hand to Baranov who was waiting outside with the email address Cayce wanted (stellanor@armaz.ru).

Cayce goes sits in Kensington Gardens where, on her iBook, she writes an email to the address asking who he or she is and what they’re aiming to achieve with the footage. (Email is written as e-mail throughout the book.)

Throughout the book she’s plugging her phone into her I-book in order to receive emails. Maybe this was cutting edge in 2002 or 3 but quite obviously it was to be completely superseded with the advent of smartphones by 2007 or 8.

Anyway, Cayce investigates the domain name @armaz.ru and discovers it’s owned by an Andreas Polakov based in Cyprus. She phones Bigend, asks the name of the Cyprus-based Russian lawyer who paid Dorotea to frighten off Cayce and it is… Andreas Polokov (page 259). One and the same man: so, Is the man who appears to be disseminating The Footage the same one who paid Dorotea to put the frighteners on Cayce? And if so, Why?

The guy at the other end of the email replies within half an hour saying he’s in Moscow. Cayce immediately gets Blue Ant’s people to buy her an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Moscow

There is the same kind of travelogue description of driving into the city from the airport which Gibson has already given us for London and Tokyo. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

The constant shifting of locale is like a James Bond movie and just like in the movies we get a lot of local colour and background information, almost like a tourist brochure.

We get descriptions of Moscow motorways, signage, the imposingly huge hotel (the President), the crappy hotel room, the poor cellphone reception, the rude staff, a couple of super-sexualised hookers hanging round in the lobby. It all sounds like notes Gibson has made on his travels promoting his earlier books.

Throughout the novel Cayce’s closest friend on the Fetish: Footage: Forum has been Parkaboy. He’s been avidly following her investigations into the source of the footage. Now in an email exchange he begs to be allowed to join her in Moscow.

Now, back when Hubertus originally hired Cayce to track down the Footage Maker, Hubertus said she could have anything she wanted, unlimited expenses, buy cars, take flights anywhere, stay in the best hotels etc. So Cayce now tells Parkaboy she’ll get him a plane ticket to Moscow, whereupon he tells her his name for the plane ticket, Peter Gilbert (page 278).

She gets another email from the footage guy telling her to meet him in a Moscow café. So she’s very surprised when the figure who weaves its way through the cafe to her turns out to be… a woman, introduces herself as Stella.

The big reveal

Stella explains everything, explaining the entire plot.

Stella was one of twin sisters, Stella and Nora born and bred in Russia. She and her sister were in a terrorist attack, a claymore mine stuck in a tree, which killed both their parents immediately, Nora was very badly injured with shrapnel lodged in her brain. She had been a film student in Paris. She had been working on several films which she cut shorter and shorter in line with her minimalist aesthetic.

After the injury she spoke only to Stella and only in the special private language which twins often develop. Stella and friends bring Nora her film equipment from Paris which is the only thing which perks her up. She resumes editing her film and paring it down till it ends up as just one shot.

Then they notice Nora staring at the monitor showing closed circuit TV footage of the reception area of the hotel. She is entranced by it. So, hoping to aid her cure, one of the doctors hooks Nora’s recording equipment to the CCTV camera, she begins recording it and editing it. And that, children, is the origin of The Footage which has been dazzling and puzzling the worldwide community of Footageheads. Bit disappointing, isn’t it.

They part, Cayce goes back to her hotel and sleeps, has calls with Boone, Hubertus, then receives a long email about his archaeology project from Damian. Then Stella’s car comes to collect Cayce and take her to an abandoned cinema, which became a squat in the chaotic 90s and is now where Nora sits in a shawl obsessively editing and re-editing fragments of her ‘film’. And where Stella sits for hours watching the genius of her sister, the Creator, the Maker.

Dorotea in Moscow

In the middle of all this, Cayce is astonished when Dorotea turns up in the Moscow hotel. Dorotea urgently takes Cayce for a drink, telling her that the twins (Stella and Nora’s) uncle, the one Stella says is rich and powerful and has been protecting them, well he’s not happy that Cayce has discovered who Nora is. She also casually reveals that she, Dorotea, knows all about The Footage, in fact is the most irritating member of the F:F:F, Madam Anarchia.

But even as she explains all this, Cayce realises Dorotea has drugged her Perrier water and she starts to pass out.

Cayce kidnapped

Cayce wakes up in what feels like a hospital ward, in a hospital ward, strapped to a bed. She dozes, wakes again, is no longer strapped down, climbs out of bed, finds her bag with her clothes stuffed in it underneath, gets into them, goes tentatively out into a corridor, walks towards a door showing daylight, out into the grounds and away from the nasty 1960s building before anyone notices, down rough paths, going down, then up and up and eventually coming to a wire fence topped with razor wire, which she gets over (at the price of ripping her precious Rickson’s leather jacket) and walks on across bare red soil till night begins to fall. She has no food, no water, no idea where she is and no idea where she’s headed.

Parkaboy

When out of nowhere a helicopter with a searchlight comes swooping overhead, lands, and a guy with night vision goggles walks up, oh my God is it Russian Security, the FSB, the Mafia? Is he going to shoot Cayce, take her back for torture and interrogation, is he…

No. As in any Hollywood action movie the dark, helmeted figure walks right up to her to create maximum threat and… introduces himself as Parkaboy! Her friend! From Chicago! Who she helped arrange the plan ticket for.

Parkaboy gives Cayce water then bundles her into the chopper taking them back to the facility while he explains everything (it’s lovely how people do that in thrillers, explain everything. I wish they’d do that in real life).

Back in the hotel bar Dorotea drugged Cayce with rohypnol. But as she went under, Cayce went postal and attacked Dorotea, giving her a bloody nose and black eye. Ambulance was called. All this just as Parkaboy walked into the hotel bar. In one of her last emails to him, Cayce had sent Parkaboy Stella’s contact details so Parkaboy rang rich, influential Stella and within minutes an expensive car with private goons turns up. Cayce was flown to the establishment where she woke up and which she’s just escaped from. Parkaboy explains it is an experimental private prison run by Stella and Nora’s super-rich uncle, really rich, maybe the richest man in Russia. Of course.

Prison? Yes and what are the inmates of this model prison being paid to do? To watermark every frame of the fragments of the movie which mad Nora is creating. Why?

Parkaboy now amazes Cayce by telling her that he was in the room when Volkov and Bigend first met. And talked. He says it was like watching spiders mate.

All this during the helicopter flight. Now the chopper lands. Cayce is cleaned and showered, her bleeding feet tended by a doctor, dressed and taken up to the tower overlooking the facility where she is dazed to meet Hubertus Bigend – he gets everywhere, but then he is a genius! – who suavely introduces her to the oligarch Andrei Volkov.

Over dinner everything is explained

Volkov looks like Adolf Eichman, a non-descript middle-aged man except with a chunk missing from his right ear (page 334). Through a translator he apologises to Cayce for the trouble she’s been through, shakes hands, says something in French to Bigend and departs with his three security guys, flying back to Moscow.

Cayce is introduced to Volkov’s Polish head of security, Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal and Sergei Magomedov, as he, Bigend, Parkaboy and Cayce sit down at a cloth-laid table as an expensive dinner is brought to them and served up.

Marchwynska-Wyrwal takes up the explanation. Volkov is now the richest man in Russia. The claymore mine attack was an assassination attempt on him which failed but killed his brother, Nora and Stella’s father. From that point onwards, out of guilt for his dead brother, nothing was too good for his nieces, Nora in particular, and Volkov paid for an editing suite to be installed in her Swiss clinic.

As Nora created footage, her sister Stella wanted it to be conveyed to the world, but it was Sergei who developed the methodology of releasing it in numbered fragments, each containing watermarks, with a view to creating a cult following.

They monitored the various forums and chatrooms and groups which set themselves up as footageheads but it was a casual remark of Cayce’s, in her early days of posting, a casual throwaway remark that maybe the entire thing was the whim of a Russian mafiosi, which made all their security operations sit up.

Turns out Volkov had two security operations, a traditional KGB one and a web-based one. The traditionalists broke into Cayce’s flat and bugged all her devices. The less conventional ones hired Dorotea to sabotage Cayce’s career. Now, Volkov’s security guys already knew that Bigend had been making strides in discovering the footage creator, so when they learned that Cayce was going to join Bigend’s company the team went into overdrive and Dorotea was ordered to bug Cayce’s London base (Damian’s flat), then to try and mug her in Tokyo to get the watermark number which Taki had just given her.

All this is explained over this formal meal in a Russian prison-turned-hospital. As if all this wasn’t enough, Cayce’s father comes up in the conversation. For a moment I thought he was going to actually walk through a door and turn out to be a key player in this bonkers conspiracy to get a psychologically damaged young woman’s movie fragments out to a waiting world. But no. Volkov’s security people think Cayce’s father is dead, as she does. Nonetheless there is what is presumably meant to be a deliciously ironic toast to Wingard Pollard and men like him in the security services of the West who kept capitalism alive, for without him where would the oligarchs to today be? Lol.

Possibly this was wicked satire in 2003 but now it just reads like factual description of Vladimir Putin’s oligarch capitalism.

This bizarrely tranquil climax to the story prompts the thought that thrillers are ultimately comforting because, although a bunch of people might get shot or tortured along the way, things always turn out to be entirely comprehensible and loose ends are always neatly tied up like the ribbons tying up a fancy birthday gift.

It’s this childlike explanatoriness of thrillers, the neat tying up of loose ends, the complete explanations of the world, which makes them, ultimately, genre fiction and not literature.

Trouble is the explanations always happen right at the end of the text and are often contorted as hell in order to explain away the exciting but contrived scenes from earlier in the book, when it was still in ‘thrill mode’. As here. All those thrills and spills, burglaries and muggings and high-speed escapes, boil down to very little in the end.

Bigend walks Cayce to her room and explains that Dorotea was playing both sides. Only when Cayce used the .ru email address did Volkov’s security operation really leap into action, and Dorotea’s position become exposed. She flew to Moscow and was quizzing Cayce about the source of the email trying to identify who Cayce got that email address from (we know it was Hobbs) because Dorotea thought it would be a bargaining chip with Volkov’s people. But instead Volkov’s people arrived at the bar of the Hotel President to discover Dorotea assaulting the new best friend of Volkov’s nieces, so it was all up for her.

The long and the short of it is that nobody knows her current whereabouts. Best not to ask, Hubert advises. The implication is that Dorotea has been liquidated. Bigend bids Cayce goodnight, leading her to the small motel room she’s been assigned within the facility.

Immediately after dinner Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal had given Cayce an envelope. Opening it she sees it’s a summary of Volkov’s security people’s extended efforts to track down her father. But no joy. Missing presumed dead in south Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. So, once again, what has been  trailed throughout the novel as an exciting and mysterious disappearance of her father the senior American security official turns out to be… a damp squib.

And Cayce was given another envelope. It contains a stylish handbag containing lots of fresh cash. Parkaboy drops by with bottled water. She tells him everything and starts to cry about her father. He gives her a hug and says, Well, at least they found the Maker.

Epilogue

The short final chapter ties up loose ends.

Cayce sends the money she was given to Voytek so he can stage some mad art exhibition involving lots of scaffolding.

Billy Prion the former rock star she kept bumping into in Camden is chosen as the face of some new yoghurt drink.

And she sends some cash to her mum, which helps pay the lawyers who are establishing her father’s legal status as deceased so as to free up his pension and insurance.

Her friend Margot writes to say she just saw Bigend on telly with some oligarch.

Damien writes to say he’s finished shooting his archaeology documentary about digging up a Stuka on some Second World War battlefield. Cayce had gone to visit him and ended up down in the digging trench, shovelling mud and crying helplessly. For her buried past. For her dead father.

Cayce’s therapist is pleased to hear that her panic attacks, her logophobia, her abreaction against all kinds of branded consumer goods, seem to have disappeared, but offers her a few slots in the autumn. Somehow this whole crazy experience has been therapeutic. Cayce is cured!

The book ends with her lying in bed in Paris, spooned up next to Parkaboy aka Peter Gilbert, who, we learn, is now her boyfriend. She’s in no rush to go back to work. Which must be nice. Nice swanning round the world on other people’s expense accounts. But then that’s the life which, ultimately, this book portrays.

New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, expense accounts, upscale therapists and cabs everywhere, Cayce is a perfect epitome of the globalised, international, jetsetting advertising and media élite.

If you want a more realistic account of London advertising agencies try this.


9/11

Early on Cayce describes how her dad, Wingard Pollard, was in New York on the morning the twin towers were blown up. His family doesn’t know why, he didn’t live in New York. He left his hotel in lower Manhattan on the fateful morning and was never seen again (pages 185 to 187). Cayce’s dad was a security expert. Security. 9/11. Russians. The reader suspects there might be connections. The reader hopes there might be interesting and mind-stretching connections. But no.

Cayce herself was also in Manhattan that morning and saw the attacks from the room of a business contact she’d gone to see.

She looks up, then, and sees, borealis-faint but sharp-edged and tall as heaven, twin towers of light. As her head goes back to find their tops a vertigo seizes her: They narrow up into nothing at all, a vanishing point, like railway tracks up into the desert of the sky. (page 227)

Great writer, isn’t he, Gibson? Great creator of snappy, vivid sentences, acute imagery. Shame his plots can’t quite match his prose style.

Looking back to 2003, we can assess how 9/11 seemed so important for a long time. For quite a few years afterwards, it felt like it had ushered in an entirely new era, one of perma-fear and anxiety, periodically stoked up by further terrorist atrocities in England and across Europe. I suppose the book was written in the immediate backwash of 9/11 and that including it as a thread lent the book a kind of hyper-charged paranoia, giving a dark halo to the story about mysteries, espionage and paranoia.

