A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)

The H.G. Wells connection

H.G. Wells’s novella, A Story of The Days To Come, is set in a futuristic London of 2100. It features a hero and heroine who start out life as comfortably middle class, but bad luck and a scheming rival result in our hero losing his job and the girl losing her inheritance, forcing the couple to move into a smaller flat, sell their belongings. Eventually, bad luck pushes them right down into the underclass of the city of the future, into the ranks of the Underclass which is governed by the iron hand of The Labour Company.

In their new degradation, they are forced to wear the blue serge uniform of the Labour Corps, given free housing and food but in return have to do degrading manual labour down in the bowels of the city. Wells describes their fall thus:

In spite of their inclination towards the ancient fashion of living, neither Elizabeth nor Denton had been sufficiently original to escape the suggestion of their surroundings. In matters of common behaviour they had followed the ways of their class, and so when they fell at last to be Labour Serfs it seemed to them almost as though they were falling among offensive inferior animals; they felt as a nineteenth-century duke and duchess might have felt who were forced to take rooms in the Jago. (Chapter 4 – Underneath)

‘Take rooms in the Jago?’ What is this Jago which Wells refers to?

The Jago

‘The Jago’ was a fictional name which the social realist novelist Arthur Morrison had given to a grid of slum streets which were the focus of his best-selling novel of East End slum life, A Child of the Jago. This searing account of poverty and brutality was published in 1896, just three years before Wells’s story, so Wells’s reference was still very topical.

This is how Morrison describes his blighted slum.

From where, off Shoreditch High Street, a narrow passage, set across with posts, gave menacing entrance on one end of Old Jago Street, to where the other end lost itself in the black beyond Jago Row; from where Jago Row began south at Meakin Street, to where it ended north at Honey Lane – there the Jago, for one hundred years the blackest pit in London, lay and festered; and half-way along Old Jago Street a narrow archway gave upon Jago Court, the blackest hole in all that pit.

 The novel includes this hand-made sketch of the district.

Morrison’s Old Jago was in fact a lightly fictionalised version of the real-life network of slums around Old Nichol Street, just east of Shoreditch High Street, which Morrison had been introduced to by a vicar working in the area, the Reverend Osborne Jay of Holy Trinity Church.

Jay suggested to Morrison, who had already written short stories about life in the East End slums, that the little enclave would be the perfect setting for a longer work of fiction-cum-reportage.

Even as the book was being published and reviewed, the Old Nichol Rookery, as it was known, was being demolished and replaced by a tidy Victorian housing estate, buildings which look a lot like army barracks, much like the Peabody estates scattered all over London. The process is actually referred to in chapter 29. Eventually, the old street pattern was demolished, leaving only Old Nichol Street remaining. This is what it looks like nowadays.

In 2018, when I went to have a look, the tall forbidding Victorian barracks were still there, but the streets around them have become highly gentrified. There was a very expensive designer trainer shop, several cafés and an art gallery. Difficult to imagine that back in 1896 it was one of the ‘darkest holes’ in the East End .

Photo of Boundary Street, London, taken in 1890, part of the Old Nichol slum.

Boundary Street, London, part of the Old Nichol slum, in 1890

Arthur Morrison

Morrison had a fascinating career. Born in Poplar in 1863, the son of an engine-fitter in the docks, his parents were responsible enough to send him to school, where he learned to read and write and which led on to him getting a job, aged 17, as an office boy at the London School Board.

He worked his way up to third-class clerk at the so-called People’s Palace, an educational establishment set up to serve the East End slums, and which eventually became part of the modern Queen Mary, University of London.

By his early 20s Morrison was trying his hand at writing sketches of life in East London and by the late 1880s he was placing these sketches in local magazines. He worked these up into short stories about the area, and was able to sell these to prestigious literary magazines including the National Observer, whose influential editor, W. E. Henley, encouraged and supported him. The best ones were brought together in the collection Tales of Mean Streets, published in 1894.

At the same time Morrison cashed in on the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and invented a detective of his own, Martin Hewitt, who uses his uncanny deductive abilities to solve crimes, all witnessed and recorded by his faithful and rather bumbling amanuensis, the journalist Brett. You can read the stories online.

