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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Syria: A Conflict Explored @ the Imperial War Museum

As part of its centenary the IWM is launching a new exhibition strand called Conflict Now to explore current conflicts around the world, seen through the eyes of artists, photographers, refugees, citizen journalists, war correspondents and so on.

Syria: A conflict explored

The first of these is Syria: A Conflict Explored which will comprise a series of exhibitions and events addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and will include events, seminars, discussions etc over the show’s run (until September 2017). The main element consists of two free installations in gallery 2 and gallery 4 on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Gallery 4 – Syria: Story of a Conflict

In gallery 4 is a small display exploring the origins and impact of the war. It consists of three elements:

1. Half a dozen or so artifacts including:

  • a lifejacket from a boatful of refugees from the war;
  • newspaper headlines in a British and American paper, referring specifically to the beheading by ISIS of British and American citizens
  • a mug and a plate with the images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next to Russian President Putin
  • cartoons by Ali Ferzat, a well-known political cartoonist in Syria until he over-stepped the mark by depicting members of the government, and was beaten up one dark night in Damascus and had his hands shattered… at which point he realised it was time to leave the country
  • one of the characteristic white helmets worn by the Syrian Civil Defence, the people who clear up after the bombings and shooting
  • a replica of a barrel bomb i.e. a metal barrel packed with explosives, petrol and scrap metal, onto which are nailed some crude fins so that it can be fired from a primitive mortar at ‘the enemy’

2. An eight-minute video giving a timeline of the war, how it developed from some acts of graffiti by dissident school kids in 2011 who were subsequently arrested and beaten which sparked protests against the regime.

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

The region known as Syria was part of the huge Ottoman Empire for centuries. With the collapse of that Empire and the creation of modern Turkey, the victorious Allies (France and Britain) inherited control of the Middle East and laid out borders which endure to this day, more or less. While Britain took control of Iraq and the Gulf States, France took colonial possession of Lebanon and Syria. In fact, Syria was under French rule for only 25 years, from 1920 to 1945, when, in the aftermath of World War Two, it was given independence.

Syria’s subsequent history has been marked by a bewildering series of military coups (1961, 1963, 1966, 1970) until power was seized by Air Force colonel and one-time Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad. Assad instituted an Arab Nationalist dictatorship over a country mostly populated by Sunni Muslims but with a significant number of minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis.

In fact al-Assad was himself an Alawite (a heretical form of Shia Islam) and packed his government with colleagues from this sect – which was just one cause of resentment against his long oppressive rule. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, educated as an eye surgeon in the West, and who commentators – ever over-optimistic about the Middle East – thought would relax the state regime and help Syria transition to a modern democracy.

Whatever hope there was of that was crushed when Bashar was forced to choose whether to let the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011 continue or crack down on them: the same dilemma faced by numerous dictatorial regimes in the past generation – Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Li Peng’s China and Honecker’s East Germany in 1989. Possibly prompted by those around him, by the survivors of his father’s dictatorship who had so very much to lose, he decided to crack down – and the rest is history.

As the government used increasing violence to repress the protests, the protestors took up arms, dissident military units turned against the government, America and NATO refused to be drawn in and supply heavy weapons to the rebels (on the reasonable grounds that these might well end up in the hands of anti-western Islamist forces), while the opposition forces fragmented into up to a thousand different militias, among which – predictably enough – hard-line Islamist forces emerged. Combined with President Obama’s strategy of withdrawing US troops from Iraq, a vacuum of anarchy opened up in northern Iraq and eastern Syria into which surged the new, super-violent ISIS militia.

While chaos spread across the country, the Kurds in northern Syria – just like the Kurds in northern Iraq – tried to declare independence and secede, as their forebears have been trying to do ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. As usual, the Kurds turned out to be the most disciplined and unified fighting force in the country, particularly effective against the Islamist fanatics, and the West and America accordingly gave them practical help.