But one of Donald Trump’s many achievements has been to bring America to such a verge of social upheaval that 9/11 seems like a tea party now. Al-Qaeda never got to storm the Capitol. Feels like the real terrorists are all-American patriots and the next bloodbath / atrocity might be carried out by guys wearing baseball caps or the American police mowing down an apparently endless list of unarmed black men. 9/11 was eclipsed by the war in Afghanistan and then by the massive fiasco in Iraq. And then the near collapse of the entire financial system in 2008, and… so on and so on.

Reading the 9/11 passages in this novel made me realise it will have been 20 years ago this September. 20 years. It feels well settled in the past, now, superseded by many more recent events.

9/11 references pages: 136 to 137, 185 to 187, 232, 348 to 349.

Black

Gibson has a really tedious obsession with black, the teenage colour of cool. Black jeans, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black sunglasses. He is, as my last review suggested, the Lou Reed of science fiction, the man in black wearing a black leather jacket, ripped t-shirt and black shades.

Except that, with this book, Gibson abandons science fiction altogether. But not the obsession with black as the colour of cool. On every page someone’s clothes or car or room is black, it is so oppressively ubiquitous that way before page 100 I began to wonder whether he was sending himself up, or maybe his readers; maybe he’s parodying himself.

The hotel room in Japan has all-black furniture. The replacement keys Cayce gets for his flat are black. Cayce has a black Rickson’s jacket, which comes folded in black tissue. Boone wears an old black horsehair coat. On the plane back to London she wears a black blindfold. Damian’s girlfriend Marina only wears black Prada. Damian wears a black hooded sweatshirt. Cayce wears black Levi 501s, black t-shirt, black shoes. Hubertus’s associated Bernard wears a permanently rumpled black suit. To dress for a meeting Cayce wears a black t-shirt, a black skirt, black leggings, black Harajuku Japanese schoolgirl shoes, a black leather jacket and a black East German handbag. Ngemi wears a black faux leather jacket. He wears black 4-eyelet Doc Marten boots. The make figure in the fragments wears a black leather coat. In dreams she sees her father holding a black Curta calculator. The cases passengers are wheeling towards the Eurostar terminal are black. Dorotea wears an entirely black Armani outfit. The German designer from whose apartment she watches the World Trade Centre burn wears black glasses (136). Cayce’s Pedipole at the Pilates gym includes black foam stirrups (247). Cayce wears a black nylon flight jacket (249). When Cayce first saw the Albert Memorial it had been black (253). Stella’s drivers wear black leather jackets. They drive black Mercedes (290). Cayce wears a black cardigan (297). When Dorotea turns up in Moscow she is dressed all in black (312). When Parkaboy turns up he is wearing a heavy black shirt (326). After the scene in the hotel bar three dudes with black leather coats turn up (327). Cayce’s blistered feet are put into black felt house slippers (332). Cayce has a shower and changes into her black cardigan (332). Parkaboy has a shower and changes into new black jeans (333).

Men in Black. Back in Black. Paint it black. Gibson’s obsession with black could be interpreted psychologically, as a form of displacement activity. As his plots became more complex but more contrived and, in the end, more trivial, so Gibson upped his concern with style and surface, and the growing obsession with black clothes and shirts and boots and shades is a kind of compulsive attempt to make the characters ‘cool’ even as the plots become more complex and inconsequential.


Credit

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 2003. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr

I had no idea the French were behaving so tyrannically’ (Winston Churchill, when informed how the French were planning to rig the supposedly ‘free’ elections to be held in Syria in 1943, quoted page 249)

One should kill the British wherever one finds them. They are pathological liars and that is how they have ruled the whole world. (French policeman chatting with a released Jewish terrorist, quoted on page 342)

This is a really shocking book about the long-running rivalry between the British and French in the Middle East from the outbreak of the First World War through to Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947. It makes you really despise, and even hate, the French for their corruption, cowardice, brutality and pomposity.

The book’s last part is a detailed account of Jewish terrorist campaigns against the British, not only in Palestine but in London, where clubs, government buildings and even cabinet members were targeted. I hadn’t realised how extensive it was – Churchill and young Princess Elizabeth were among targets considered for assassination. The terrorist plans of the Jewish Irgun and Stern Gangs put al-Qaeda to shame.

And the murder of hundreds of soldiers and officials in Palestine (not to mention hundreds of innocent Arabs) and the bomb attacks and letter bomb campaign in mainland Britain were aided and supported by France. Barr has the documentary evidence to prove it.

Imagine if the British secret service had given money and guns to the Islamic terrorists who carried out the Bataclan nightclub massacre. Same thing. The Jewish gangs convinced themselves that terrorism was a valid method of freeing their people from imperialist rule, just like Islamic terrorists want to overthrow the West, liberate the Holy Places and re-establish the Caliphate etc. And you do that by machine-gunning kids in nightclubs. Genius.

It’s not often a book leaves me feeling physically sick and revolted by the moral bankruptcy of the people described, but this one did. The pompous prick de Gaulle, the French diplomatic corp and security services, or the murdering Jewish terrorists – it’s hard to decide which are the more disgusting.

French failure

The French education system tells its citizens that France is home to a unique civilisation and a tradition of unparalleled military gloire. When you look closely, however, you realise it’s a lie. The French were soundly beaten by the British throughout the 18th century, when we seized both Canada and India from useless French forces in the 1750s.

After causing 25 years of mayhem across Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, the French were finally crushed at Waterloo in 1815, and went on to suffer a series of political revolutions in 1830 and 1848.

The failed 1848 revolution in France evolved, through three years of tortuous  political shenanigans, into the rule of the characteristically jumped-up, pompous ‘Emperor’ Napoleon III.

The rule of this ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (in Marx’s words) came to an inglorious end when the French were crushed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and Paris collapsed into a blood-thirsty civil war.

The French came off second best in the Scramble for Africa and were constantly irritated by the feeling that somehow the British had beaten them unfairly, had seized India, Canada and their African colonies using ‘underhand’ tactics.

Running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. (My notes on The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham)

France’s most notable social achievement at the turn of the century was the Dreyfus Affair which revealed the vast extent of French anti-semitism and just how culturally polarised a nation it was.

Battle lines were drawn between secular liberals and Catholic reactionaries, deep hatreds revised, Frenchmen murdered each other on the issue, the far-right proto-Fascist Action française movement was founded.

Although nationalist politics were confined to the margins in France, the ideas at their heart – a nation defined by the exclusion of those deemed not fit to belong to it, Jews quite specifically – remained undiluted as one part of a divided French culture. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 18)

At the outbreak of the First World War the French only managed to stem the German attack in 1914 with the help of a British Army. While the British Army (amazingly) held its morale throughout the war, the French army experienced widespread mutinies in 1917.

As this quick review of the history indicates, educated French people suffer from cultural schizophrenia: everything in their tradition tells them that France is unique, a beacon of civilised values, a nation of unparalleled military genius – and yet their actual historical record is one of defeat, division and civil war. The French Revolution developed into a civil war, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 split the nation, the Commune of 1870 left enduring scars, the Dreyfus Affair revealed how divided the country was.

This schizophrenia continued after the First World War. The French people were told they had won the war and yet France experienced a profound economic slump, mass unemployment and a succession of short-lived governments. Something was wrong. Something was undermining French gloire. Someone was conspiring against them. Who could it be? Of course! The British! The old enemy.

Even before the First World War there were tensions between Britain and France. We managed to sign an Entente Cordiale in 1904 but this was less a sign of friendship than a way to try and limit and control their ongoing imperial rivalry, which had led to clashes in Sudan (which the British claimed) and Morocco (which the French claimed).

Britain and France worked reasonably well together in managing the Western front during the First World War, despite recriminations and blame about the various catastrophic military initiatives. But away from the fields of Flanders, the two nations continued their fierce competition. One of the flashpoints was in what we now call the Middle East but which was still, right through the Great War and up until 1923, called the Ottoman Empire.

The sick man of Europe

Throughout the second half of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was thought to be on its last legs, staggering from one crisis to another in each of which it tended to lose another bit of territory, from the 1878 Russo-Turkish War when the Russians yet again tried to advance as far as Constantinople, through the British annexation of the theoretically Ottoman territory of Egypt in 1882, to the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw bits of the formerly Ottoman Balkans handed over to Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Turco-Italian War of 1912-13 in which Italy seized the Ottoman provinces to the west of Egypt which were eventually consolidated into Italian Libya.

The Ottoman Empire attacks Russia; Russia vows revenge

After some reluctance, and only on the basis of the promise of arms, ammunition, lots of money and German military aid, the ‘Young Turk’ rulers of the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (in October 1914).

They signaled their entry by a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet. From that point onwards, an angry Russia was determined to grab big chunks of Ottoman territory, namely Constantinople and its environs in the West, and an extended bite into Anatolia from the Russian-controlled territory of the Caucasus, in the East.

Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Russians all had their eyes on seizing more Ottoman territory.

The Sykes-Picot plan

This was the context in which two civil servants, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, one British, one French, drew up a map of how the Ottoman Middle East would be divided by the two countries (assuming the Allies won the war). The plan allotted a French sphere of influence in the north and a British sphere of influence in the south, with the dividing line running from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, near the border with Persia.

This map has four colours because the diplomats made a distinction between areas of ‘direct control’ and areas merely of ‘influence’. The yellow area roughly corresponding to modern Israel, was left open subject to further discussion.

The Sykes-Picot plan for the Ottoman Middle East (Source: The Institute for Curriculum Services)

A Line In the Sand

This is the starting point of James Barr’s history, A Line In The Sand, which is notable not so much for its coverage of the wartime context of the plan (which is thin) as for his very detailed survey of what came afterwards i.e. the consequences of the plan over the next 30 years.

This is where the book feels like it adds new and fascinating information.  It’s divided into four parts which give you a good feel of the content:

  1. The Carve-Up, 1915-1919
  2. Interwar Tensions, 1920-1939
  3. The Secret War, 1940-45
  4. Exit, 1945-49

The Sykes-Picot agreement is portrayed in conventional liberal historiography as a wicked imperialist ‘land grab’ which took no account of the wishes of the native peoples of these areas. But like all such agreements, it can also be seen as an attempt to prevent conflict between rival powers.

In fact, to gain even a basic understanding you need to realise it was just one among many post-war agreements between numerous states, all of which had to do with drawing lines on maps in an attempt to be fair to people’s nationalist aspirations while also reconciling the conflicting wishes of rival governments. Thus the treaties of:

  • Brest-Litovsk, March 1918
  • Versailles, June 1919
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, September 1919
  • Neuilly, November 1919
  • Trianon, June 1920
  • Sevres, August 1920
  • Rapallo, November 1920
  • Riga, March 1921
  • Lausanne, July 1923

All of these consisted of drawing lines on maps and trying to get warring parties to agree to them, and all of them ignored the interests of numerous national and ethnic groups on the ground: for example, the Poles and Ruthenians left on the wrong side of the new Polish border with Ukraine, or the three million Germans who found themselves stuck inside the newly invented nation of Czechoslovakia, the Germans isolated in the newly ‘free’ city of Danzig, the Romanians caught inside Bulgaria, the Bulgarians caught inside the new Hungary. And so on and so on.

It was an era of bad maps, of diplomats trying their best to create viable states out of the enormous chaos left by the collapse of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

To single out Sykes-Picot for special opprobrium seems silly to me. Bad maps pregnant with all kinds of future problems were being created all over Europe.

Post-war rivals

The 1920s in Syria

Barr doesn’t mention any of these other treaties or situate Syke-Picot in the broader post-war settlement (which is, admittedly, huge and horribly complex). For a really sophisticated account of the agreement (and of the key role played in it by Russia, who Barr doesn’t mention at all) I strongly recommend Sean McMeekin’s brilliant account of the period:

Instead Barr focuses very narrowly on the rivalry between Britain and France in the Middle East which followed the Great War and it’s here that his detailed account of the politicking between the two supposed allies is genuinely eye-opening.

Broadly speaking the French, acting on the Sykes-Picot deal, moved into Syria and Lebanon, where they had long-standing cultural links, with French schools and institutions etc, although it is a mark of French arrogance, insensitivity and stupidity that they also based their claim on the legacy of the crusaders (!), the majority of whom had been French and had only been kicked out of the region as recently as 1291. French premier Clemenceau claimed that France had:

a centuries-old Protectorate, the origins of which date back to the Crusades.’ (quoted page 75)

In fact it was British forces who had first entered Damascus at war’s end (General Edmund Allenby captured Damascus on September 30, 1918) and allowed a political body set up by Syrian intellectuals and politicians, the Syrian Congress, to elect Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, first King of Syria in 1919 and to set up an independent Syrian parliament. The French were furious and insisted that the British bring pressure to bear on Faisal to allow the French to take over Syria in the form of a ‘mandate’.

As so often the French liked to think of themselves as ‘a great power’ and yet somehow, yet again, found themselves beholden to the damn British.

The sequence of events is complex, but basically the Syrians proclaimed an independent state under King Faisal and this triggered the French to a) assert their rights at the international San Remo conference of April 1920, armed with which they b) issued an ultimatum to Faisal to stand down as king and disband his forces. Reluctantly, Faisal did so and fled south into British-controlled Palestine (p.103). King Faisal’s defense minister Yusuf al-‘Azma, ignored the king and led the poorly armed Syrian army to Maysalun where it was crushed by superior French forces, who went on to enter Damascus and assert full French political control.