Morrison wrote an impressive 25 Hewitt stories, but also tried his hand with a different type of criminal investigator, Horace Dorrington, a deeply corrupt detective about whom he wrote seven stories. Morrison was by now writing for a living and turned out whatever seemed likely to sell.

In the middle of all this activity, encouraged and supplied with anecdotes and information by the Reverend Jay, Morrison wrote his first full-length novel, A Child of the Jago, which became an immediate best-seller, caused a storm of protest, and prompted Morrison to reply to the many attacks made on him in the press and via letters.

In 1899 he published To London Town, which he claimed concluded a loose trilogy of books about London begun by Mean Streets and Jago. In 1900 he published Cunning Murrell, a novel describing the exploits of a mid-Victorian magician and healer and in 1902 another story of the East End, The Hole in the Wall.

But the most fascinating thing about Morrison is the way he escaped his background. As soon as he had money, he began collecting Japanese woodcuts and became an expert on Japanese art, writing a number of monographs and books on the subject. (It is striking that the preface to A Child of the Jago, which he wrote to defend it from critical attacks, almost immediately goes off-subject to invoke the evolution of ‘realism’ in Japanese art – a subject few of even his best-educated readers can have been familiar with).

As his writing took off, Morrison moved out of the slums to rural Chingford, then to Epping Forest, then completely out of London to Chalfont St Peter, retired from journalism and wrote only occasional short stories. When he died, in 1945, he bequeathed his important collection of Japanese paintings, woodcuts, and ceremonial tea porcelain to the British Museum.

Poverty writing of the 1890s

In the 1880s and ’90s there was an explosion of interest in life in the slums of British cities. Articles and books were also written about Glasgow and Birmingham but, as by far the largest city in Britain, and the capital of the Largest Empire The World Had Ever Seen, most of this writing concentrated on the appalling conditions of life in parts of East London.

George Gissing wrote a stream of novels about the hard life in the slums, Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes venture out East for tales of shocking brutality. The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 and 1889 solidified the area’s reputation among respectable Londoners as a sewer of vice, drunkenness, prostitution, and horrifying violence.

A trickle of books about the area in the 1880s turned into a flood in the 1890s by concerned observers, politicians, social commentators, bishops and radicals, all keen to propose their own solutions to the poverty, squalor, vice and violence.

  • In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth (1890)
  • Life in Darkest London by A.O. Jay (1891)
  • Life and Labour of the People of London in Nine Volumes (1892 to 1897)
  • The Social Problem and its Possible Solution (1893)
  • Neighbours of Ours: Slum Stories of London by Henry W Nevinson (1895)
  • A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)
  • A Story of Shoreditch by A.O. Jay (1896)
  • Liza of Lambeth by William Somerset Maugham (1897)
  • East London by Walter Besant (1899)
  • To London Town by Arthur Morrison (1899)

A Child of the Jago

It’s a relatively short novel, just 153 pages in the Oxford World Classic edition I have. In fact the lengthy introduction, chronology, bibliography, several prefaces, the extensive notes, a handy selection of contemporary reviews of the novel plus a glossary of lowlife vocabulary, all assembled by editor Peter Miles, themselves make up 89 pages, over half as much again as the text.

So what is A Child of the Jago about? Well, in the middle of this forest of annotations and historical explanations lies the story of young Dicky Perrott, living in an unheated, unwatered slum bedroom with his violent dad, Josh, and a mum, Hannah, so demoralised she can barely nurse the ten-month-old baby, Looey.

The doors have long ago been removed from the doorways. Many of the doorframes have been chopped up and used as firewood. There’s one cold tap in the backyard for the whole house, but it rarely works and periodically the tap itself is stolen. There’s no basin, soap or towel in the house. Everyone stinks.

The rotting slums are never quiet, because somewhere someone is always fighting or taunting, crying or wailing. The Jago as a whole is dominated by civil war between the Rann and Leary families and their respective auxiliaries. Low level fighting never ceases, and sometimes builds up to impressive crescendos.