But this outraged Turkey, nominally a member of NATO and Western ally, but which has been fighting a campaign against Kurdish secessionists in its far south-east ever since the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and has suffered a long series of attacks on civilians and police by Kurdish terrorists. While America and NATO dithered about their policy, trying to aligned themselves with the democratic opposition to Assad while also trying not to end up arming Islamist forces – in September 2015 Russia stepped in with an aggressive policy to support its long-term ally in the region, the Syrian government.

Russian President Putin has trodden a tricky line ever since, claiming at the UN and to the world at large, to be helping Assad combat ‘terrorists’ – while in fact Russian planes have quite openly attacked non-terrorist opposition forces, most recently at the heart-breaking siege of Aleppo.

Still, however murderous their impact has been on the ground, Russia has effectively staked its place as the key external player in a struggle which is overflowing with external interference. For I haven’t explained how the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia (backing Sunni insurgents) and Iran (backing the Syrian government) have also been supplying arms, soldiers and advisers to their respective sides.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Bringing all the warring factions in the country together to any kind of peace discussions is impossible, since many of the opposition groups refuse to accept Assad’s right to rule, while Assad refuses to talk to the opposition which he indiscriminately brands as terrorists, and the actual terrorists – ISIS and related groups – oppose both the others, wanting to establish a medieval caliphate in the region, while the fierce enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia also has to be mediated.

Just getting America and Russia to talk rationally about the situation would be a massive achievement, which doesn’t look likely any time soon, especially given President Trump’s unpredictability.

3. The third element in this gallery is a series of wall panels and photos giving the life stories of nine representative ‘ordinary’ Syrians. They are not happy stories. And somehow, they seem completely overshadowed, crushed, by the weight of the military, ideological and strategic forces which are tearing their country apart.

Gallery 2 – Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria

In gallery two (which is made up of four rooms) is the first UK exhibition of 60 photographs by award-winning Russian documentary photographer, Sergey Ponomarev (b.1980).

As a Russian i.e. a citizen of the government’s main ally, Ponomarev was able to enter the country and get access to areas most western journalists couldn’t. His photos are in colour, big and vivid. However, they are not images of the conflict per se. Unlike say, Don McCullin, who I’ve recently been reading about, Ponomarev doesn’t take images of fighting men, soldiers, militias and so on.

Instead his work concentrates on civilians living quite literally on the edge of the front line as it weaves to and fro across cities and towns – Homs, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus itself. The impact of the war is obvious enough in the shattered buildings all around, but is only implicit in the faces of the civilians, peering out the window at snipers, leaving their bombed-out apartments, trying to live normal lives in cafes and shops while their entire country is torn apart.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

There is no blood anywhere. It is the implicitness of the conflict which gives so many of the pictures their spooky, haunted quality. There’s a particularly haunting one showing the congregation in one of the rare Christian churches left, in Damascus, and you can see the haunted anxious expressions on their faces. It’s the third down on the left in the montage on this page:

In fact, these four rooms are divided into two distinct shows:

1. Assad’s Syria – the first three rooms feature 24 big – really big – colour prints of images of civilians, the result of visits Ponomarev made to government-run territory in 2013-14. Obviously lots of shots of people amid rubble, although also lots of pics of people trying to go about their everyday lives in cafes and churches. As I worked through the rooms, it dawned on me that these photos are dominated by buildings; many of the people are looking out of big windows, or are framed in vistas of buildings (destroyed or still standing), or are seen through windows or against pillars or staircases – and it’s the architecture which gives many of these photos their monumental effect (that and their enormous size).

2. The Exodus In the fourth and last room is a second distinct portfolio of work. There’s a bench where you can sit and watch a 14-minute slide show of 40 or so big colour images of Syrian (and other) refugees escaping across the sea from Turkey to Greece, then trying to get across the borders into Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, all hoping to get to Germany, the promised land of wealth, jobs and security.

These photos were taken between the ‘refugee crisis’ from June 2015 and March 2016. It was for this work that Ponomarev won the Pulitzer Prize (2016), the World Press Photo Award (2017) and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (2017). Obviously they are of people in extremes of desperation and distress but what also struck me was how beautifully framed and composed they all are.