The first thing the French general who crushed the Syrian army, General Gouraud, did when he entered devastated Damascus was go straight to the tomb of the the great warrior Saladin who fought the Christian crusaders, to tell him: ‘Saladin! We’re back!’ (quoted page 103). The French mandate over Syria ran from 1920 to 1946.

All through this tortuous series of events the French felt the British hadn’t adequately supported them, a feeling which was crystallised by the next event. British forces occupying ‘Iraq’ had been troubled with their own violent uprisings but took a different strategy; rather than impose military rule, the British cast around for someone to make a nominal Arab figurehead of an Iraqi government and settled on… Faisal, the very same Faisal who the French had just run out of Syria. Thus in August 1921, Faisal was crowned Faisal I, king of Iraq (at what was, by all accounts, a sad and miserly ceremony: p.126).

The story of Faisal’s changing fortunes is colourful enough, as is Barr’s account of the initial French and British losses to well-armed and motivated Arab rebels against both their ‘mandates’. But for Barr’s purposes the point of the story is that the French felt that the British choice of Faisal was, yet again, a deliberate snub and insult to them. Touchy bastards.

French rule in Syria proved to be distinctly different from Britain’s rule in Iraq and Palestine, and quickly acquired a reputation for corruption and brutality. This sparked successive Arab risings and armed insurrections. It didn’t help that France herself was undergoing a severe economic crisis in the early 1920s, reflected in political instability as one short-lived administration followed another, creating a national sense of paranoia and bewilderment (p.142). They had supposedly won the war but seemed to be badly losing the peace.

Barr gives a detailed account of the Great Druze Revolt of 1925 to 1927 by the obstinately independent Druze Muslims who lived in the region south of Damascus, sparked by ‘French mistreatment of the Druze population’ (pp.128-152). At its climax the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered the shelling of the capital city Damascus to flush out rebels, which led to the destruction of much of the Old City. A good example of French civilisation and gloire.

(In fact the French were to shell and bomb Damascus again, in May 1945, after refusing the Syrian government’s request to hand over the French troupes speciales. Instead de Gaulle sent French army reinforcements and then used them to mount a major attack on all the offices of the Syrian government, bombing the parliament building, shooting up Syrian and British offices. The shooting went on for days. One Russian holed up in Damascus’s main hotel said it was worse than Stalingrad. It was described as a ‘reign of terror’, in line with the Terror of the French Revolution, and the Terror unleashed during the 1870 Commune. Some 800 Syrians were killed. Syrian gendarmes were found buried in a mass grave, some of them having been mutilated by the French troops. The Parliament building was left a smoking shell. Eventually, the British government announced they would intervene militarily unless the French desisted. The Syrian authorities were livid and wanted the French officers in command to be tried for war crimes. And de Gaulle? De Gaulle blamed the British and their secret agents for everything. The man was a colossal turd. pp.303-310)

But why were the Arab population of Syria rebelling against them, the French, with their wonderful civilisation and poetry and art? Just because they hanged the natives and used them for forced labour and taxed them to the hilt to run their corrupt administration and displayed the corpses of dead Arabs in the town square? No. Natives love that kind of treatment. There must be something else behind it. Yes! It must be the British aiding the Syrian rebels! (p.152)

French soldiers, administrators and diplomats at all levels came to believe that the Arab insurgents were being funded by the British. Some of the Druze warriors confirmed these suspicions – but they were only repeating propaganda put around by their own leaders to hearten them (p.150).

This wasn’t true – it was not British policy to support Arab insurgents against the French. But, on the other hand, the British had to consider Arab opinion in their area – stretching from the Sinai Peninsula, across the bare desert north of Arabia and then down into the region then known as Mesopotamia, making up the inhabited centres of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, modern Iraq. The British wanted to distinguish liberal British rule from what quickly became known as the corrupt and very brutal French rule in their zone.

To take a small but symbolic example, the British refused to hand over the terrorist leader Muhammed al-Ashmar who the French thought was behind atrocities in Syria, when he crossed over into British territory. This understandably infuriated the French. A host of little issues like this crystallised the French sense that the British were doing everything in their power to undermine their rule.

The Mosul oil pipeline

Another issue which caused bad feeling between the so-called allies was oil. At the very end of the war Britain campaigned hard to seize Mosul in the far north of Iraq, in fact British troops only took possession of the city the day after the armistice of Mudros with the Ottoman Empire took force, and it remained contested territory until the League of Nations confirmed its inclusion in the British mandate in 1926 (p.145).

But that was a trivial detail compared to the long, drawn-out wrangling about who should share the proceeds of the vast oil reserves which were finally discovered around Mosul in 1927 (p.153). A joint venture was set up with American and French companies under the aegis of the Turkish Petroleum Company, around which a great deal of haggling, arguing and threatening took place, gleefully recorded by Barr.

All sides agreed that the pipeline carrying the oil should run west to the Mediterranean coast. It was much cheaper than running the shorter distance south to the Persian Gulf because then it would have to be shipped around Arabia and through the Suez Canal. But should the pipeline run directly west from Mosul, in which case it would pass through French-controlled Syria to a French-controlled port – or take a more southerly route through the empty deserts of north Arabia and hit the coast at Haifa, in British-controlled Palestine. Obviously the Brits preferred this option, but it cost a lot more and was an obvious snub to the French. Barr details the convoluted political, strategic and financial arguments which dogged the project until it finally opened in a bifurcated route, with spurs heading off to British Haifa and French Tripoli, in 1934. The French resented the fact that, yet again, they’d been ganged up on (p.163).

The 1930s in Palestine

Rancour between the two countries came back to bite the British as the crisis in Palestine bubbled up during the 1930s. Small-scale Jewish immigration had been allowed throughout the 1920s not least as a consequence of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which a hard-pressed British government tried to rally Jewish support for the Allies by promising the world’s Jews – especially the rich and influential Jews in the United States – a homeland in Palestine. But it was relatively small, in fact it’s surprising to learn that there was net emigration of Jews out of Palestine in 1927.

Still, there was a steady low-level hum of Arab-Jew antagonism, which occasionally flared into serious incidents such as the riots in 1929 which left 271 dead and 580 wounded (p.160).

What changed everything was the rise of the Nazis. The number of Jewish immigrants began to grow as the Nazis seized power of Germany (1933). Although they were often desperate, the Jews nonetheless tended to have more resources than the dirt-poor peasants of Palestine, were much better educated and organised, and so began to buy up extensive tracts of land (p.167). This soon led to resentment, petty disagreements escalated into shooting, then both Arabs and Jews took to carrying out terrorist atrocities, chucking hand grenades into marketplaces, and so on.

Initially a lot of this violence was committed by Arabs, under the supervision of the Arab Higher Committee led by Hajj Mohammed Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When assassins shot the British assistant district commissioner for north Palestine, the British authorities moved to arrest members of the Higher Committee but it’s military leadership fled to nearby Damascus in French territory, where they were received… like heroes. And when the British turned to the French for help the latter, with a characteristic Gallic shrug, refused (p.175). This period of well organised Arab attacks on British soldiers and locations is known as The Great Arab Revolt, 1936-39.

The British authorities recruited Jews as special constables to go on increasingly illicit ‘night raids’ against suspected Arab terrorist strongholds. One such was Moshe Dayan, future leader of the Israeli Army. But in 1938 a Jew who had shot at an Arab bus, Schlomo Yusef, was hanged by the British – the first Jew to be hanged by the British in Palestine – and this crystallised the opposition of hard-line Jews, specifically the Hagana, to abandon their sympathetic attitude to the Brits and to mount full-blown attacks. On 6 July 1938 two bombs were thrown into a Haifa marketplace killing 21 Arabs (and 6 Jews). On 15 July a bomb in Jerusalem killed ten Arabs. And we’re off on a rollercoaster ride of non-stop killings and atrocities by both Jews and Arabs, with the British authorities haplessly trying to keep order.

Vichy France

The final part of the book turns away from Syria and Iraq to focus on the long, tortured story of the conflict in Palestine. I found the accounts of Jewish terrorism upsetting and the revelation that the French security services aided and abetted Jewish terrorists targeting British soldiers in Palestine and British civilians in London absolutely disgusting.

De Gaulle comes over as an arrogant, lying prick. The British gave him home, shelter, broadcast facilities in London and helped the French Resistance, often at the cost of British lives, so it was disgusting beyond words to read again and again and again and again, the recorded statements of De Gaulle’s haughty contempt for Britain, his disdain of Britain, and the rampant anglophobia which ran right through the French political and military establishment.

In his memoirs de Gaulle recalled with relish how Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, once asked him whether he realised that he had caused “more trouble than all our other European allies put together.” “I don’t doubt it,” de Gaulle replied. “France is a great power.” (p.206)

It is worth remembering that, once Hitler attacked, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the ones who were defeated in 1870 and then only survived in 1914 because of British help) capitulated in just five weeks (the Battle of France lasted from 10 May to 25 June 1940).

This was due not least to the profound divisions among the French themselves.

France [in 1936] remained a completely divided country. The hatred of the nationalist Right for the Popular Front went far beyond conventional political opposition. Special vitriol was directed at its leader, Léon Blum, a Jewish intellectual who had been an early supporter of Dreyfus. Blum had been physically assaulted by a nationalist mob in February 1936. And the previous spring, the leader of the far-right Action Française, Charles Maurras, had appallingly denounced Blum as ‘a man to be shot – in the back.’ (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw, page 298)

A popular right-wing slogan was ‘Hitler rather than Blum’. Many – many – French people preferred to be ruled by Hitler than by a Jew. Ponder that fact.

The French political scene [in the 1930s] was notoriously venal and corrupt. (To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-49 by Ian Kershaw, page 237)

The opening part of this episode of The World At War gives a summary of just how chaotic and divided France and its governments were during the build-up to the Second World War.

After their defeat, the French set up the Vichy regime, a right-wing semi-fascist government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis to round up French Jews and send them off to concentration camps (75,000 French Jews were deported to Nazi death camps). Blum was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where, luckily, he survived.

Yes, proud France! That is how to treat your Jewish politicians! Liberty, Equality, Fraternity indeed. La gloire. La mission civilisatrice.

Somehow de Gaulle blamed all this on the British. Why? Because whenever anything bad happens in France, it isn’t France’s fault – it must be Britain’s fault.

The Vichy government inherited control of Syria and Lebanon. The British led a campaign to oust the Vichy forces – the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of July 1941 – because Vichy had signed an agreement with the Nazis to let them use Syria and Lebanon’s airfields, for possible attacks on Greece or Crete.

The British (and Australian) forces were accompanied by Free French forces supplied by de Gaulle, who assured us that the Vichy army would quickly collapse. He was confident they would rally to him, the Greatest Frenchman in the Word. But they didn’t. They fought back very fiercely. When shown the evidence that he was completely wrong in his military estimate, de Gaulle characteristically said it showed how valiantly Frenchmen fought for any cause and went on to blame Britain’s lack of resources and commitment for the setbacks. It’s always the British fault (p.221).

When the Free French (backed by the British) eventually did succeed in overthrowing the Vichy regime in Syria, they discovered they didn’t have enough personnel to administer it, so a lot of French personnel swapped sides (as they do so easily) and discovered a new-found love of de Gaulle. ‘Ah, mon brave, mon cher, mon ami‘ is the sound of self-serving hypocrisy (p.225).

The British had publicised their campaign to the Arab world by saying they were going to overthrow the brutal Vichy administration. Then de Gaulle kept almost all the Vichy administration in place, thus placing the British in the position of appearing to have lied.

De Gaulle’s unbearable ingratitude and arrogance make reading anything about him difficult. He cultivated a strategy of ‘bad manners and a foul temper’. He gave interviews to American newspapers blaming all setbacks on the British (the same British who were fighting and dying to establish a Free French regime in Syria) (p.228).

When the British tried to make good on the promises they’d made to the Syrian Arabs during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, to hold free and fair elections, de Gaulle, characteristically, refused. He said it was out of the question for Glorious France to diminish her Glory. He and Churchill had a bitter shouting match about his refusal, after which the British simply cut off de Gaulle’s telegraph links with the outside world for a week to show him that he wasn’t a Great Power, he was just a man in an office with a phone which didn’t work (p.242).

Re. de Gaulle, it’s worth recalling from Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby, that American President Roosevelt really, really, really despised de Gaulle, as did most of the American administration. They saw him for the jumped-up boaster he was, refused to allow him to attend meetings of the Big Three, and tried to manoeuvre a rival candidate, General Giraud, to replace de Gaulle as leader of the French Committee for National Liberation (p.257).

In November 1943 the French army staged a coup against the democratically elected Arab government of Syria, rounding up the President, the Prime Minister, Faris al-Khoury, and most of the cabinet, throwing them in prison, and letting their Senegalese troops run riot through the streets of Damascus.

It was incidents like this which convinced Roosevelt that de Gaulle had authoritarian, if not actual fascist tendencies, and didn’t deserve to be present at meetings of the Big Three (p.261). Syrian rebels began assembling forces in the hills. The situation threatened to descend into anarchy. And to solve it all…. de Gaulle blamed the whole situation on the British for interfering in French affairs, and threatened to resign (p.261).

Eventually Churchill threatened to use superior British forces to declare martial law in Syria and so de Gaulle, his man on the spot, The General Delegate to the Levant, the alcoholic Jean Helleu, was recalled to Paris along with all of his team responsible for the coup, the Syrian President, Prime Minister and his cabinet were restored to power and France’s name, very gratifyingly, was mud (p.263).