Fighting began early, fast and furious. The Ranns got together soon, and hunted the Learys up and down, and attacked them in their houses: the Learys’ chances only coming when straggling Ranns were cut off from the main body. The weapons in use, as was customary, rose in effectiveness by a swiftly ascending scale. The Learys, assailed with sticks, replied with sticks torn from old packing-cases, with protruding nails. The two sides bethought them of coshes simultaneously, and such as had no coshes – very few – had pokers and iron railings. Ginger Stagg, at bay in his passage, laid open Pud Palmer’s cheek with a chisel; and, knives thus happily legitimised with the least possible preliminary form, everybody was free to lay hold of whatever came handy.

Bob the Bender was reported to have a smashed nose, and Sam Cash had his head bandaged at the hospital. At the Bag of Nails in Edge Lane, Snob Spicer was knocked out of knowledge with a quart pot, and Cocko Harnwell’s missis had a piece bitten off of one ear.

It is a world of relentless violence. Trying to escape across a yard, Dicky’s mum is cornered by the notorious Sally Green, who knocks her and the baby she’s holding, to the floor, pins her down and starts biting and ripping her neck. Sally’s enemy, Norah Walsh sees this happening and runs at Sally with a bottle. She smashes the bottom off against a kerb, pulls Sally off Dicky’s mum, and stabs Sally again and again with the shards of broken glass, in the face. Yes. It is really brutal.

In between all this mayhem, Dicky nips along to the opening of a philanthropical institute, the satirically named East End Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute. While worthy middle-class folk congratulate themselves on their philanthropy, Dicky pinches the bishop’s pocket watch and runs home to give it to his dad. But instead of being please, his dad beats him with his belt till he bleeds in several places on his back and legs.

Morrison is satirical about the well-intentioned middle-class’s efforts to help the slum dwellers, channelling Dickens.

The good Bishop, amid clapping of hands and fluttering of handkerchiefs, piped cherubically of everything. He rejoiced to see that day, whereon the helping hand of the West was so unmistakably made apparent in the East. He rejoiced also to find himself in the midst of so admirably typical an assemblage – so representative, if he might say so, of that great East End of London, thirsting and crying out for – for Elevation: for that – ah – Elevation which the more fortunately circumstanced denizens of – of other places, had so munificently – laid on. The people of the East End had been sadly misrepresented – in popular periodicals and in – in other ways. The East End, he was convinced, was not so black as it was painted. (Applause.)

Morrison’s attitude towards the slum dwellers is harder to gauge. His basic approach is to tell it like it is, to simply record the fights, casual violence, poverty and filthiness, all dipped in a layer of biting irony. One reasonably attractive woman makes a profession of luring sailors back to her rooms, where her husband hits them on the head with a foot long iron bar with a knob at the end, then they rob the victim of all valuables and throw him out in the street, where the lesser vultures pick over the leavings, removing shoes and belts.

The cosh was a foot length of iron rod, with a knob at one end, and a hook (or a ring) at the other. The craftsman, carrying it in his coat sleeve, waited about dark staircase corners till his wife (married or not) brought in a well drunken stranger: when, with a sudden blow behind the head, the stranger was happily coshed, and whatever was found on him as he lay insensible was the profit on the transaction. In the hands of capable practitioners this industry yielded a comfortable subsistence for no great exertion.

Morrison deploys an ironic or sardonic tone throughout. The victim is ‘happily’ coshed, the event is referred to as a ‘transaction’, the muggers are ‘capable practitioners’. For the most part this knowing irony works well. I suppose it reflects the position of the author who had one leg in the area and its violent underclass, and the other on the ladder up into gainful employment and ‘respectability’. Irony helps him to manage the detachment of both him, and the presumed middle-class reader, from the appalling scenes he describes.

But it is an often angry irony, a kind of exasperated humour which resents both the violent chavs he’s describing, and the ignorance of the middle-class audience he’s writing for. He is as dismissive of middle-class do-gooders as he is of his violent proles.

Here he is sarcastically describing the reason the half-respectable Roper family are disliked i.e. for not behaving like the rest of the Jago.

The Ropers were disliked as strangers: because they furnished their own room, and in an obnoxiously complete style; because Roper did not drink, nor brawl, nor beat his wife, nor do anything all day but look for work; because all these things were a matter of scandalous arrogance, impudently subversive of Jago custom and precedent. Mrs Perrott was bad enough, but such people as these!