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

If the Assad’s Syria photos rely on architectural features to create compositions, the Exodus photos – by their nature mostly taken outside, by the sea, in fields, railway stations, wherever the refugees gathered or were corralled by the police – these have a completely different feel because they use the shapes and patterns of human beings to give shape and compositional effect.

Boats, trains, buses intervene a bit, but it is mostly the forms and patterns into which groups of human beings naturally fall which Ponomarev picks out with unerring skill. In the photo above there is a diagonal line from the heads of the people in the boat following the rope heading to the bottom right hand side, enlivened by the two figures struggling through the water. I’m not saying it’s schematic or planned – just that Ponomarev has an extraordinary ability to see, frame and capture the patterns and shapes which naturally arise in human situations.

His photos are quite stunning.

The information in the first gallery, with its random objects, people’s stories and short film, you could pick up almost anywhere off the internet. Ponomarev’s photos, by contrast, are extraordinary, vivid, wonderfully composed, tinged by a distinctive blueish colour palette, haunting. They are well worth a visit just for themselves.


These days most exhibitions have at least one promotional video on YouTube or Vimeo: this exhibition has no fewer than twelve!

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A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler (1964)

Mid-winter. A car comes hurtling down the drive of a remote villa near Zurich, crashes into a passing lorry, and screeches away. When police investigate they discover the place has been ransacked and the body of an exiled Iraqi soldier, Colonel Arbil – shot three times. New York-based magazine, World Reporter, tells its Paris office to get someone to investigate and the only man available is Piet Maas, a freelance Dutch journalist. He is not popular. A few years previously, a highbrow magazine he’d set up went bankrupt with big debts and he tried to kill himself. (Nobody knows that on the same day he found his girlfriend in bed with another man.) The driver of the hit & run car is identified as Lucia Bernardi, the colonel’s mistress. Now she’s missing and Interpol issue an alert for her whereabouts.

The New York office of World Reporter is contacting its Paris branch because it has a new tip about the name of a man Lucia used to hang round with – one Patrick Chase, also known as Philip Sanger. Acting on this, Piet travels to the south of France where he discovers that Sanger used to operate cons on rich older men with Lucia as the dollybird/bait, but she left him after she fell in love with the Colonel. Sanger, along with his wife Adèle, had been wisely investing the proceeds from his cons in a property portfolio around the south of France. When Lucia fled the scene of the murder in Zurich she turned to them for help and they’ve been hiding her in their empty properties.

It takes about half the novel for Piet to find the Sangers, arrange a meeting and then slowly gain their confidence. Eventually, they arrange for him to meet Lucia and her story is: Colonel Arbil was at the centre of a web of Kurdish exiles working for a Kurdish independent nation. One night she was in the bedroom at the villa when she heard male voices and sounds of violence. She hid. More noises, as of the place being turned upside down. Then screams. Then shots. She carried on hiding till she was sure the intruders had left, then ran down to the garage, jumped in the car, and fled.

Who was it? Might be assassins working for the Iraqis, or the result of some inter-Kurdish rivalry, or maybe even the Western oil companies who don’t want to see the oil fields around Kirkuk and Mosul nationalised by a Kurdish state.

When Piet reports back to the Paris office they say they want the full story, including details of Sanger and his history of scams and property dealing. Piet had expressly promised to leave him out. Therefore, confirming his boss’s opinions of him as a rubbish reporter, he gives them the Lucia material then quits. His boss says he’s coming south and calling up freelancers to track him down and find out what he’s hiding.

Maas checks into a new hotel under a false name. He is now, in effect, on the run from his former employer. In the meantime, his path had crossed a certain Monsieur Skurleti at the Cannes mairie, who was also looking for properties registered to Sanger: is he the financial investigator he claims to be, or working for more sinister forces? Piet promises to sell him the list of properties he had made when initially tracking Sanger, for a stiff fee – but also in order to keep in touch with Skurleti and find out who he’s working for.

Part two

The second half of the novel, therefore, feels like a game of three-dimensional chess, as Piet arranges secret meetings, holds late-night phone calls, moves between safe houses and uses false names as he juggles his relations with the Sangers (who he promised to keep safe), Lucia (who he quickly realises isn’t telling him the whole truth), his editor and freelancers (who threaten to blow the whole thing wide open), and Skurleti (whatever his agenda is).