Jewish terrorism and Israel

What makes the last part of the story – from 1943 to 1948 – really weird – was the way these formerly very right-wing Vichy French allied with the Jewish resistance against the common enemy, the British. After reading over 100 pages documenting the virulent anglophobia and Brit-hatred of all the senior French politicians, from de Gaulle downwards, the sensible assumption just becomes, If they’re French, they hate the British and, if they’re in a position of power, almost certainly funding anti-British terrorism.

Thus we arrive at the devastating final section in which we learn that, Anglo-French rivalry became so venomous that, in the last days of World War Two, even as British soldiers were fighting and dying to liberate France, the French government was financing and arming Jewish terrorists who were attacking and killing British soldiers in Palestine. What a bunch of bastards.

With the war years and the growth of the Jewish resistance forces, you enter a surreal world of unlikely alliances.

Lehi [often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang] initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. (Wikipedia)

Jewish freedom fighters seeking an alliance with the Nazis? (p.268) You can see how real history, the real record of human affairs, like human beings themselves, is faaar more complex, contradictory and irrational than the baby morality of political correctness and identity politics allows.

The British had been forced to make a strategic decision. They were at war with Hitler who controlled the entire continent of Europe. Meanwhile, along with a host of other responsibilities around the world, they were theoretically in charge of Palestine. If more Jews immigrated into Palestine it would inflame the low-level conflict between Arabs and Jews which was already burning there. Arabs or Jews, which side do you want to alienate? Well, the Arab world stretches from the Atlantic to Persia, so the answer is simple: keep the Arabs onside, specially as they populated the lands around the Suez Canal, which was the carotid artery of the British Empire.

Thus, in order to try and keep the Arabs onside, the British government issued a White Paper in 1939 which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. This one step turned the Jews into fierce enemies, and as the war went on and the Holocaust began to be enacted, Jewish anger at the perceived anti-Jewish bias of the British soured into military operations carried out by gangs of terrorists. Helped by the French.

  • The Haganah put its intelligence network in Syria at the disposal of the Free French (p.267)
  • When the Allied attack on the Levant took place the Haganah provided members of its elite units to serve as guides
  • British police trailing suspected members of the Stern Gang saw them get a taxi to the Syrian border, cross the border, and be welcome by a French officer (p.269)
  • In his memoirs a member of the Stern Gang confirmed that the gang was supplied with arms and ammunition by the French regime in Syria, knowing they would be used to kill British soldiers and officials (p.271)
  • A Stern Gang member on trial stated that if Palestine was under a French mandate he was sure the British (who were trying him) would instead be giving him arms (the implication being… like the French were doing) (p.272)
  • A Hebrew-language publication of the gang admitted they were getting arms from the French (p.272)
  • In November 1944 MI6 uncovered proof that the French secret service was supplying money and guns to the Haganah and the Stern Gang – who had, that month, assassinated Britain’s Minister-Resident for the Middle East, Lord Moyne (p.289)
  • The French secret service was sharing with the Zionists information sourced from a French spy inside the British legation (p.290)
  • ‘The French are in collusion with right-wing Jews and known terrorists have lunched with Alessandri [top French security service official]’, (Jewish Agency liaison officer and future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, quoted page 292)
  • ‘The British government, beset by French-sponsored Jewish terrorism in the Levant…’ (p.298)
  • ‘Now, deeply alarmed at the prospect that France going to be thrown out of the Levant, both the Jewish Agency and the terrorist organisations made contact with the French government to offer their services, (p.309)

France helps the Jewish terrorist campaign in Britain

‘The British government had known for some time that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to use Paris as a base for assassinations of key British politicians including Churchill and Bevin… (p.337)

Barr describes the extensive contacts and meetings between members of the Irgun and Stern Gang with French officials in Paris who supported them in their plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. Lawyer and advisor to Léon Blum, André Blumel, hoped the LEHI would get all the assistance it needed to launch attacks on Britain. (p.338). Senior French lawyer helps terrorists attack Britain.

The first attack was carried out by a student of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, Robert Misrahi, who left a bomb in a raincoat at the Officers Club off Trafalgar Square (p.339).

When a Zionist shipment of arms was impounded by French police in south-west France, the minister of the Interior intervened to ensure that they were sent on to the Zionists in Palestine. When five members of the Stern Gang broke out of a British prison in Eritrea and managed to reach the French colony of Djibouti, the French offered them asylum in France (p.340).

A young woman terrorist, Betty Knout, left a bomb in the toilets of the Colonial Office in Whitehall, which failed to go off and fingerprints and equipment indicated its manufacture by Stern Gang members. When British Special Branch tried to track her down in Paris, the French security services did what they could to block the hunt (p.340).

They launched a letter bomb campaign, sending letter bombs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Anthony Eden among others.

When a new Zionist point man arrived in Paris, he discovered his predecessor had reached an understanding with the French government: the Irgun and Stern Gang could use Paris as their base providing they didn’t carry out any attacks on British targets on French soil. When Princess Elizabeth paid a visit to France, the French police met the Irgun face to face to make sure they didn’t have a plan to assassinate her. Nice of them, don’t you think (p.343).

Semi-fascist views of the Zionist terrorists

It’s important not to be under the illusion that these were ‘nice’ or sympathetic people:

According to Yaacov Shavit, professor at the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, articles Lehi publications wrote about Jewish ‘master race’, contrasting them with Arabs who were seen as a ‘nation of slaves’. Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes: ‘Lehi was also unabashedly racist towards Arabs. Their publications described Jews as a master race and Arabs as a slave race.’ Lehi advocated mass expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine and Transjordan or even their physical annihilation. (Wikipedia)

Timeline of violence in Palestine

Jewish terrorism, and British attempts to stop it, only intensified once the Germans were defeated and peace was declared in Europe on May 1945. Wikipedia has a timeline:

Note how Jewish attacks on British forces are interspersed with British Army attacks on terrorists, the handling of prison breakouts, issues with immigrant ships trying to dock.

Reading this sorry story, the puzzle is why the British government persisted as long as it did. Remember, this was the government of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan which is routinely remembered in folklore as founding the National Health Service (as memorialised at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games).

It’s easy to say they screwed this up, but what choice did they have? A government’s first responsibility is to try and maintain peace and security by enforcing law and order. This becomes difficult to do in any insurgency situation, and the British authorities made the same mistakes as they had during the Black and Tan period in Ireland 1920 to 1922 and with the same generally negative effects, i.e they often targeted innocent civilians, missing the real culprits but managing to alienate the wider population. Which is what your insurgents want (p.185).

The British just give up

The British unilaterally terminated their Palestine ‘mandate’ on 15 May 1948. The Zionist leadership announced the Israeli Declaration of Independence and Arab armies attacked from north and south.

The role of the Americans

In the later stages of the war and the post-war years America plays a bigger and bigger role. The American administration and American public strongly supported the Jews and raised millions of dollars for them. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen lobbied President Truman very hard. Barr gives a fascinating account of the very effective work of the American league for a Free Palestine run by Hillel Kook, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers, got celebrity endorsement, organised all kinds of publicity campaigns – with texts written by Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht – and significantly influenced American public opinion in favour of the Jewish cause.

All those dollars and all that moral support made a big difference to the Zionists, gave them confidence that they wouldn’t be abandoned or left in the lurch, and the moral encouragement to fight on.

No solution

And finally, the obvious observation that – nobody could come up with a solution. It wasn’t like there was an easy solution to hand and the British stupidly ignored it. All the best diplomats and politicians on the planet had plenty of time and motivation to think up a solution. The Peel Commission, the Woodhead Commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, the United Nations Commission On Palestine, all tried to find a solution.

But nobody could. They still can’t, to this day, because there is no solution.


My view of the book

I knew nothing about this era (Middle East in the 1920, 30s and 40s) and so was fascinated by everything Barr had to tell.

His book is notable for the immense attention he pays to specific meetings and conversations between key figures on both sides. We are introduced to a large cast of diplomats, soldiers and politicians, with quick pen-portraits of each of them, before Barr, typically, gives us precise exchanges and conversations.

Much of this must be sourced from the minutes of all these meetings, because they often describe the exact words used by, for example, French premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, to give one example from hundreds. Barr is strong on the exact words used in crucial meetings, diplomatic notes, letters and diaries and also recently declassified documents, both in the UK and in France.

The book’s weakness is that sometimes this deep immersion in the precise sequence of meetings and notes and memos and speeches and diaries obscures the real significance of key issues or turning points. Big things get buried. Sometimes I had to reread sections to understand what just happened.

The other obvious shortcoming is Barr’s neglect of the wider geopolitical context. I felt this most acutely in the first section about Sykes-Picot which completely ignores the role played by Tsarist Russia, by Germany and, of course, by the Ottoman rulers themselves because I just happened to have read Sean McMeekin’s excellently thorough and insightful account of the same period.

For example, Barr doesn’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement because, in addition to the carve up of Syria/Palestine/Iraq, the deal allotted Tsarist Russia a big chunk of Eastern Anatolia, and also gave her her long-cherished dream of Constantinople and the territory around it. Because of the Russians’ heavy involvement, McMeekin thinks the agreement should be known as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement.

And nowhere does Barr mention the extraordinary fact that one of the baits the Allies dangled in front of Italy while she dithered whether to join the war or not (Italy didn’t enter the war, on the Allies side, until May 1915) was a big slice out of southern Anatolia.

Therefore, a full picture of the Sasonov-Sykes-Picot map looks like this. Note the flesh-coloured patch on the right which was to be given to Russia, along with the city of Constantinople and the territory north and south of it (at the top left), and the extraordinary amount of territory which was going to be handed over to Italy.

Sykes-Picot map showing the territory promised to Russia and Italy

None of this is in Barr’s account, which therefore comes close to being seriously misleading about this period.

It is symptomatic of Barr’s Anglocentrism that instead of all this vital context involving other major powers, he devotes entire chapters (chapters 2 and 3, Enter TE Lawrence and Allenby’s Man, pp.37-64) to Lawrence of Arabia, the pukka English hero, who in fact comes to dominate the whole of the first part of the book. We get a blow-by-blow account of Lawrence’s (rather feeble) military exploits as well as quotes from his letters, diaries, newspaper articles and quotes from his friends.

By ‘Anglocentric’ I mean we get 100-pages about Lawrence and his influence, but nowhere does Barr mention the names of the last two Ottoman sultans who ruled during and after the war (Mehmed V 1909-1918, Mehmed VI 1918-1922) nor does he name the three Turkish politicians who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Talaat, and Cerman. The great military and political leader who dominated the final 1923 settlement of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Lausanne, Mustafa Kemal, later to be given the title Ataturk, is mentioned just once.

It’s as if the Ottoman Empire, whose territory the entire book is about, barely exists or matters.

The book’s strength is its weakness. It isn’t interested in the broader geopolitical implications. It is a narrow and very deep dive into the diplomatic minutiae of the troubled relations between Britain and France in the Middle East 1916 to 1946. Barr goes into extreme detail – apparently writing from the minutes and notes taken at specific meetings of various French and British civil servants, ambassadors and leaders – to give you a memo-by-memo account of the behind the scenes conversations and decisions.

But sometimes so detailed, you lose the thread of what’s actually happening. And always, so focused on just Britain and France, that you get no sense at all of the wider geopolitical situation, of events in Turkey, the Caucasus or neighbouring Russia or Persia. Silence.


My view of the two key issues

I think received liberal opinion about Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration is too simple-minded.

1. Sykes-Picot

I’m no expert but it seems to me simplistic to attribute all the conflicts in the Middle East to just one agreement out of scores and scores of similar treaties and a whole sequence of very complex events, which flowed before and after it.

If you read Barr, with his exclusive focus on the British and French governments, you get the impression they were responsible for everything bad that ever happened. But if you read McMeekin’s much more comprehensive account, you are immediately plunged into the maze of ethnic tensions and rivalries which plagued the region, from the poisonous enmities all across the Balkans (Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosnians, Greeks, they all hated each other) to the huge divides which split the Middle East, from the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to that between ethnic Turks and all their subject peoples – the squabbling tribes of desert bedouin, the Christian Armenians in the East, the Kurds in south-east Anatolia, and so on and on.

Barr doesn’t, for example, even mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, a prime example of the extreme ethnic violence which had roots far back in the 19th century way before the British and French started planning their ‘carve-up’ – or the horrifying ethnic cleansing surrounding the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-23.

When you read McMeekin on the other hand, you reach a really good understanding of why the entire region was a powder keg which had, in fact, already exploded several times before the Great War broke out. The Ottomans had repressed Armenian and Bulgarian uprisings with great brutality and bloodshed throughout the later 19th century.

That’s why the ante-penultimate sultan, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876 to 1909) was nicknamed ‘the bloody sultan’ or ‘the red sultan’. It was the historical track record of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and massacres which gave liberals like David Lloyd George such a deeply engrained antipathy to the Ottoman Empire (and, as it turned out, an inclination to give the Greeks deeply misplaced encouragement in their ambitions to invade Anatolia).

Whoever ended up ruling over these regions was going to inherit a very poisoned chalice of ethnic rivalries and enmities. Indeed it’s one of the many strengths of McMeekin’s book that he makes you realise how very astute Mustafa Kemal was, the man who rose to become Turkey’s post-war ruler, when he allowed most of the former empire to be hived off to the British and French by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All these bickering minorities were their problem now, the fools.