This facetiousness extends to the technique I pointed out in my review of Tales of Mean Streets, which is for Morrison to describe the outrageous behaviour and values of the Jagos – their amorality, thieving, violent, ignorant and careless behaviour – as if it was quite natural and universally accepted. It’s a technique which combines anger, bitterness and humour in a compelling way. For example, after Josh Perrott is arrested, Dicky gets home to find his mum distraught.

Hannah Perrott sat in her room, inert and lamenting. Dicky could not rouse her, and at last he went off by himself to reconnoitre about Commercial Street Police Station, and pick up what information he might; while a gossip or two came and took Mrs Perrott for consolation to Mother Gapp’s. Little Em, unwashed, tangled and weeping, could well take care of herself and the room, being more than two years old.

So the two-year-old is left completely by itself – and this is what I mean by Morrison ventriloquising the values of the Jago – everyone in the story considering that being more than two-years-old means she is well able to take care of herself ‘and the room’. Later, in an even more throwaway moment, when Hannah and Dicky go to visit Josh in gaol, they leave two-year-old Little Em ‘sprawling in the Jago gutters.’ As a middle-class reader I am duly horrified. And that is Morrison’s intention.

Archaic phraseology

A slightly irritating thing about the style is the use of archaic turns of phrase, medievalisms, Biblical terms. This is found in the prose of William Morris, who I’ve just reread, and who at least has the excuse that he was consciously trying to revive medieval crafts and mentality.

It’s much weirder to find it in the prose of the father of science fiction, H.G. Wells. Wells and Morrison both combine a permanent low-level facetiousness with odd medievalisms lifted from Sir Walter Scott or the Bible.

I wonder if describing the brutal modern world in turns of phrase lifted from medieval romance is intended to be satirical? Or is he mocking the heavy-handed prose of Times editorials and church sermons? Or was it just was the prose style of the day?

Dicky saw a new world of dazzling delights. Cake – limitless cake, coffee, and the like whenever he might feel moved thereunto.

A man pulled Norah off. On him she turned, and he was fain to run…

Without, the fight rallied once more.

He was near as eminent a fighter among the men as his sister among the women…

But he was ever indulgent…

Dicky, with his hands in his broken pockets, and thought in his small face, whereon still stood the muddy streaks of yesterday’s tears.

He had ventured into the Jago because the police were in possession, Dicky thought; and wondered in what plight he would leave, had he come at another time.

The hunchback weak, but infuriate, buffeting, biting and whimpering; Dicky infuriate too…

But Dicky and his bulge he saw ere they were well over the threshold.

Leaning back in his seat, swinging his feet, and looking about at the walls with the grocers’ almanacks hanging thereto.

Old Fisher came down from the top-floor back, wherein he dwelt with his son Bob, Bob’s wife and two sisters, and five children.

Scarce were they vanished above, however, when the little hunchback heard his father and mother on the lower stairs.

But a well-dressed stranger was so new a thing in the Jago, this one had dropped among them so suddenly, and he had withal so bold a confidence, that the Jagos stood irresolute.

‘Scarce’, ‘near’ – why don’t they have -ly on the end and so function as normal adjectives? Is dropping the ‘-ly’ meant to give them a more resonant Biblical flavour, and thereby somehow ennoble the style? Maybe it’s a tone or register we just don’t ‘get’ any more. Whatever the motive, I think it mars Morrison’s style.

That said, I did notice that the incidence of these ironic archaisms did lessen as the book progresses, Maybe Morrison got fed up of them himself.

By contrast, Morrison’s handling of dialogue feels to me much more confident and accurate. It’s often much more enjoyable, more authentic, to read the novel’s dialogue than the prose narrative.

‘I don’t s’pose father’s ‘avin’ a sleep outside, eh?’
The woman sat up with some show of energy. ‘Wot?’ she said sharply. ‘Sleep out in the street like them low Ranns an’ Learys? I should ‘ope not. It’s bad enough livin’ ‘ere at all, an’ me being used to different things once, an’ all. You ain’t seen ‘im outside, ‘ave ye?’
‘No, I ain’t seen ‘im: I jist looked in the court.’ Then, after a pause: ‘I ‘ope ‘e’s done a click,’ the boy said.
His mother winced. ‘I dunno wot you mean, Dicky,’ she said, but falteringly. ‘You—you’re gittin’ that low an’ an’—’
‘Wy, copped somethink, o’ course. Nicked somethink. You know.’