These complications are doubled when he has a further interview with Lucia at which he realises what is really going on. She’d mentioned that she escaped from the villa with her clothes and a suitcase full of papers. Now he learns this is the main reason she gave him the interview – she wanted the key fact about having the suitcase to appear in the magazine as an advert to people who want to buy the papers.

And to explain why, she reveals more: The colonel belonged to a committee of Kurds pledged to fighting for a free and independent Kurdistan. Slowly, he realised a faction of the committee was planning uprisings with Russian support in Kurdish cities across the region, against the express wishes of the majority of its members. The colonel had inveigled himself into this plot and taken detailed notes. These notes are in the suitcase Lucia escaped with. It is potentially wanted by:

  • the dissident Kurds on ‘the Committee’
  • the mainstream Kurdish independents
  • the Iraqi security services
  • representatives of the ‘Italians’, an Italian oil consortium which has expressed an interest in stepping into the Iraqi oil business dominated by British and American companies, and giving the Kurds a better cut of the profits, if their uprising succeeds

Skurlati turns out to be an agent working on behalf of ‘the Committee’. Meanwhile, Lucia tells Piet that the colonel had been expecting the arrival of an emissary of the Iraqi government who also wanted the papers, a certain Brigadier Farisi. Possibly the burglars arrived, ransacked and tortured Arbil to find the notes precisely because they knew Farisis was about to arrive.

Final third

Piet and Lucia are now on the run from quite a few people and spend a good deal of time devising complex plans to sell some or all of the secrets to multiple buyers. She hands over the planning and running of the scams to Piet who comes up with some byzantine schemes. The fundamental decision they take is to sell copies of the notes to two different and opposed buyers: to Skurleti, representing ‘the Committee’, but also to Brigadier Farisi, representing the Iraqi government.

Piet has to make plans to see each of them, show them a taster of the notes at a safe place, make follow-up calls to negotiate a fee, then arrange a second meeting at another safe place to hand over the papers – without being observed by the police, by his newspaper manager and colleagues, but most crucially, by representatives of the other sides, especially the killers of Colonel Arbil who are still at large.

They have some fierce arguments but, at one particular moment of triumph & relief, find themselves kissing and going to bed together. However, having seen how clever and manipulative Lucia has been with other men, the reader is constantly wondering how much she is using Maas. Will she dump him? Or worse?

There is a law or rule at work that, the more tense the events become, the more carefully and precisely Ambler describes them. There is a hair-raising scene towards the end where Lucia and Piet creep up to the house she’s been using earlier in the summer and where she had carefully hidden the suitcase of notes behind lots of clutter, in the garage. They are actually in the garage, rummaging about when they hear male voices from the terrace above them and Lucia realises it is the men who tortured and murdered Colonel Arbil. Suddenly, the precise layout of the garage, the steps down to it from the terrace, the distance to the nearest outcrop of shrubs where they can hide, become terribly important.

Enjoying Eric

Eric’s novels definitely split into two groups, pre-War and post-War. Contrary to received opinion, I prefer the post-War ones. The pre-War ones definitely convey a sense of intrigue and menace in murky East European countries as the Continent hurtles towards War. They have a very 1930s vibe, like an old black and white movie filmed at night, the characters wearing thick overcoats with the lapels turned up, hats pulled down, revolvers appearing in the hands of sinister foreigners. But they are generally advertised as great spy novels and are often a bit disappointing in this respect, more often being about innocent Brits abroad who go on the run from political intrigues they’ve blundered into. Not spies, in our modern sense, at all. Just a strong political angle or edge to the plots.

Urbane The post-War ones are much more relaxed and cosmopolitan. Eric is charming company. There is a tremendous urbanity of tone and worldly wisdom. He knows his way around the world. Here is a man at home in Paris, Athens, Istanbul and Geneva, in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, familiar with the language, the customs, the food, the police, the local politics.