Attributing all the problems of the entire region to one agreement just strikes me as foolish. The Sykes-Picot agreement was merely the formal recognition of at least four nations’ claims on Ottoman territory, was provisional and was soon superseded by a whole raft of other agreements such as:

  • the Anglo-French Declaration promising to establish independent states in the Middle East with freely chosen governments (November 1918)
  • the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920) which defined three ‘class-A’ mandates, ‘Palestine’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Mesopotamia’
  • the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) which was a first attempt to ‘carve up’ the Ottoman Empire including Anatolia and its European territory
  • the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which marked the official end of the Allies war against the Ottoman Empire and established the borders of modern Turkey

Why not blame those treaties too? They all contributed to what was, in fact, a continuous flux of conflict, resolution, treaties and agreements which continued throughout the Mandate period and afterwards, right up to the present day.

2. The Balfour Declaration

Similarly, a lot of people blame the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. But Zionism existed well before the declaration. Wikipedia defines Zionism as:

the nationalist movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of and support for a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Canaan, the Holy Land, or the region of Palestine)

And points out that it originated ‘in the late 19th century’ and in Austria and Germany not Britain.

Jews were already emigrating from Europe, and especially anti-semitic Russia, into Palestine well before the Balfour Declaration. To ponder a counter-factual, do people think that, if there had been no Balfour Declaration, Jews would not have emigrated to Palestine? Of course not. A Jewish homeland in Palestine was a central plank of Zionism for decades before Balfour, whether the British government supported it or not, in fact whether any Western government supported or tried to block it.

We shall migrate to Palestine in order to constitute a majority here. If there be need we shall take by force; if the country be too small – we shall expand the boundaries. (speech by David ben-Gurion, quoted page 274)

The fact that net Jewish migration to Palestine was negative in 1927 – ten years after the declaration – shows that the declaration in itself had a negligible effect, it certainly didn’t open any ‘floodgates’.

The most important cause of modern Arab-Israeli conflict was Hitler. The Nazis not only caused the trickle of migration to Palestine to turn into a flood, they – and the experience of the Holocaust – made an entire generation of Jews absolutely determined to establish a Jewish state come what may, no matter who they had to assassinate, murder, letter bomb, massacre and hang to achieve it.

That wasn’t Balfour’s doing. That was Hitler. Hitler made the creation of the state of Israel inevitable.

France’s great 20th century diplomatic achievements

  • Syria
  • Indochina
  • Algeria

La gloire!


Credit

A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2011. All references are to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition of 2012.

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908–1923 by Sean McMeekin (2015)

This is a very good book, maybe the definitive one-volume account of the subject currently available.

McMeekin’s earlier volume, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918, although full of solid history, was conceived and structured as an entertainment, using the erratic history of the Berlin to Baghdad railway project as a thread on which to hang an account of the German High Command’s attempt to raise a Muslim Holy War against her enemies, Britain and France, across the entire territory of the Ottoman Empire and beyond, into Persia and Afghanistan.

It had a chapter apiece devoted to the quixotic missions which the Germans sent out to try and recruit various Muslim leaders to their side, very much dwelling on the colourful characters who led them and the quirky and sometimes comic details of the missions – which, without exception, failed.

In Berlin to Baghdad book McMeekin had a habit of burying references to key historic events in asides or subordinate clauses, which had a cumulatively frustrating effect. I felt I was learning a lot about Max von Oppenheim, the archaeological expert on the ancient Middle East who was put in charge of Germany’s Middle East Bureau – but a lot less about the key events of the war in Turkey.

Similarly, as McMeekin recounted each different mission, as well as the various aspects of German policy in Turkey, he tended to go back and recap events as they related to this or that mission or development, repeatedly going back as far as the 1870s to explain the origin of each thread. I found this repeated going over the same timeframe a number of times also rather confusing.

This book is the opposite. This is the book to read first. This is the definitive account.

In 500 solid pages, with lots of very good maps and no messing about, following a strict chronological order, McMeekin gives us the political, military and diplomatic background to the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the First World War, a thorough, authoritative account of those disastrous years, and of their sprawling aftermath through the disastrous Greco-Turkish War (1919-23) ending with the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923, which established the modern republic of Turkey and brought that troubled country’s decade of tribulations to an end.

McMeekin suggests that the bloody decade which stretched from the first of the two Balkan Wars in 1912/13 through to the final peace of the Greco-Turkish War as, taken together, constituting The War of The Ottoman Succession.

Gallipoli

This is the first detailed account of the Gallipoli disaster I’ve read, which clearly sets it in the wider context of a) the broader Ottoman theatre of war b) the First World War as a whole. I was a little shocked to learn that the entire Gallipoli campaign was in response to a request from Russian High Command to draw Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus, where the Russian High Command thought they were being beaten.

One among many bitter ironies is that the Russians were not, in fact, being defeated in the Caucasus, that in fact the Battle of Sarikamish (December 1914 to January 1915), which the Russian leadership panicked and took to be a rout, eventually turned into the worst Ottoman defeat of the war.

But the Russians’ panicky request to the British at Christmas 1914 was enough to crystallise and jog forward British ideas about opening a second front somewhere in Turkey. From a raft of often more practical options, the idea attacking and opening up the Dardanelles (so British ships could sail up to and take Constantinople, and gain access to the Black Sea) soon acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own.

Armenian genocide

As with Gallipoli, so McMeekin also presents the Armenian Genocide in the context of the bigger picture, showing, for example, how the Christian Armenians did rise up against their Ottoman masters in the eastern city of Van, and did co-operate with the attacking Russians to expel the Ottomans and hand the city over, and so did justify the paranoia of the Ottoman High Command that they had a sizeable population of fifth columnists living in potentially vital strategic areas.

For it was not only in the far East of the Empire, in Armenia, a fair proportion of the Armenian population of Cilicia, over on the Mediterranean coast, was also prepared to rise up against the Ottomans, if provided with guns and leadership from the British (pp.223-245).

So McMeekin’s measured and factual account makes it much more understandable why the Ottoman High Command – under pressure from the ongoing British attack at Gallipoli, and terrified by the swift advances by the Russians through the Caucasus – took the sweeping decision to expel all Armenians from all strategically sensitive locations.

None of this excuses the inefficiency they then demonstrated in rounding up huge numbers of people and sending them into the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished, or the gathering mood of violent paranoia which seized local authorities and commanders who took the opportunity to vent their fear and anxiety about the war on helpless civilians, which led to localised pogroms, execution squads and so on. But it does help to explain the paranoid atmosphere in which such things are allowed to happen.

McMeekin emphasises that, once it saw what was happening on the ground, the Ottoman leadership then tried to moderate the expulsion policy and explicitly forbade the punishment of Armenians, but it was too late: at the local level thousands of administrators and soldiers had absorbed the simple message that all Armenians were ‘traitors’ and should be shown no mercy. The net result was the violent killing, or the starving and exhausting to death, of up to one and a half million people, mostly defenceless civilians, an event which was used by Allied propaganda at the time, and has been held against the Turks ever since.

Siege at Kut

Again, I was vaguely aware of the British army’s catastrophe at Kut, a mud-walled town a few hundred miles (230 miles, to be precise) up the Tigris river, where an entire British army was surrounded and besieged by a Turkish army, in a situation reminiscent of the Boer War sieges of Mafeking and Ladysmith (pp.263-270, 290-293).

But McMeekin’s account helps you see how the Kut disaster was a climax of the up-to-that-point successful campaign to seize the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Harab, and to win towns as far north as Basra, Qurna and Amara.

He takes you into the British thinking strategic thinking behind the ill-advised decision to push on towards Baghdad, and explains why the Turks turned out to be better dug-in and better led around that city than we expected (p.269). There’s a fascinating thread running alongside the slowly building catastrophe, which was the extreme reluctance of the Russian commander in the field, General N.N. Baratov to come to our aid (pp.290-292).

In fact Russian tardiness / perfidy is a recurrent theme. We only mounted the Gallipoli offensive to help the bloody Russians, but when it ran into trouble and British leaders begged Russia to mount a diversionary attack on the Black Sea environs of Constantinople to help us, the Russians said the right thing, made a few desultory naval preparations but – basically – did nothing.

British take Jerusalem

Similarly, I vaguely knew that the British Army ‘took’ Jerusalem, but it makes a big difference to have it set in context so as to see it as the climax of about three years of on-again, off-again conflict in the Suez and Sinai theatre of war.

Early on, this area had seen several attempts by Germans leading Turkish armies, accompanied by Arab tribesmen, to capture or damage parts of the Suez Canal, which McMeekin had described in the earlier book and now tells again, much more thoroughly and factually. The capture of Jerusalem was the result of a new, far more aggressive British policy  of not just defending the canal, but of attacking far beyond it – known as the Southern Palestine Offensive of November to December 1917, carried out by the Egypt Expeditionary Force led by General Edmund Allenby.

Balfour Declaration

Similarly, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. I knew about this but hadn’t realised how it was related to the Russian Revolution. Apparently, world Jewish opinion was split for the first three years of the war about who to support because:

  1. Zionism, as a movement, was actually an Austro-German invention, the brainchild of Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl
  2. the World Zionist Executive was based throughout the war in Berlin
  3. most powerfully, the Western democracies were allied with Russia which had, from time immemorial, been the traditional enemy of Jews and Judaism

But the overthrow of the Tsarist government, and the transition to what everyone hoped would be more liberal democratic rule, tipped the balance of world Jewish opinion, especially in America, where the money came from (pp.352-3), against the Central Powers. The Balfour Declaration was a pretty cynical attempt to take advantage of this shift in Jewish opinion.

The Russian Revolution

God knows how many histories of the Russian Revolution I’ve read, but it was fascinating to view the whole thing from the point of view of the Ottoman Empire.

1916 was actually a good year for the Russians in the Ottoman theatre of war. They won a series of sweeping victories which saw them storm out of the Caucasus and into Anatolia, seizing Van and then the huge military stronghold at Erzerum.

And McMeekin shows how, even as the central government in faraway Petrograd collapsed in early 1917, the Russian Black Sea navy under Admiral Kolchak, chalked up a series of aggressive victories, climaxing with a sizeable naval attack force which steamed right up to the Bosphorus in June 1917.

But the collapse of the Tsarist regime in February 1917 had led to slowly ramifying chaos throughout the army and administration, and the the arrival of Lenin in the capital in April 1917, with his simple and unequivocal policy of ending the war, sowed the seeds of the complete collapse of Russian forces.

McMeekin leaves you with one of those huge historical what-ifs: What if the Russian revolution hadn’t broken out when it did – maybe the Russians would have taken Constantinople, thus ending the war over a year early and permanently changing the face of the Middle East.

The best history is empowering

As these examples show, this is the very best kind of history, the kind which:

  1. lays out very clearly what happened, in a straightforward chronological way so that you experience the sequence of events just as the participants did, and sympathise with the pressures and constraints they were under
  2. and places events in a thoroughly explained context so that you understand exactly what was at stake and so why the participants behaved as they did

McMeekin is slow to judge but, when he does, he has explained enough of the events and the context that you, the reader, feel empowered to either agree or disagree.

Empowerment – and this is what good history is about. 1. It explains what happened, it puts it in the widest possible context, and it empowers you to understand what happened and why, so you can reach your own assessments and conclusions.

2. And it has another, deeper, empowering affect which is to help you understand why things are the way they are in the modern world, our world.

McMeekin explains that, on one level, the entire history of the later Ottoman Empire is about Russia’s relationship with Turkey and the simple facts that the Russians wanted:

  1. to seize all of European Turkey, most of all Constantinople, to reclaim it as a Christian city to be renamed Tsargrad
  2. to make big inroads into eastern Turkey, creating semi-independent states of Armenia and Kurdistan which would be Russian protectorates
  3. the net affects of 1 and 2 being to give Russia complete dominance of the Black Sea and easy access to the Mediterranean

This is the fundamental geopolitical conflict which underlies the entire region. The intrusion into bits of the Empire by the British (in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq) or the French wish to colonise Lebanon and Syria, are in a sense secondary to the fundamental Russo-Turkish conflict whose roots stretch back centuries.

Competition for the Caucasus

McMeekin covers the ‘scramble for the Caucasus’ in the Berlin-Baghdad book but, as with the rest of the subject, it feels much more clear and comprehensible in this version.

It’s the story of how, following the unilateral declaration of peace by the Bolsheviks, the Germans not only stormed across Eastern Europe, sweeping into the Baltic nations in the north and Ukraine in the south – they also got involved in a competition with the Turks for the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

In other words the Ottoman Army and the German Army found themselves competing to seize Armenia, Georgia, Kurdistan and, above all, racing to seize Baku on the Caspian Sea, important not only for its strategic position, but because of the extensive oil fields in its hinterland.

The story is fascinatingly complex, involving a British force (led by General Dunster) which at one point held the city for 6 weeks (the British got everywhere!) but was forced to withdraw by boat across the Caspian as the hugely outnumbering Turks moved in – and a great deal of ethnic conflict between rival groups on the spot, specifically the native Azeri Muslims and the Christian Armenians.

Events moved very quickly. Local political leaders across the region declared the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic which included the present-day republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia which existed from just April to May 1918, but the area around Baku was engulfed in ethnic violence – the so-called March Days massacres from March to April 1918 – and then in May 1918, the leading party in Baku declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Nice for them but irrelevant as the Ottoman Army then routed the British and seized the city in September 1918. And only a few years later, most of these countries were reinvented by the Bolsheviks as Socialist Soviet Republics strongly under the control of Moscow, as they would remain for the next 70 years till the collapse of the Soviet Union (so in this region, the Russians won).