Many writers have tried to depict working class or dialect speech. Off-hand I think Morrison is the most successful at it I’ve ever read.

The plot

The plot breaks down into three parts.

Part one 

In the first half Dicky is nine years old and two types of thing happen. 1. We witness the casual violence, complete amorality, the thieving, mugging, pickpocketing, deceit and small-mindedness which characterise the Jagos, including his own mother and father. 2. Buried amid all the violent incidents, we witness certain strands of the plot which will go on to become important.

Chief among these strands is the way the inhabitants of the persecute the Roper family because they are a tiny bit more respectable than the surrounding crooks. Their son is the same age as Dicky, a hunchback, and sees Dicky sneaking into their rooms to steal a clock.

Later, Dicky feels guilty and slips a music box he’s nicked from a shop on Shoreditch High Street into the Roper family belongings which are all piled on a cart as they pack up and move out of the slum. But when it is discovered it is interpreted as being a trick, obviously stolen and planted there so the police can be tipped off and get the Ropers into trouble. The Ropers don’t move very far away, and the hunchback boy and Dicky grow up to be enemies, engaged in a permanent violent feud. Whenever he sees the hunchback, Dicky attacks him. But the cripple always gets his own back with the simple trick of telling bigger, harder boys that Dicky is boasting he could best them in a fight. With the result that Dicky is continually being attacked by surprise and apparently at random by bigger boys who thrash him.

Although everything is seen through Dicky’s eyes, the disruptive figure who sets bits of plot rolling is the new vicar, a savvy tough exponent of Muscular Christianity – the Reverend Henry Sturt – who sets up a church in a disused barn and takes no nonsense from the Jagos. The Jagos will happily beat up individual policemen, who will only venture into Jago Court, at the centre of the slum, in large numbers. But Father Sturt, as the Jagos come to call him, from the start won’t be intimidated, stands up to even the toughest hard men, and wins a grudging sort of respect. He is ‘the one man who could swim in a howling sea of human wreckage’ (Chapter 26)

(This Father Sturt figure is based on the Reverend Osborne Jay who had approached Morrison and given him a tour of the Jago, and then supplied him with eye-witness descriptions of specific characters and incidents. Since Jay had already set some of these incidents down in his own book, Life in Darkest London, published in 1891, this led to Morrison being accused of plagiarism, a criticism which stung him into writing a preface to the book, which he expanded into a detailed essay discussing ‘realism’ in contemporary literature. From our perspective, it means we can be confident that many of the characters and events described in A Child of the Jago actually took place.)

The plot, in the sense of a linked series of events, is fairly slight. Dicky grows up witnessing a whole series of, mostly violent incidents: in part one by far the most impressive is the prolonged fist fight between his father and Billy Leary, triggered by the attack on Dicky’s mum by a (female) member of the Leary clan.

Part two

In the second part we leap four years and Dicky is now 13 and expected to earn his keep by thieving. In part one we had seen how he was inveigled into nicking things and giving them to a slimy cunning Jewish fence, Mr Aaron Weech. Now, in part two, Father Sturt gets Dicky a job in a shop. The hunchback slopes past, then doubles back several times to check what he’s seeing is correct. Dicky affects to ignore him.

But Weech, upset at the loss of goods Dicky gives him and also nervous that if Dicky turns honest, he might peach on him, manages to get Dicky sacked. Completely innocent, aggrieved, mortified, Dicky goes home in tears where his Dad belts him as punishment for losing the income. At which, giving up on the straight life, Dicky returns to thieving and pick-pocketing with renewed energy.

The biggest scene in part two is when the Jagos invite their rivals from the nearby rookery Love Lane round to Mother Gapp’s pub, the Feathers, for a truce and reconciliation party. Unfortunately Mother Gapp’s pub wasn’t built to be packed to the rafters with shouting stomping toughs and, in an amazing moment, the entire floor gives way and a crowd of Jagos and Dove-Laners all fall five or six feet into the basement, landing amid breaking barrels, broken pint pots and shattered rafters. Immediately thinking the whole thing is a trap, the Dove-Laners turn on the Jagos and there is an almighty scrap.