Bureaucratic procedure And also familiar with how the world works: the dominant feature of most of the post-War novels is a strong interest in bureaucratic procedures.

  • Most of The Schirmer Inheritance is about the arcane complexities of American inheritance law, before it becomes a detailed investigation of German genealogical archives.
  • Much of Passage of Arms is concerned with the legal niceties of freight forwarding between Far Eastern ports, and it’s fufilling what appears to be a minor technical requirement that unfortunately leads the protagonist into sudden outburst of guerrilla violence.
  • The Light of Day is ostensibly about a jewel robbery in Istanbul, but the plot actually turns on highly technical points surrounding Arthur Simpson’s nationality which lead to his Egyptian passport being out of date which leads to him being searched by Turkish authorities which leads to him being blackmailed into becoming a whistle blower inside the jewel thieves’ gang.

Ambler’s way with technical, administrative and bureaucratic niceties is central to the novels’ workings. And you have to pay attention to the details because at any point one of them may turn out to be the hinge of the plot.

This may sound dry but it isn’t. Most novels (for example, Graham Greene’s) are about the characters’ feelings. Events are selected, confrontations engineered, dramatic scenes manufactured, in order for characters to ‘grow’ and ‘mature’ and, along the way, the reader is also meant to grow in wisdom and understanding of human nature. That is the traditional defence of the novel as an art form.

Eric Ambler’s novels are much closer to real life as most of us experience it, ie there is not so much spiritual growth and gaining of wisdom. Instead, most of us do work which involves handling webs of information which need to be processed and managed. Most adults have to spend a fair amount of time filling in forms, answering letters, paying bills, arranging car hire or hotel rooms or train tickets or deliveries or receipts, worrying about expenses, handling paperwork, making innumerable plans and arrangements. That’s exactly what the characters in Ambler’s post-War novels do – only with the added pressure of doing so while evading the authorities of several countries, being on the run from killers or handling illegal arms or state secrets.


When he quits the magazine, his editor at World Report asks him if the decision is motivated by the same self-destructiveness which led to his suicide bid or ‘a new kind of anger’? Later, in conversation with Sanger, Piet claims he’s angry, not at himself or his boss, but at the people who are terrifying the beautiful Lucia with whom, without quite realising it, he is falling in love.

However, it is only at the end of the novel that Sanger redefines the title. He says his and Piet’s earlier theory that Piet was motivated by a new kind of anger, was all wrong. It isn’t really anger at all, and certainly not new. It is simply that Piet has discovered his métier as a crook.

‘I thought I knew what made you tick. “A new kind of anger,” I said. How wrong I was! Your kind of anger is as old as the hills. You’ve just bottled it up all these years – just like the man who becomes a policeman instead of a crook. Or is that sublimation? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you have a taste for larceny. It agrees with you. Therapy!’ He started to giggle. ‘Instead of giving you all those shock treatments, you know what they should have done? They should have sent you out to rob a bank!’ (Fontana 1976 paperback edition, p.206)

Ambler had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. But these two novels from the 1960s seem to breathe a new atmosphere. The last one from the 1950s, Passage of Arms (1959), had (for the most part) a light, quirky Ealing comedy feel (although populated by Indians, Chinese and Americans rather than bumbling Brits). But Light of Day and Anger are suddenly sassy. They are good-humoured heist stories in which the amoral protagonists triumph. They have a similar cheeky-chappy vibe as the movie The Italian Job (1969). They feel like they’re in colour. Piet and Lucia take on the police, his employers, hired hitmen and foreign agents, and end up driving into the sunset with a small fortune, leaving the reader with a big smile on their face.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Spoilers by Desmond Bagley (1969)

This is a great action adventure yarn, starting slow and factual with the body of a dead junkie in a Notting Hill flophouse and building to exciting shoot-outs in the Iraqi desert before an explosive climax in the Mediterranean.

Bagley returns to third-person narrator which allows him to describe and portray a wider range of characters, especially as – like in High Citadel – they are split into two groups with two completely different narrative arcs.