The end of the Great War…

The race for Baku was just one example of the chaos which was unleashed over an enormous area by the collapse of the Russian state.

But for McMeekin, it was also an example of the foolishness of the main military ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the entire Great War, Enver Pasha, who over-extended the (by now) under-manned and under-armed Turkish army, by dragging it all the way to the shores of the Caspian in what McMeekin calls ‘a mad gamble’ (p.400) ‘foolish push’ (p.409).

This left the Anatolian heartland under-defended when it suffered attacks by the British from the north in Thrace, from the south up through Palestine, and in Iraq – not to mention the French landings in Cilicia and Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The Empire was forced to sign the Armistice of Mudros with Great Britain on 30 October and Ottoman troops were obliged to withdraw from the whole region in the Caucasus which they’d spent the summer fighting for.

… was not the end of the fighting

The war between France and Britain and the Ottoman Empire theoretically ended with the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918. But McMeekin’s book is fascinating because it shows how invasions, landings, fighting and massacres continued almost unabated at locations across the Empire.

Specifically, it was a revelation to me that the Allied decision to allow the Greeks to land troops in the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast turned out to be the flashpoint which triggered the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Disgruntled Ottoman officers had been gathering in central Anatolia, away from Constantinople, now occupied by the Allies, who bitterly resented the way the civilian politicians were handing over huge tranches of the Empire to the Allies. These men rallied in Eastern Anatolia under Mustafa Kemal, who became the leader of the hastily assembled Turkish National Movement.

And thus began, as McMeekin puts it, one of the most remarkable and successful political careers of the twentieth century, the transformation of Mustafa Kemal from successful general into Father of his Nation, who was awarded the honorific Atatürk (‘Father of the Turks’) in 1934.

Big ideas

As always, when reading a history on this scale, some events or issues leap out as new (to me) or particularly striking. Maybe not the ones the author intended, but the ones which made me stop and think.

1. The First World War ended in Bulgaria

Brought up on the story of the trenches, I tend to think of the war ending because the German Spring offensive of 1918 broke the Allied lines and advanced 25 miles or so before running out of steam, at which point the Allies counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back to their original lines and then ever-backwards as more and more German soldiers deserted and their military machine collapsed. That’s how it ended.

I knew that Bulgaria had surrendered to the Allies as early 24 September and that that event had had some impact on German High Command, but it is fascinating to read McMeekin’s account which makes the end of the First World War all about the Balkans and Bulgaria.

The British had had a large force (250,000) defending Macedonia and the approach to Greece from Bulgaria, which was allied with Austria and Germany. But the Bulgarians were fed up. In the peace treaties imposed on the new Bolshevik Russian government in May 1918 the Bulgarians got hardly any territory. When the Germans advanced into Ukraine the Bulgarians received hardly any of the grain which was seized. The Bulgarians are Slavs and so there was widespread sympathy for Russia while many ordinary people wondered why their young men were fighting and dying for Germany. And there was abiding antagonism against the Ottomans, their supposed ally, who Bulgaria had had to fight to free itself from and had fought against in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

All this meant that when an aggressive new French general, Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d’Espèrey, arrived to take command of Allied army in Macedonia, and sent exploratory probes against the Bulgarian line, discovered it was weak, and then unleashed a full frontal assault in the Vardar Offensive of September 1918, that the Bulgarian army and state collapsed.

The Bulgarian army surrendered, mutinied, part even declared an independent mini-republic, and the Bulgarian government was forced to sue for peace on 24 September 1918. When he heard of the Bulgarian surrender, the supreme leader of the German Army, Ludendorff, said they were done for. The Turkish generalissimo, Enver Pasha, said we’re screwed.

The collapse of Bulgaria gave the Allies command of the Balkans, allowing the channeling of armies south-east, the short distance to capture Constantinople, or north against the vulnerable southern flank of Austro-German territory.

In McMeekin’s account, the collapse of Tsarist Russia was certainly a seismic event but it didn’t, of itself, end the war.

The trigger for that event was the surrender of Bulgaria.

2. East and West

Another of the Big Ideas to really dwell on is the difference between the First World War on the Western Front and on the other theatres of war – the Eastern Front in Europe, but also all the warzones in Ottoman territory, namely Gallipoli, the Black Sea, Suez, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Caucasus.

Any English person brought up, like me, on the history and iconography of the Western Front, with its four-year-long stalemate and gruelling trench warfare, will be astonished at the dynamism and tremendously changing fortunes of the combatants on all the other fronts I’ve just listed.

Not only that, but events in the East were intricately interlinked, like a vast clock.

Thus it is one thing to learn that Serbia, the cause of the whole war, which Austria-Hungary had threatened to demolish in the first weeks of the war, was not in fact conquered until over a year later, in November 1915. So far, so vaguely interesting.

But it took my understanding to a whole new level to learn that the fall of Serbia to the Central Powers was the decisive event for Gallipoli. Because, while Serbia was holding out, she had prevented the Germans from shipping men and material easily down through the Balkans to their Ottoman ally. Once Serbia fell, however, the transport routes to Turkey were open, and this was the last straw for strategists in London, who realised the bad situation of the Allied troops stuck on the beaches of the Dardanelles could only deteriorate.

And so the decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign and remove the troops from the beaches.

This is just one example from the many ways in which McMeekin’s account helps you see how all of these events were not isolated incidents, but how, all across the region from Libya in the West to the Punjab in the East, from the Balkans via Palestine to Suez, across Syria, down into Arabia, or up into the snowy Caucasus mountains, events in one theatre were intricately connected with events in all the others – and how the entire complex machinery was also influenced by events on the immense Eastern Front to their north, which ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Basically, the First World War in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, was vastly more complicated, dynamic and interesting than the war in the West. And also pregnant with all kinds of long-running consequences.

3. The ends of wars are incalculably more complex than the beginnings

Real peace didn’t come to Turkey till 1923. In this regard it was not unlike Germany which saw coups and revolutions through 1919, or the vast Russian Civil War which dragged on till 1922 and included an attempt to invade and conquer Poland in 1920, or the political violence which marred Italy until Mussolini’s black shirts seized power in 1922.

Across huge parts of the world, violence, ethnic cleansing and actual wars continued long after the Armistice of November 1918. In fact McMeekin goes so far as to describe the Battle of Sakarya (23 August to 12 September 1921) as ‘the last real battle of the First World War (p.456).

Thus the book’s final hundred pages describe the long, complex, violent and tortuous transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, a story which is riveting, not least because of the terrible decisions taken by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, often against the advice of his entire cabinet, namely:

  1. to allow the Greek Army to occupy Smyrna, which led to riots, massacres, and outrage right across Turkey
  2. to occupy Constantinople on March 20 1920 – I had no idea British warships docked in the harbour, and British soldiers backed by armoured cars set up control points at every junction, erecting machine-gun posts in central squares – God, we got everywhere, didn’t we?

And bigger than both of these, the folly of the Allies’ approach of imposing a humiliating peace without providing the means to enforce it.

That said, America also played a key role. Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Plan to divide the Ottoman Empire up between Britain and France, but McMeekin goes to great pains to emphasise several massive caveats:

1. Sazonov That, when it was drawn up, in June 1916, the Sykes-Picot Plan was largely at the behest of the pre-revolutionary Russian government which had more interest in seizing Ottoman territory than the other two combatants, so the plan ought, in McMeekin’s view, to be called the Sazonov-Sykes-Picto Plan because of the dominant influence of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov.

2. Sèvres I was astonished to see that the Treaty of Sèvres (imposed on the new Turkish government in May 1920, reluctantly signed in August 1920) handed a huge amount of territory, the bottom half of present-day Turkey, to Italy – in fact pretty much all the contents of the Treaty of Sèvres are mind-boggling, it enacted ‘a policy of forcefully dismembering Turkey’ (p.447). As McMeekin brings out, a document better designed to humiliate the Turks and force them into justified rebellion could barely be imagined.

Map showing how the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the Treaty of Sèvres, not only between the French and British, but the Italians, Greeks and Russians as well (Source: Wikipedia, author: Thomas Steiner)

3. States That the key player in the final year of the war and the crucial few years after it, was the United States, with some plans being drawn up for America to hold ‘mandates’ over large parts of the Ottoman Empire, namely Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia. Given a choice the native populations wanted the Americans in charge because they thought they would be genuinely disinterested unlike the colonial powers.

Here, as across Central Europe, it was a great blow when, first of all Woodrow Wilson had a stroke which disabled him (October 1919), and then the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations.

As the chaos continued, and as David Lloyd George listened to his influential Greek friends and supported a Greek army invasion of Smyrna on the Turkish coast (with its large Greek population), and then its pushing inland to secure their base, only slowly did I realise McMeekin was describing events which are nowadays, with hindsight, referred to as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.

I had no idea the Greeks penetrated so far into Anatolia.

Map of the Greco-Turkish War, blue arrows showing the advance of the Greek Army into undefended Anatolia and coming within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital at Ankara before being halted at the Battle of Sakarya (source: Wikipedia, author: Andrei Nacu)

And no idea that the Greeks were encouraged to the hilt by David Lloyd George right up until it began to look like they would lose after their advance was halted by the vital Battle of Sakarya just 50 miles from Ankara.

Nor that the Greeks then forfeited the backing of the French and British and world opinion generally, by the brutality with which they pursued a scorched earth policy in retreat, torching every town and village and railway and facility in their path, also committing atrocities against Muslim Turkish civilians. It’s gruelling reading the eye-witness descriptions of destroyed villages, raped women, and murdered populations. What bastards.

Mustafa Kemal’s impact on Britain

It was a revelation to me to learn that, once Kemal’s Turkish army had driven the Greeks back into the sea and forced the evacuation of Smyrna, and with his eastern border protected by a rock-solid treaty he had signed with Soviet Russia, Kemal now turned his attention to the Bosphorus, to Constantinople, and to Thrace (the thin strip of formerly Turkish territory on the northern, European side of the Straits), all occupied by (relatively small) British forces.

It was news to me that Lloyd George, backed by Winston Churchill, was determined that Kemal would not have either Constantinople or the Straits back again, and so a) wrote to the premiers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa asking them to contribute forces to a second defence of Gallipoli – they all said No – and b) the British public were by now so sick of the war in Turkey, and war generally, that they, and all the newspapers, roundly called for an end to British involvement – STOP THIS NEW WAR! shouted the Daily Mail.

And that it was this crisis which caused the collapse of the coalition government which had ruled Britain and the Empire since 1916.

The Conservatives abandoned the coalition, it collapsed, the Liberals split into two factions and the election of October 1922 resulted in not only a Conservative victory (344 seats) but the Labour Party emerging for the first time as the largest opposition party (142 seats), with the two factions of the Liberal party knocked into third and fourth place. The Liberals, even when they finally recombined, were never to regain the power and influence they enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century.

Thus, McMeekin points out with a flourish, Mustafa Kemal had not only divided the wartime Alliance (the French wanted nothing to do with Lloyd George’s foolish support for the Greeks) and atomised the Commonwealth (all those white Commonwealth countries refusing to help the Old Country) but ended the long history of the Liberal Party as a party of power.

Fascinating new perspectives and insights

Conclusion

Nowadays, it is easy to blame the usual imperialist suspects Britain and France for all the wrongs which were to beset the Middle East for the 100 years since the Treaty of Lausanne finally finalised Turkey’s borders and gave the rest of the area as ‘mandates’ to the victorious powers.

But McMeekin, in his final summing up, is at pains to point out the problems already existing in the troubled periphery – there had already been two Balkan Wars, Zionist immigration was set to be a problem in Palestine no matter who took over, Brits, Russians or Germans – Arabia was already restless with the Arab tribes jostling for power – Mesopotamia had been a hornet’s nest even during Ottoman rule, with the Ottoman authorities telling non-Muslims never to visit it. All this before you get to the smouldering cause of Armenian independence.

All these problems already existed under the last years of Ottoman rule, the British and French didn’t invent them, they just managed them really badly.

Ataturk’s achievement was to surgically remove all these problems from Ottoman control and delegate them to the imperial powers. He was clever, they were dumb, inheriting insoluble problems. He created an ethnically homogenous and ‘exclusionary state’ whose borders have endured to this day.

As a very specific example, McMeekin cites Kemal’s readiness to hand over the area around Mosul to British control, even though he was well aware of its huge oil deposits. He made the very wise assessment that the benefit of the oil would be outweighed by the disruptive issues he would inherit around managing the ethnic and religious conflicts in the region (between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunni and Shia Muslims). And indeed, the low-level conflicts of the region are alive and kicking to this day.

The Allies for 25 years struggled to rule Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Iraq and eventually withdrew in various states of failure. McMeekin’s mordant conclusion is that the ‘the War of the Ottoman Succession rages on, with no end in sight’ (p.495, final sentence).

For the clear and authoritative way it lays out its amazing story, and for the measured, deep insights it offers into the period it describes and the consequences of these events right up to the present day, this is a brilliant book.


Related reviews

Other blog posts about the First World War

Books

Histories

Memoirs and fiction

Art & music

The Byzantine Empire

Which describe the first arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the region, their conquest of Anatolia, Byzantine territory and, finally, Constantinople itself.

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies (Title of a paper written in October 1914 by German archaeologist and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim which argued for enlisting the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War or jihad against the colonial powers, France and Great Britain)

This is a colourful and entertaining book about Germany’s military and diplomatic involvement with the Ottoman Empire in the decades leading up to, and then during, the Great War of 1914-18.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for Islam

The first 80 pages or so provide background, describing Kaiser Wilhelm’s first state visit to Turkey in 1889 when he met the reigning Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, and his second visit in 1898 when Wilhelm grandiosely rode into Jerusalem through a breach specially made in its walls.