Amid the fighting Dicky sees the Roper hunchback silhouetted and pushes him into the hole. He hits a barrel, then falls between two barrels and lies still. Is he dead? Dicky legs it.

Dicky’s dad, Josh, has a bit of heroic bad luck. He breaks into an up-market house and has already pocketed a handsome watch when a fat old lummox labours up the stairs and Josh punches him, sending him reeling back down the stairs. Unfortunately for Josh, this fat man is a member of the High Mob, the bejewelled, swanking crooks who have made such a success of a life of crime that they have risen out of the slums and dwell in handsome abodes, though they still sometimes return to the Jago, to flaunt their wealth and especially to view an organised fight, like the fist fight between Josh and Billy Leary which drew an enormous crowd and elaborate betting.

The High Mobsman puts the word out to be alert for his watch, which has his initials on the back. Josh tries a few fences who turn it down with a shudder but the egregious Aaron Weech spies an opportunity to win favour with the Mobsman, tells Josh to return in the morning, at which point there are two constables tipped off to arrest him.

Without Josh to support them, Hannah, Dicky and Little Em sink into real poverty and starve. Hannah has another baby, delivering it herself in their hovel. Kiddo Cook has taken to dropping round spare morsels form his job in the market. One day he pushes the door open to witness the sight of Hannah having just given birth. He hurries to fetch Father Sturt who fetches the surgeon.

Having cleaned Hannah and the baby up, they walk away and the surgeon gives vent to his despair.

Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. ‘People would call it so,’ he said. ‘The boy’s alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn’t be better dead – still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind.’

Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said: – ‘You are right, of course. But who’ll listen, if you shout it from the housetops? I might try to proclaim it myself, if I had time and energy to waste. But I have none – I must work, and so must you. The burden grows day by day, as you say. The thing’s hopeless, perhaps, but that is not for me to discuss. I have my duty.’

The surgeon was a young man, but Shoreditch had helped him over most of his enthusiasms. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘quite right. People are so very genteel, aren’t they?’ He laughed, as at a droll remembrance. ‘But, hang it all, men like ourselves needn’t talk as though the world was built of hardbake. It’s a mighty relief to speak truth with a man who knows – a man not rotted through with sentiment. Think how few men we trust with the power to give a fellow creature a year in gaol, and how carefully we pick them! Even damnation is out of fashion, I believe, among theologians. But any noxious wretch may damn human souls to the Jago, one after another, year in year out, and we respect his right: his sacred right.’ (Chapter 29)

If a society allows anyone at all to have children, then the problem of children brought into the world by drunk, addicted or irresponsible adults is eternal.

This appears to be Morrison’s own view because it is repeated in several of the letters which Miles includes in the OUP edition of the book. The infection can never be completely cured. Morrison followed his patron, the Reverend Jay, in thinking that only moving the population lock, stock and barrel to penal colonies in completely different environments might break the cycle of illiteracy, drunkenness, violence and crime. Almost nothing could be done if you just left them to breed in London.

Part three

Another four years pass. The County Council starts to demolish the Jago and replace the tenements with tall, yellow-brick barracks-like apartments. Dicky is a hardened crook, coming up to seventeen. Josh is released from prison. He drinks his way across London to a surly reunion with his long-suffering wife and his unseen child who howls and wails at the sight of him, to the amusement of all the Jagos crammed into the pub.

Bill Rann persuades Josh to take part in a job – ‘cut and dried as a topper’ – to rob Aaron Weech. This is a red rag to a bull since Josh has spent four years in prison mulling over how Weech turned him in and also how he never lifted a finger to help his starving wife and children.

Things go wrong from the start, with the window proving hard to open, and the downstairs rooms proving empty of loot. Climbing the stairs Josh becomes thick-minded with hate, ceasing to make any effort at furtive creeping, clumping, awaking Weech who comes to his door with a lamp in his hand.

In a grim, late-Victorian scene, Josh grips Weech by the neck and slashes at his face, roaring out his list of accusations and blame, until he hacks at Weech’s throat, then lets the bloody lump fall at his feet. But the commotion has drawn the police and when Josh, foolishly looks out the window, by lantern-light several coppers recognise him.