The story is about heroin and heroin smugglers. Interesting that in this same year, 1969, Alistair MacLean published his thriller about heroin smuggling, the gruesome Puppet On A Chain. A hot topic? Something in the air? Interesting to compare and contrast the two author’s approaches to the same issue. Bagley is characteristically more formal and factual, giving an interesting overview of the problem of heroin addiction in London, the work of a reforming doctor in the area, along with the basic facts about Papaver somniferum, the supply chains from the East, and the prices and profits to be made along the supply chains to America, before the novel metamorphoses into an action adventure in the deserts of Kurdistan, which is where our heroes find an enormous heroin factory.

MacLean’s feels like a thriller as it is full of violence and the threat of violence and the tension of impending violence from the very start. Bagley’s is an adventure as it takes well over 100 pages of careful factual build-up to get to any action scenes ie there isn’t the same sense of tension, of suppressed anxiety, as in the MacLean.

I am not James Bond

As in the previous novel, Bagley’s ‘I am not James Bond’ obsession recurs. Why does he feel the shadow of Commander Bond weighing so heavily on him?

‘You’ve picked the wrong man. I don’t think the man exists, anyway. You need a combination of St George and James Bond. I’m a doctor, not a gang-buster.’ (Ch 2, I)

Just after ten o’clock Warren strolled through the gambling rooms towards the bar…He watched the roulette for a moment and thought sardonically, If I were James Bond I’d be in there making a killing. (Ch 2, IV)

His decision was made and all qualms gone. He was tired of fighting the stupidity of the public, of which the queasiness of this narrow-gutted landlord was only a single example. If the only way to run his job was to turn into a synthetic James Bond, then a James Bond he’d be. (Ch 2, VI)

Mission impossible

Despite all his disclaimers the quiet studious doctor Nick Warren quite quickly morphs into the stock Bagley hero, clear-headed, unafraid, resourceful; taking the money of multi-millionaire movie mogul Sir Robert Hellier and assembling a scratch team of likely lads to help him tackle the heroin gangs at source.

  • Dan Parker – ex-Royal Navy mechanic, good with torpedoes etc
  • Andy Tozier – mercenary
  • Mike Abbott – inquisitive Fleet Street journalist
  • John Follett – Soho nightclub owner and con-man

The assembly of the team reminds me of the original TV series of Mission Impossible (1967-73) and way the plot depends on ‘stings’ or ‘cons’ just as much as violence is reminiscent of The A-Team (1983-87), though the premise of a small team tackling international criminal masterminds was a very common theme of popular TV series of the 1960s such as The Avengers (1961-69), Danger Man (1960-68), The Saint (1962-69), The Prisoner (1967-8), The Champions (1968-9), Department S (1969-70), The Persuaders (1971) and Jason King (1971-2). Even the title, the Spoilers fits in with these TV names.

And he may protest that he’s not James Bond but there’s a gorgeous nymphomaniac baddie, who likes to be wined and dined at the best hotels, there’s exotic locations in Iraq and the Lebanon, there’s clever gadgetry, with guns smuggled in as parts of Land Rovers, a torpedo being adjusted to travel super distances, a cutting-edge video recorder, there’s blowing up the baddy’s super-laboratory, escapes along secret underground passageways and improbable shoot-outs against the Kurdish militia, complete with panicked camels getting in everyone’s way.


As usual with Bagley, the novel is larded with factual information and the reader is treated to lectures on:

  • the Kurdish Question ie the Kurds’ attempts to gain their own homeland
  • how to make dynamite out of fertiliser, charcoal etc
  • how torpedoes work and can be re-engineered
  • how to conceal weapon parts in a Land Rover
  • heroin manufacturer and the economics of the dope business
  • game theory


Out of the blue the smuggler and baddy from Bagley’s first novel, The Golden Keel, Tom Metcalfe who chased our heroes across the Mediterranean in a high speed boat, sinks but ultimately saves them in that book – turns up here! He is running guns to the Kurdish peshmerga but rather improbably switches sides when he meets old friend and fellow mercenary Andy Tozier and learns that his deal was being funded by heroin which he, rather high-mindedly, objects to.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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