And they detail the very slow progress made on an ambitious commercial scheme to extend the railway line which already stretched from Hamburg on the Baltic Sea via Berlin to Constantinople, onwards across Anatolia, Syria and Iraq, to Baghdad and thence onto the Persian Gulf at Basra.

This railway project – to create a Berlin to Baghdad Railway – the focus of the opening 70 or 80 pages, although described in detail with lots of facts about the funding, selling bonds on various stock markets, the setting up of companies, the engineering challenges and so on – is really only a pretext or way in to the wider story about German-Ottoman relations, and how cultural, economic and political factors drew the two countries closer together in the years leading up the Great War.

McMeekin describes the Kaiser’s over-excitable whims and enthusiasms. One of the most notorious of these saw Wilhelm make a speech at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus on the 1898 trip, when he declared himself and his Reich a friend to the world’s 300 million Muslims. In private letters he announced that Islam was superior to Christianity, he was intoxicated by his visits and his receptions… only to largely forget his enthusiasms once he was back in Berlin.

German High Command develop an eastern strategy

But key elements in the German diplomatic and military didn’t forget; they built on this new idea of expanding German influence down through the Balkans into the Middle East. Germany’s European rivals, France and Britain, already had extensive empires with territories all round the world. Even the Dutch and the Italians had farflung colonies.

It was true the Germans had grabbed a few wretched bits of Africa during the notorious scramble for that continent in the 1880s, but now German strategists realised that extending her influence south and east, through the Balkans and into the Middle East was:

  1. a far more natural geographical extension of Germany’s existing territory
  2. fed into all kinds of cultural fantasies about owning and running the origins of Western civilisation in Babylon, Jerusalem and so on
  3. and offered the more practical geopolitical goals of:
    • forestalling Russian expansion into the area, via the Balkans or the Caucasus
    • breaking up the British Empire by seizing control of its most vital strategic asset, Suez Canal, and sparking an uprising of the tens of millions of ‘oppressed’ Muslim subjects of the British, specifically in British India

So the book isn’t at all a dry and dusty account of German-Ottoman diplomatic relations from 1889 to 1918 (although it does by its nature contain lots of aspects of this).

It is more a description of this GRAND VISION which entranced generations of German political and military leaders and a score of German entrepreneurs, spies and adventurers, a VISION which inspired official reports with titles like Overview of Revolutionary Activity We Will Undertake in The Islamic-Israelite World and Exposé Concerning The Revolutionising of The Islamic Territories of Our Enemies, a VISION of Germany sparking and leading a Great Uprising of Islam which would overthrow the British Empire and… and…

Well, that was the problem. The Big Vision was intoxicating, but working out the details turned out to be more tricky.

Apparently there’s controversy among historians about whether the German leadership had any kind of conscious plan to raise the Muslim East against the British before the First World War broke out in August 1914. But once war was declared, a combination of military and diplomatic officials dispatched to the Ottoman Empire and a colourful cast of freelance archaeologists and regional experts who fancied themselves as spies and provocateurs, give McMeekin the raw material for a book full of adventures, mishaps, farcical campaigns, ferocious Young Turks and double-dealing Arab sheikhs.

The book proceeds by chapters each of which focuses on an aspect of the decades building up to the First World War, then on specific historical events during 1914-18, or on leading personalities, often repeating the chronology as he goes back over the same pre-war period to explain the origins of each thread or theme. Topics covered include:

  • the brutal reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) which combined attempts to modernise the Ottoman Empire with some notorious repressions of Armenians calling for independence, specifically the Hamidian Massacres of 1893 during which up to 300,000 Armenians were killed and which earned Hamid the nickname ‘the Bloody Sultan’
  • the revolution of the Young Turks who overthrew Abdul Hamid, and replaced him with a more compliant ruler during a series of complex events stretching from 1908 into 1909
  • the complex diplomatic manouevring which followed the outbreak of the war in 1914 by which the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) tried to persuade the Young Turk government to take the Ottoman Empire in on their side
  • the intricate tribal rivalries in Arabia between fiercely rival tribes such as the ibn Saud, the Ibn Rashid of the Shammar, An-Nuri’s Rwala bedouin and so on

Why the Ottoman Empire joined the First World War

And of course, some time is spent explaining why the Ottomans did, eventually, come into the war, by launching an attack on Russian ports in the Black Sea on 29 October 1914, although this isn’t rocket science.

The Ottomans:

  1. resented French incursions into Lebanon and Syria
  2. really disliked the ongoing British ‘protectorate’ over Egypt (established in the 1880s) and encroaching British influence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf
  3. and very much feared the permanent threat of attack from Russia, their historic enemy, whose military chiefs and right-wing hawks harboured a long-standing fantasy about invading right down through the (mostly Slavic) Balkans and conquering Constantinople, restoring it as an Orthodox Christian city

This sense of being beset by enemies was steadily compounded through the 1900s as first France and Britain signed an Entente (the Entente Cordiale, 1904), and then Britain reached out to Russia to create the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907, thus creating what became known as the Triple Entente.

Compared to these three known and feared opponents who were slowly drawing together, the Germans were a relatively unknown quantity who, led by the Kaiser’s impulsive gushing enthusiasm for Islam, and combined with the Germans’ undoubted a) money b) engineering abilities, made them welcome partners in not only building the railway but trying to rejuvenate the crippled Ottoman economy.

The Ottoman Caliph proclaims his fatwas against the infidel

But the Germans didn’t just want the Ottomans as military allies. They saw huge potential in getting the Sultan, in his capacity as Caliph of the Muslim world, to raise the entire Muslim world in a Holy War against the infidel… well… the British and French infidel, not the German or Austrian infidel. Maybe the Italian infidel too, although at this early stage of the war nobody knew which side Italy would come in on (Italy entered the First World War on 23 May 1915 on the side of the Entente Powers).

So McMeekin details the diplomatic shenanigans (and the bribes, always the bribes) which led up to the great day, Wednesday November 11th, 1914, when Shaykh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, the highest religious authority of the caliphate in Constantinople, issued five fatwas, calling Muslims across the world for jihad against the Entente countries (Britain, France, Russia) and promising them the status of martyr if they fell in battle.

Three days later, in the name of Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V, the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (the puppet caliph who had been put in place by the Young Turk government) the decree was read out to a large crowd outside Constantinople’s Fatih Mosque and then huge crowds carrying flags and banners marched through the streets of the Ottoman capital, calling for holy war. Across the Ottoman Empire, imams carried the message of jihad to believers in their Friday sermons, and so on.

This was a seismic even and it had been very expensive – McMeekin calculates German payments to the Young Turk government of £2 million of gold, a loan of £5 million more, and massive shipments of arms on credit to persuade them to join the German side (p.233).

Missions and characters

OK, now the Germans had gotten the highest authority in the Muslim world to issue a holy order to rise up against the infidel (the British and French infidel, that is), now all that was needed was to organise and lead them. Simples, right?

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the missions of a number of idiosyncratic German adventurers who were sent out by the German military authorities to recruit Muslim allies in their fight against the allies.

Key to the whole undertaking was Max von Oppenheim, archaeologist and Orientalist who, in October 1914, had published a Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies which argued for enlisting the Sultan to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War against Germany’s enemies, France and Britain. Seeing the possibilities, the German High Command set up an Intelligence Bureau for the East in Berlin and made Oppenheim its head.

From this position Oppenheim helped plan, equip and select the personnel for a series of missions to be led by noted German archaeologist / linguists / explorers all across the Muslim world, with a view to raising it against the British (the French Muslim colonies of the Maghreb are mentioned a few times but were too far West along North Africa to be of any strategic importance to the European war).

These colourful expeditions included:

  • the mission given the ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius to stir up the Muslims of Abyssinia and Sudan against the British (pp.145-151)
  • the mission led by Austrian orientalist and explorer Alois Musil to recruit the bedouin of Arabia to the German cause (pp.154-165)
  • an ill-fated military campaign of Turks and Arabs to try and capture the Suez Canal, led by Freiherr Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, which was badly mauled by the British defenders (pp.167-179)
  • Max Oppenheim’s own negotiations with Feisal, son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, to recruit the guardian of the Muslim Holy Places onto the German side (pp.191-195)
  • the mission of Captain Fritz Klein to the leader of the Shia world, Sheikh Ali el Irakein, the Grand Mufti of Karbala in modern-day Iraq, ‘to spread the fires of Ottoman holy war to the Gulf’ (pp.203-8)
  • the even more ambitious mission of Oskar von Niedermayer to the Emir of Afghanistan, with a view to recruiting a force which could invade North-West India through the Khyber Pass and raise all the Muslims of India in rebellion against their imperial masters (pp.209-229)

Several things emerge very clearly from McMeekin’s detailed accounts of each of these missions, and slowly dawned on the German High Command:

1. The Muslim world was the opposite of united; it was surprisingly fragmented.

2. The Germans were disconcerted to discover that none of the Arabs they met gave a toss what the Turkish Sultan-Caliph declared in faraway Constantinople; in fact, on one level, the ineffectiveness of the Sultan-Caliph’s call to arms ending up emphasising his irrelevance to most Muslims and, in a roundabout way, undermining the authority of the Ottoman Empire as a whole over its non-Turkish subjects (p.258).

3. Again and again, in different contexts, different German emissaries made the same discovery – the Turks and the Arabs distrusted or even hated each other.

4. When it came to fighting the Germans could trust the Turks but not the Arabs. At Gallipoli the Arab regiments ran away, and had to be replaced by Turks, who held the line under the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal’ (p.189). As soon as the shooting started during the Turco-German attack on the Suez Canal (3 February 1915), all the bedouin who had been so carefully recruited, turned tail and fled, followed by all the Arab conscripts in the Turkish ranks (p.177). The Turks didn’t trust any of the Arab regiments in their army, and made sure they were all led by Turkish officers.

5. All the Arabs were only in it for the money: whether it was the Arabian bedouin, the north African Arabs of Libya or Sudan, the Shia ruler in Karbala or the Emir of Afghanistan, all of them were currently being subsidised by the British and often their people were being supplied with grain and basic foodstuffs by the British. Therefore, the Germans found themselves having to outbid the British subsidies and handing over eye-watering amounts of money. The Emir of Agfhanistan demanded an annual payment of $15,000 before he signed up with the Germans. Ibn Rashid, headman of the Shammar tribe, had negotiated payment from Turkey of 50,000 rifles, a one-off bribe of 15,000 Turkish pounds (worth $20 million today), a luxury car and a monthly stipend of 220 Turkish pounds – but all that didn’t prevent him carrying out secret negotiations with the French to see if he could get a better deal out of them (p.163). And the Emir of Afghanistan demanded a lump sum of £10 million, the equivalent of $5 billion today, before he signed a treaty allying himself to the Central Powers on 24 January 1916 (p.228).

Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide

The book covers a couple of the best known episodes of the Great War in the Middle East, namely:

  • the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign – February 1915 to January 1916 (pp.180-190)
  • the Armenian genocide – April 1915 to 1917 (pp.241-258)

But McMeekin is not interested in presenting comprehensive factual accounts of either. Plenty of other books do that. Both disasters feature in his account insofar as they affected German plans and policies.

For example, through German eyes the main aspects of the Armenian genocide were that:

  1. it could be used by Western propagandists against the German war effort
  2. most of the skilled labour on the still-unfinished Baghdad railway was Armenian, and now they were being rounded up and sent off to the wild interior of Anatolia, thus depriving the Germans of their labour forc

Hence the German authorities making complaints all the way up the chain of command until the Head of the German General Staff himself made a formal complaint to the Young Turk government, saying elimination of the Armenian workers was hampering work on the railway which was still – in 1915 – seen as a key logistical asset in carrying arms and ammunition to the Arab Muslims in Mesopotamia or the Gulf so they could rise up against British influence in the region.

The symbolism of the Berlin to Baghdad railway

The Berlin to Baghdad railway which dominated the first 70 or 80 pages of the book thereafter disappears from view for long stretches. As and when it does reappear, it snakes its way through the narrative as a symbol of the tricky and ultimately unworkable relationship between the Reich and the Ottoman Empire (the railway was still not completed in 1918, when the war ended in German and Ottoman defeat).

But the railway also stands as a symbol of McMeekin’s approach in this book, which is to approach an enormous subject via entertaining episodes, a peripheral approach.

This isn’t at all dry, factual and comprehensive account of Germano-Turkish diplomatic and military relations in the years leading up to, and then during, the First World War.

It is more a collection of themes and threads, each chapter focusing on a particularly exciting episode (whether Gallipoli or Niedermayer’s gruelling trek to distant Afghanistan) and McMeekin deliberately presents them in a popular and rather sensational style, emphasising the personal quirks of his protagonists. We learn that leading German Orientalist Max von Oppenheim built up a collection of some 150 traditional Turkish costumes, that the Emir of Afghanistan owned the only motor car in the country, a Rolls Royce, that the leader of the military mission to the Ottomans, Liman von Sanders was partly deaf which explained his aloof, distracted manner, and so on. Wherever he can, McMeekin adds these personal touches and colourful details to bring the history to life.