Rann had long since scarpered. Now Josh takes to the rooftops and flees the baying crowd in a scene which is identical to Bill Sykes’s rooftop flight in Oliver Twist, written 60 years earlier. He makes it to a strong iron downpipe, shimmies down it plans to make it to the maze of slums in Honey Lane but hasn’t reckoned on the way the north-east of the slum has been cleared to make room for the new council housing. In the dark he falls into a hole dug for foundations, twisting his ankle, unable to move.

In the next chapter, Morrison again borrows from Dickens in portraying Josh Perrott’s feverish frame of mind, seeing the entire rigmarole of his trial for murder from the perspective of a mind overwhelmed by feverish, fast-moving, inconsequential worries and perceptions, morbidly obsessed with the smell of the old fence’s squalid den, the pervasive smell of rotting pickles, and

when he turned to face the judge again he had forgotten the time, and crowded trivialities were racing through the narrow gates of his brain once more.

We see the lengthy, wordy, repetitive rigmarole of the trial through Josh’s fevered mind, then the guilty verdict, Hannah fainting. Then a few days later he is hustled out of his cell, meekly thanks his gaolers, through the exercise yard and into the execution shed, up the steps to the gallows and then…

Father Sturt tries to give Hannah some charring work, but she’s useless at it. Dicky swears vengeance on the world. He half thinks of suicide but that’s soft talk. He’s got his mum and the kids to look after. He’s walking back to the Jago, with a plan for a job tonight, with Tommy Rann, a builder’s yard in Kingsland, when he runs into a fight. A mob of Jago youth is roused and storming towards Dove Lane. A fight, a fight will clear his head, anything to take his mind off his dad and… So Dicky joins in, storms Dove Lane with the others, throws himself into the centre of the melee, laying about him with a big stick when he feels a sharp punch under the arm and stumbles forward.

There’s blood, the boys nearest cry out that he’s been stabbed. It was his old enemy, the hunchback. The fight breaks up and everyone flees, apart from a few lads who lay Dicky on his back while the blood gurgles into his lungs. The lads come with a loose wooden door, lay him on it and take him to the surgeon. Father Sturt arrives and takes Dicky’s hand. They ask him who did it and to the end Dicky keeps up Jago morality, refusing to snitch.


Life before sex and drugs and rock’n’roll

I’ve been watching the American TV series, The Wire, set in Baltimore and following a team of detectives as they bug and gather evidence on a powerful drug-dealing operation. Series three follows the rivalry and warfare between two leading drug gangs, complicated by the involvement of a wild card drug thief and assassin, Omar.

The point is that a modern depiction of really rough slums (as of 2003, when the TV series is set) features:

Drugs The underworld is dominated by a network of drug dealers – small-timers on the street, distributing for higher-up gang leaders, some of whom have made enough money to begin investing in property and even entering the city’s corrupt politics.

Gun crime Rival gang members freely shoot each other dead, either individually or in mass firefights.

Sex And their lifestyle overlaps with profits from prostitution. The series doesn’t hold back on scenes of dealers getting blow jobs up dark alleyways or shagging hookers doggy-fashion in cars or enjoying the services of high class escorts.

Music All this is set against a semi-permanent backdrop of hard core rap music, music which seems to both describe the violent amoral world of its origins, and encourage and propagate its values.

Looking back at A Child of the Jago requires a big effort to block all this – the contemporary world of music, drugs and violent crime – out of your imagination.

In 1896 there were no mass-produced drugs. Some of the characters – including Dicky’s dad – drink heavily but there are no alcoholics, as such, no people completely incapacitated by booze. They all need to stay sharp in order to thieve.

There were no cars, so people were much more limited, psychologically, to their home turf, in this case the grid of Jago streets which provide all kinds of back exits and short cuts which characters can use to escape from the police (on the rare occasions the police are brave enough to enter the Jago) or, more probably, from other characters after their blood.

There are no guns so, although there is a continual threat of violence, all of which is serious – being bottled in the face, hit on the head with a cosh, whacked on the arm with bits of metal fence or, occasionally, stabbed – in the end the actual homicide rate is relatively low.

There is no music. The baleful events of The Wire play out to a backdrop of music appropriate to the characters, mostly hard-core rap, the indiscriminate consumption of which somehow confirms the shallow amorality of the characters’ sub-human lifestyle.

But there was no recorded music in Victorian times and so music in the book is rare. Occasionally you might come across a drunk singing on a street corner. More often there’ll be a sing-song in the pub, especially if it has an old joanna which someone can play. Then there are the stern, four-square hymns which emanate from churches or are sung by the Sally Army. But otherwise, the only sounds are of horses and carts and people.

Lastly, there appears to be no sex. The Victorians must have had sex otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but you wouldn’t think so from most of their art or fiction. Right at the start it’s explained that wives are sent out onto the busier streets to lure unwary men back into the Jago, so waiting husbands can cosh and mug them. But if there is any actual sex or prostitution in A Child of the Jago I couldn’t detect it.

Robert Blatchford’s review

Peter Miles, the editor of the Oxford University Press edition which I read, includes a dozen or more contemporary reviews of the novel in  his notes. By far the most interesting is a piece by Robert Blatchford, socialist and editor, who was one of the first to point out this glaring absence of sex from the story.

According to Blatchford, both critics and defenders of A Child of the Jago waste their breath debating its realism, since it omits:

  • the actual swearwords all working men use but are forbidden in print
  • the prevalence of illness
  • the ubiquity of prostitution whereby most of the Jago children are prostitutes before they reach their teens

The social impact of disease and prostitution (and the combination of both in venereal disease) are not discussed because they are not allowed to be discussed under the cultural self-censorship and the actual legal censorship, of the times. Therefore, according to Blatchford, Morrison’s depiction may revel in violence and crime – but massively fails to give a full and accurate picture of life in the slums.

This censorship helps to explain the feeling that, upon reading a book like this, you enter a world of different concerns and issues from our present day.

In the absence of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, what would have concerned a late-Victorian middle-class reader of the book? Well:

  1. The non-stop violence.
  2. The squalor and uncleanliness – this would have been linked to middle-class anxiety about cholera and other contagious diseases spreading to middle-class areas from sinks of filth like the Jago.
  3. The continual low-level thieving – everybody pinches any valuable they see. Though mainly carried out within the slum itself, the crooks do sometimes venture further afield to nick things from shops or pick pockets.
  4. The lack of Christian faith. None of the slum-dwellers knows or cares anything about religion, except as a way of wangling free food and drink out of naive missionaries. In his copious notes, Peter Miles quotes the 1886 census of the East End which declared that 92% of the population did not attend a service of any religious denomination.
  5. The immorality of living in sin. Even if they consider themselves ‘married’, very few of the couples in the book have actually been through a church service. Thus, in the eyes of any theologian, every time they have sex they are committing a cardinal sin which will send their souls to hell. They really did need to be saved, and soon. Hence the expense of money and effort opening Missions and building new churches.
  6. The lack of education. There is a free Board School close to the slum but none of the parents let their children go there because a) it’s a waste of time, they should be home helping their mum or, as soon as they’re able, going out to earn money thieving; b) if they attended school, their names would be taken down, and so the authorities would be able to identify them and their parents. No, no, the Jago parents prefer to stay off the grid, any grid.

Although the underlying principles – extremely poor, uneducated people living in filthy conditions, amid ceaseless violence and crime – are similar, it’s the differences between slum life of 1896 and slum life today which strike the modern reader.

Colourful names

Morrison has a sure way with names. Compare and contrast with his vastly more famous contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (Morrison born 1863, Kipling born 1865) all of whose names, in his hundreds of short stories, are arch and contrived, for example the names of the three soldiers in the British army who feature in some seventeen rather tiresome stories – Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris.

By contrast, Morrison’s characters’ names – like his depiction of late Victorian street speech – feel entirely authentic and powerfully evocative of a lost underworld:

Mother Gapp, Cocko Harnwell, Kiddo Cook, Josh Perrott, Aaron Weech, Snuffy, Little Em, Jerry Gullen, Jerry Gullen’s canary (actually a knackered old cart horse), Bill Leary, Old Beveridge, Pigeony Poll, Tommy Rann, Pip Walsh, Sally Green, Old Fisher, Mr Grinder, Snob Spicer, Bob the Bender, Pud Palmer, Ginger Stagg.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

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