The end of the war

McMeekin’s account of the end of the war feels different from the rest of the book. Up till now we had spent a lot of time getting to know Max von Oppenheim or Liman von Sanders or Young  Turks like Enver Bey or Mehmed Talaat, leading amabassadors in Constantinople, Arabs like Feisal of Mecca or non-Arab Muslims like the Emir of Afghanistan. It had, to a surprising extent, been quite a human account, I mean it focuses on individuals that we get to know.

The end of the war completely changes the scope and scale and tone because, to understand it, you have to fly up to take a vast God-like view of the conflict. McMeekin has to explain the February revolution in Russia, how and why the Russian offensives of the summer failed and were pushed back, the dazzling success of the German scheme to send Lenin to St Petersburg in a sealed train, the success of the Bolshevik coup in October, Lenin’s unilateral declaration of peace, the long drawn out peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and all the while describe the impact of these increasingly fast-moving developments on the main front between the Ottoman Empire and the Russians, fought in the Caucasus.

In other words, the last 60 or so pages of the book cease to have the colourful and sometimes comic tone of the earlier accounts of individual adventurers and two-faced Arab sheikhs, and become something much more faceless, high-level and brutal.

And complex. The fighting in the Caucasus involved not just the Russians and Turks, but a large number of other nationalities who all took the opportunity of the Russian collapse to push their hopes for independence and statehood, including the Georgians, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis and many others. I can tell I’m going to have to reread these final sections to get my head round the chaos and complexity which carried on long after the supposed peace treaties had been signed…

Two big ideas

1. Bismarck had made it a lynchpin of his foreign policy to maintain the Holy Alliance first established as far back as 1815 at the Congress of Vienna and promoted by the Austrian diplomat, Metternich during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Holy Alliance bound together the three Central and East European autocracies, Prussia (and its successor state, Germany), Austria-Hungary and Russia. According to McMeekin, within weeks of sacking Bismarck (in 1890), the cocky young Kaiser rejected overtures from Russia to renew Germany and Russia’s understanding, determined to throw out everything the boring old man (Bismarck) had held dear, and to embark on new adventures.

The impact on Russia was to make her even more paranoid about the ambitions of Germany and Austria in ‘her’ backyard of the Balkans – shutting down lines of communication which might have contained the Balkan Crises of the 1910s – and made Russia cast around for other alliances and, in the end, improbably, forge an alliance with the ditziest of the western democracies, France.

All this was explained on page ten and struck me as the most fateful of all the Kaiser’s mistakes and, in a sense, the key to everything which came afterwards.

2. After the peace treaties are finally signed, McMeekin presents an epilogue, which goes on for a long time and develops into a complicated argument about the links between Wilhelmine Germany’s encouragement of an anti-western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish jihad – which his book has described at some length – and the rabid anti-Semitism which emerged soon after the German defeat of 1918, and which carried on getting evermore toxic until the Nazis came to power.

This strikes me as being a complex and controversial subject which probably merits a book of its own not a hurried 20-age discussion.

But before he goes off into that big and contentious topic, McMeekin makes a simpler point. Modern Arabs and Western Liberals like to blame the two colonial powers, Britain and France, for everything which went wrong in the Arab world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the years after the Great War ended, and obviously there is a lot to find fault with.

But this over-familiar line of self-blame among Western liberals completely omits, ignores, writes out of history, the baleful impact of the prolonged, deep (and very expensive) engagement of Wilhelmine Germany with the Ottoman Empire, with Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen, with the Muslim world from Egypt to Afghanistan. And the fact that it was the Germans who went to great lengths to summon up jihad, to set the Muslim world on fire, to create murderous hatred against Westerners and Europeans, and at the same managed to undermine the authority of the Turkish Caliphate, the one central authority in the Muslim world.

Summary

So if there’s one thing The Berlin-Baghdad Express sets out to do, and does very well, it is to restore to the record the centrality of the role played by the Germans in the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and the long-term legacy of German influence across the Middle East.


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Art & music

Books

Year 3 by Steve McQueen @ Tate Britain

Steve McQueen

The black British artist and film director Steven Rodney McQueen CBE was born 1969 and is probably best known for writing and directing the big budget movie 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of an 1853 slave narrative memoir for which he won an Oscar.

McQueen won the Turner Prize back in 1999. In 2006, he went to Iraq as an official war artist and the following year presented Queen and Country, a piece that commemorated the deaths of British soldiers who died in the Iraq War by presenting their portraits as sheets of stamps.

So he’s had quite a long, varied and successful career.

Year 3

Now a new exhibition has opened in the big long central atrium of Tate Britain titled Year 3. To art fans bewildered by years of conceptual, or politically correct, or otherwise demanding ‘art’, the idea is disarmingly simple.

McQueen invited every Year 3 pupil in London to have their photograph taken by a team of specially trained Tate photographers. They included children from state primaries, independent schools, faith schools, special schools, pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.

These class photos are brought together into a single large-scale installation, capturing tens of thousands of Year 3 pupils in a milestone year in their development.

All the photo were shot in the same identical style. The teachers were all told to assemble their pupils in the same kind of official photo layout, very prim and formal, with teacher embedded in the middle. The pupils are wearing school uniforms.

Clifton Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

The resulting prints are a uniform shape (landscape) and size. And they are hung in rigidly geometric grids, twelve photos high and fifteen wide in such a way as to completely wallpaper the entire Tate atrium.

Portrait of Steve McQueen in Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate. Photo Jessica McDermott

There are no fewer than 3,000 class photographs depicting 76,000 children, although this represents only two-thirds of London’s year 3 pupils.

There are no name plaques or notes of any kind identifying any of the children or schools. Instead (as one of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’ pointed out to me), right down on the stone skirting board beneath each grid there’s a small number (we were standing next to grid 23 when she explained this). She told me that each school will have been told which grid their school photo is in, and then its grid reference (e.g. grid 23, row 4, 7 from the left).

Tyssen Community Primary School © Steve McQueen & Tate

This, of course, makes a fairly good game: bring your children along your kids who had their photo taken and see if they can find the photo. And so by 11am, as I emerged dazed from the Mark Leckey installation, I found the atrium absolutely packed with parents, buggies and small kids racing round. It was a lovely atmosphere. It’s a great idea. I’m not sure where you go with it, though, after you’ve found your school photo and looked at half a dozen, or a dozen others, or a dozen more…

Year 3 Class Photograph © Steve McQueen & Tate

What is year 3?

I had to google to find out what year 3 actually means:

In schools in England Year 3 is the third year after Reception. It is the third full year of compulsory education, with children being admitted who are aged 7 before 1 September in any given academic year. It is also the first year of Key Stage 2 in which the National Curriculum is taught.

Year 3 kids. They’re small. They’re cute. Looking at the backdrops is mildly interesting, or assessing the schoolteacher included in the photo: over 80% of infant and junior school teachers are female and the photos reflect that. At that age your teacher is the world and the photos made me strain back through the mists of time to remember my year three teacher. Memories.

Since we know that a good deal of a child’s future life chances are established by the age of five, it’s also interesting to compare and contrast the atmosphere, the vibe and appearance of the various groups. I couldn’t help be impressed by the spiffily smart uniforms of some of the schools, and compare them with the rough and ready sweatshirts of other classes.

Alpha Preparatory School © Steve McQueen & Tate

Who knows if these are decisive social and educational factors – I don’t. I’m just pointing out that this was one of the obvious visual elements which your eye is drawn to compare and contrast.

Maybe I’m not getting the sense of optimism and hope the photos are obviously meant to generate. The Artangel website explains that:

Year 3 is considered a milestone year in a child’s development and sense of identity. It’s when children aged 7–8 years old become more conscious of a much bigger world beyond their immediate family. This portrait of London captures that moment of excitement, anticipation and hope. It’s a celebration of the young people who will make London their own, and a meditation on the personal circumstances and social forces that shape all our lives.

Maybe this resonates with many of the young families with small children running all round the Tate atrium who I saw enjoying the exhibition.

Visiting Tate

And there is also an art educational element for the children themselves.

Over the months ahead, pupils featured in the exhibition will be visiting Tate Britain with their schools. As part of this learning experience, pupils will see their photograph up close in dedicated learning spaces around the gallery and take part in activities that explore the exhibition themes.

Sounds like a worthy idea: introducing fairly small children to the world of art and imaginative opportunity. Who could quibble?

Billboards

Running in parallel to the exhibition at Tate Britain, Artangel is staging an outdoor exhibition of the photos i.e. hanging them on no fewer than 600 billboards across all of 33 London boroughs in a rather forlorn attempt to brighten up our shitty city.

Steve McQueen Year 3 billboard at Camden Road, London Borough of Camden. Photo by Theo Christelis

And:

At the end of the exhibition each picture will be returned to the school where the photograph was taken.

Sweet.

The video

Curators

Year 3 at Tate Britain is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art and Nathan Ladd, Assistant Curator of Contemporary British Art; and is produced by Erin Barnes and Gemma Clarke.


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Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis @ the House of Illustration

The ‘refugee crisis’ started to make headlines in 2015 as thousands of people fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

News footage of overcrowded boats coming ashore in Greece and Italy made the evening news, along with images of those who didn’t survive the trip, who drowned at sea, and then images of life in the squalid, overcrowded refugee camps which sprang up on the Mediterranean shore, as well as the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Journeys Drawn is the first ever UK exhibition to explore the refugee crisis through illustration. It includes 40 multi-media works by 12 contemporary artists, several of whom are themselves refugees.

Illustrators have the advantage over ‘fine artists’, in that they are already used to working with stories and narratives, and most refugees’ stories are, by definition, stories about moving, about travelling, journeying – fleeing x and arriving in y.

Also, the genre of ‘illustration’ is flexible enough for illustrators to feel to treat subjects in all kinds of ways, from childlike picture-books, through stark political cartoons, to images packed with all kinds of information and detail – a kaleidoscope of approaches which ‘purer’, fine art tends to disavow.

A good example is the information-rich pictures of Olivier Kugler, who didn’t just depict the refugees he met on the Greek island of Kos (on a project funded by Médecins Sans Frontières) but created a format which can accommodate their stories through the extensive inclusion of text, especially the refugees’ own words, as well as inset images of their key objects and belongings.

As he says: ‘If you take time to view the drawing, it is like spending time with a person and their family in their tent.’

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

At the other extreme are the stark black-and-white images of David Foldvari. Foldvari usually does editorial work for The New York Times, Guardian and FT. He was commissioned by Save the Children to illustrate the stories of unaccompanied children at Civico Zero in Rome, a centre for refugee children. In his own words:

My main concern was to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or clichéd, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.

Typical of his style is this stark but deeply shaded, black-and-white image of one boy, Awet (not, in fact, his real name),which becomes even more powerful when you learn his story.

After fleeing his home in Eritrea at just 15 years old, Awet trekked to Sudan. He was smuggled with 30 others on a packed pick-up truck to Libya, but here they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a disused factory, where they were starved and tortured until their families could pay a ransom. Awet later managed to get onto a boat bound for Italy, only for it to fill with water. Rescued by the Sicilian coastguard, he found shelter at Civico Zero, two years after leaving Ethiopia. Which is where Foldvari met him.

Awet © David Foldvari

Awet © David Foldvari

I like realistic drawings, I am endlessly stimulated and excited by an artist’s magical ability to draw the world, to set down what we the rest of us only see around us, in solid lines and colours on paper – so I was immediately attracted to the documentary illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour which George Butler has made from what he’s seen in Greece, Belgrade and Syria.

As he puts it: ‘Reportage should tell a story, communicate an idea, or help someone relate to a situation.’

Of this picture, made in war-torn Syria, he says: ‘This was the first scene we saw as we came into Azaz – children playing on a burnt-out government tank. The fighting had finished here ten days earlier and would soon start again, but in the meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes.’

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

There are a number of animations in the exhibition. This is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation set to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man.

Adin was imprisoned for his political works in Iran, before being expelled. He made his way by boat to Greece then trekked across Serbia before reaching the Jungle camp at Calais. He was smuggled to London inside a refrigerator in a lorry. In 2017 he won a global competition to create the first ever music video for Elton John’s hit Rocket Man and since then has been working as an animator in London.

Another video, by Karrie Fransman, uses a format called ‘zoom comic’ in which the picture is continually zooming in on the central image to open up the next scene. It was inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The animation is narrated by Lula Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee who has found fame as a singer, songwriter and sound designer.

Kate Evans created a graphic novel, Threads from the Refugee Crisis, describing her experience of volunteering in the Calais Jungle. She published drawings from the camp within days of returning, and then went on to expand them into the book, ‘a poignant and emotive depiction of conditions in the camp, punctuated with political narrative, insightful commentary and angry responses from the public to her original blog post.’

Earlier this year Threads became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for Books.

Camp Sunset from threads by Kate Evans

Camp Sunset from Threads by Kate Evans

By now you should have got the idea of what the show looks and feels like.

In a way the subject matter is a bit repetitive – war, escape, camp. But visually, the artists and their works are extremely varied. I was surprised to see one set of pictures entirely in the style of Japanese manga, created by Asia Alfasi.

Alfasi grew up in Libya and moved to Glasgow at the age of seven. She now lives in Birmingham and has been working in the manga style since 2003. She aims to represent the voice of the Muslim Arab and her illustrated short stories have won several national and international manga awards.

In this wordless comic a young refugee returns to her destroyed childhood home. She is haunted by memories, but finds hope when she sees children playing among the rubble.

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

All of the illustrations in this exhibition are good, some very good. All the stories are moving, some very moving. It is, all in all, quite a shocking and upsetting exhibition.

According to Wikipedia, ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries have increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.

Where are they all going to go?


Related links

The illustrators’ websites

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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